Back in the days when a couple of gigabytes of computer disk storage was an expensive commodity, the assumption was that when something was posted on USENET (i.e., a net news group like alt.sex.aardvark), it would have a life of no more than a month or two. However, times have changed. Disk storage is cheap and there are systems that attempt to archive the spew from net news. So next time you get mad and think about composing a flame, imagine it being archived off somewhere and comming back to haunt you. I have not found anything embarrasing that I wrote in the archives yet, but I did find a book review I wrote of William Gibson's Count Zero archived on a system in Sweden.
This book review is ten years old. That seems like a long time ago. My son was only two then. I was married to my first wife. At Loral, where I worked when I posted this, the Dataflow Group was in the last stages of delivering a prototype of a dataflow parallel processor. This book review was written on a VAX 11-780, which at the time was one of the most commonly used systems for engineering. The only people on the Internet were universities, scientists and engineers. America On-Line had a different name and ran bulletin boards for Apple II users.
Looking back ten years, it is interesting to see how some of my assumptions about the future were completely wrong. In the book review I mention massively parallel processors. At the time, I believed that parallel processors were the wave of the future. After leaving Loral and spending a year and a half at TRW's ESL research lab, I was one of the early employees of MasPar Computer Corp., where we designed and built a massively parallel processor. MasPar's largest system, the MP-2, had 16K 32-bit processors.
Ten years later, no one has yet built a million processor system. Although MasPar still exists, under a different name (NeoVista), it no longer manufactures computer systems. Thinking Machines, another company that made leading edge massively parallel systems, went bankrupt and emerged as a software company. Control Data, Multiflow, Alliant, Cydrome, Stellar, and Ardent, all companies that made high performance computer systems, are gone. Cray Research, the crown jewel of American high performance computing, was bought by Silicon Graphics and later sold to a company then named Tera. Tera was founded by Burton Smith, who unsuccessfully recycled the same flawed architectural ideas from a failed company called Denelcor into Tera. Being unsuccessful in selling the Tera computer system, Tera changed its name to Cray when the purchase was complete. This whole transaction seems to have been brokered by a three letter organization in Maryland. Convex, Cray's competitor on the low end, was bought by Hewlett-Packard and quickly disappeared. In 1996, commercial high performance computing as we thought of it in 1986, is dead. Neither IBM or DEC are the dominant forces in the computer industry that the were in 1986.
Although the supercomputer companies are dead, you can now buy your very own supercomputer in the form of a 166 MHz Pentium. This book review has been republished on the World Wide Web, which may be "cyberspace" in its infancy. Well, here's to the next ten years. Who knows, perhaps parallel processing will be reborn and the million processor systems I dreamed of in 1986 will be built.
Silicon Valley, California, June 1996
Revised slightly in July 2002
Science fiction allows an author to project current reality into a future world that does not exist yet. Consider our world today. We are at the start of an information age. Computers are the medium of this age and are, by and large, produced by large companies like IBM and DEC. Year after year these companies grow larger and branch out into new areas. What will happen if companies like IBM, DEC, NEC and Fujitsu keep growing as they have been? Population dynamics should give us some clue.
Computer power increases even faster than the multinational companies grow. A new generation of computers is being born. These systems are parallel processors. In ten years we may see computer systems that are composed of millions of processors.
Coupled with the information revolution has been a quieter revolution in biology. In the last ten years scientist have been able to synthesize complex hormones like insulin that in the past could only be obtained from animal sources. The human genes linked to a number of disorders have been mapped. There is little doubt that there will come a time when the keys to evolution will be in the hands of the human race.
Imagine a world fifty years or so in the future, when the multinational companies have become more powerful that nations. A time when computer systems of massive power are globally linked. Where some of these computer systems support artificial intelligences. A world where genetic and transplant technology can be used to alter the human form. This is the world that William Gibson first showed us in Neuromancer. In this world the computer breakers of today (called hackers by the media) have evolved into "cowboys" who break into the huge computers on the global network. The cowboys "jack in" to the computer network via consoles that provide direct stimulus to the brain. An illusion is generated to help people work on the global network. This illusion is referred to as the "cyberspace matrix" and appears as a vast three dimensional plain. The huge corporate computer systems are visualized as glowing structures on this plane.
With the exception of the military computer systems, most computer systems today have very weak security. In Gibsons world, where information is recognized as both currency and power, computer systems are guarded by complex security systems. These security systems consist of both cryptographic measures and active counter measures that can kill the computer breaker by "flat lining" the brain ("flat line" refers to what would be seen on an EEG). The security systems are referred to as Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics, or ICE. The programs the cowboys use to break into these systems are referred to as "icebreakers".
Gibson's new novel, Count Zero, is set in the same universe as Neuromancer, but several years later. Count Zero is the "handle" of Bobby Newmark, who lives in a housing project and dreams of escaping to a better life by becoming a "cowboy". A small time black market dealer rents Bobby an icebreaker to use on his first cowboy run through the cyberspace matrix. The black market dealer even suggests a system to try the icebreaker out on. As it turns out the sys- tem is heavily guarded and Bobby is almost flat lined. The icebreaker is later stolen and the suppliers of the icebreaker attempt to recover it with Bobby's help.
Gibson interweaves Bobby's story with threads from the lives of a corporate mercenary and a woman who previously owned an art gallery. Some of the other characters overlap from Neuromancer: Finn, the black market dealer in software is back and the three threads of the story are drawn together at the end of the book by remnants of the Tessier-Ashpool empire. Count Zero is highly recommended to those who liked Neuromancer or the movie Blade Runner.
31 May 86 09:17:40 SDT
Loral Dataflow Group
Loral Instrumentation, San Diego
The William Gibson aleph is a great web site that contains a collection of William Gibson information.
William Gibson reads an abridged version of Neuromancer. This is a long out-of-print reading Gibson did for an "audobook".
Book review table of contents
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