From PC Techniques #14, June/July 1992





Faster. Smaller. Denser. Cheaper. All the arrows are pointing in the right direction. Where will they stop? We're so used to demanding more? that I'm not sure we ever think about when enough will be enough. What kind of computer is enough computer? Did you ever think about that?

My computer is pinned to my lapel.Generically, his kind are called jiminies, after that cricket guy. Picture a 19th-centuiry pine-box coffin shape made of black plastic, perhaps 4 inches in length. Two dull red lenses are set like eyes at the widest part. One is a broadbeam single-wavelength infrared transmitter, the other a receiver. They operate at one gigabaud. In the top of the coffin is a combined speaker-microphone.

This is the Ragpicker. He talks to me through the speaker mike, from his perch on my lapel. He talks to the rest of the universe on infrared. He is both CPU and main memory, nonvolatile and extremely rugged. He contains about 64 terabytes of storage, divided among 256 parallel processors capable of operating independently or together.

In my briefcase is a 2000 dpi color pad, 9 inches by 12 inches, and a half inch thick. The pad has "eyes" like Ragpicker, but very little computing power. When I pick up the stylus the backlight comes on, and Ragpicker talks to me through the stylus and the pad. If I sketch a chart or a circuit. Ragpicker remembers it, and nothing remains in the pad to be stolen or lost.

At home I have similar pads here and there, with a large one and a good keyboard to one side of my desk. When I sit down at them, they come alive at Ragpicker's command. But he is the computer—they're only dumb peripherals. No matter where I go, to work or to friends' homes, the peripherals all obey Ragpicker, and all my favorite work habits-—Ragpicker's carefully-learned habits—are available wherever I find a keyboard or pad/screen.

Working the Infranet

Ragpicker listens carefully, and speaks well. He isn't terribly imaginative, but that's OK—ideas are my job. He has two special skills: Knowing where information is stored, and judging what data is relevant to a query. That's crucial, since an information density of 16 terabytes per $2 cubic centimeter means that nothing is ever forgotten, no matter how trivial.

Where is the information? Mainly in electronic public libraries, or in for-profit information brokerages on common-carrier fiber networks. But there is also something called Infranet—the triumph of the old Fidonet idea, in that every computer is a node, and every node connects automatically to any other node to the limit (about 100 feet) of their infrared eyes.

If I need to know something, I define a query verbally until Ragpicker and I agree that it's rational and closed-ended enough to be useful. Then Ragpicker creates a tightly-focused query subset of himself and sends it out via infrared to find some answers for me. Such query objects, called ghosts, are executed at each node they enter. And if what they seek isn't in a given node, they find out quickly and transmit themselves on to the next. Information isn't always free, but Ragpicker has a budget and knows how to dicker. (Ghosts can carry video or audio messages as well.)

The Net Is Civilization

Most of the time, a computer's infrared eyes are idle, and that idle time is used to pass ghosts back and forth, from hand to hand, around your office or even up and down the crowd on a noon-time boulevard. The secret of the Infranet is that the Net is civilization itself.

Ninety percent of all people carry a node around on their lapels or built into their hats or earrings—and every node passes ghosts along peaceably, allowing them to ask questions as they pass through. No one is required to answer—but almost everyone tries to help.

All fixed-position nodes are required by law to know and report their world coordinates when asked. So nobody is ever lost, and no ghost ever forgets how to return home. Minutes or hours later, Ragpicker is handed his ghost back from a nearby fiberport or even some passerby, and Ragpicker reports what the ghost has found. Usually, it's an answer, and possibly additional "surprise" answers to standing queries that the ghost has asked of total strangers as it passed by. Perhaps a guy with that rare Leslie Gore album I've been looking for, or somebody who wants to buy the Collins 75A4 I'm selling.

All the world's a bulletin board now. Ragpicker allows me to write, draw, calculate, correlate and analyze, to communicate and just mess around.

This is where the arrows converge: Nothing is forgotten; everything is connected; and the UI is Structured English, written or spoken. I expect to see it before I die. It will be an interesting world indeed.