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Книга True Names. Содержание - Vernor Steffen Vinge TRUE NAMES

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Slip shook his head and smiled at her, thinking of the slow-moving guardian angel that she would become. Every race must arrive at this point in its history, he suddenly realized. A few years or decades in which its future slavery or greatness rests on the goodwill of one or two persons. It could have been the Mailman. Thank God it was Ery instead. And beyond those years or decades… for an instant, Pollack came near to understanding things that had once been obvious. Processors kept getting faster, memories larger. What now took a planet's resources would someday be possessed by everyone. Including himself.

Beyond those years or decades… were millennia. And Ery.

Vernor Vinge

San Diego

June 1979 — January 1980

AFTERWORD by Marvin Minsky

In real life, you often have to deal with things you don't completely understand. You drive a car, not knowing how its engine works. You ride as passenger in someone else's car, not knowing how that driver works. And strangest of all, you sometimes drive yourself to work, not knowing how you work, yourself.

To me, the import of True Names is that it is about how we cope with things we don't understand. But, how do we ever understand anything in the first place? Almost always, I think, by using analogies in one way or another — to pretend that each alien thing we see resembles something we already know. When an object's internal workings are too strange, complicated, or unknown to deal with directly, we extract whatever parts of its behavior we can comprehend and represent them by familiar symbol — or the names of familiar things which we think do similar things. That way, we make each novelty at least appear to be like something which we know from the worlds of our own pasts. It is a great idea, that use of symbols; it lets our minds transform the strange into the commonplace. It is the same with names.

Right from the start, True Names shows us many forms of this idea, methods which use symbols, names, and images to make a novel world resemble one where we have been before. Remember the doors to Vinge's castle? Imagine that some architect has invented a new way to go from one place to another: a scheme that serves in some respects the normal functions of a door, but one whose form and mechanism is so entirely outside our past experience that, to see it, we'd never think of it as a door, nor guess what purposes to use it for. No matter: just superimpose, on its exterior, some decoration which reminds one of a door. We could clothe it in rectangular shape, or add to it a waist-high knob, or a push-plate with a sign lettered "EXIT" in red and white, or do whatever else may seem appropriate — and every visitor from Earth will know, without a conscious thought, that pseudo-portal's purpose, and how to make it do its job.

At first this may seem mere trickery; after all, this new invention, which we decorate to look like a door, is not really a door. It has none of what we normally expect a door to be, to wit: hinged, swinging slab of wood, cut into wall. The inner details are all wrong. Names and symbols, like analogies, are only partial truths; they work by taking many-levelled descriptions of different things and chopping off all of what seem, in the present context, to be their least essential details — that is, the ones which matter least to our intended purposes. But, still, what matters — when it comes to using such a thing — is that whatever symbol or icon, token or sign we choose should remind us of the use we seek which, for that not-quite-door, should represent some way to go from one place to another. Who cares how it works, so long as it works! It does not even matter if that "door" leads to anywhere: in True Names, nothing ever leads anywhere; instead, the protagonists' bodies never move at all, but remain plugged-in to the network while programs change their representations of the simulated realities!

Ironically, in the world True Names describes, those representations actually do move from place to place — but only because the computer programs which do the work may be sent anywhere within the worldwide network of connections. Still, to the dwellers inside that network, all of this is inessential and imperceptible, since the physical locations of the computers themselves are normally not represented anywhere at all inside the worlds they simulate. It is only in the final acts of the novel, when those partially-simulated beings finally have to protect themselves against their entirely-simulated enemies, that the programs must keep track of where their mind-computers are; then they resort to using ordinary means, like military maps and geographic charts.

And strangely, this is also the case inside the ordinary brain: it, too, lacks any real sense of where it is. To be sure, most modem, educated people know that thoughts proceed inside the head — but that is something which no brain knows until it's told. In fact, without the help of education, a human brain has no idea that any such things as brains exist. Perhaps we tend to place the seat of thought behind the face, because that's where so many sense-organs are located. And even that impression is somewhat wrong: for example, the brain-centers for vision are far away from the eyes, away in the very back of the head, where no unaided brain would ever expect them to be.

In any case, the point is that the icons in True Names are not designed to represent the truth — that is, the truth of how the designated object, or program, works; that just is not an icon's job. An icon's purpose is, instead, to represent a way an object or a program can be used. And, since the idea of a use is in the user's mind — and not connected to the thing it represents — the form and figure of the icon must be suited to the symbols that the users have acquired in their own development. That is, it has to be connected to whatever mental processes are already one's most fluent, expressive, tools for expressing intentions. And that's why Roger represents his watcher the way his mind has learned to represent a frog.

This principle, of choosing symbols and icons which express the functions of entities — or rather, their users' intended attitudes toward them — was already second nature to the designers of earliest fast-interaction computer systems, namely, the early computer games which were, as Vemor Vinge says, the ancestors of the Other Plane in which the novel's main activities are set. In the 1970's the meaningful-icon idea was developed for personal computers by Alan Kay's research group at Xerox, but it was only in the early 1980's, after further work by Steven Jobs' research group at Apple Computer, that this concept entered the mainstream of the computer revolution, in the body of the Macintosh computer.

Over the same period, there have also been less-publicized attempts to develop iconic ways to represent, not what the programs do, but how they work. This would be of great value in the different enterprise of making it easier for programmers to make new programs from old ones. Such attempts have been less successful, on the whole, perhaps because one is forced to delve too far inside the lower-level details of how the programs work. But such difficulties are too transient to interfere with Vinge's vision, for there is evidence that he regards today's ways of programming — which use stiff, formal, inexpressive languages — as but an early stage of how great programs will be made in the future.

Surely the days of programming, as we know it, are numbered. We will not much longer construct large computer systems by using meticulous but conceptually impoverished procedural specifications. Instead, we'll express our intentions about what should be done, in terms, or gestures, or examples, at least as resourceful as our ordinary, everyday methods for expressing our wishes and convictions. Then these expressions will be submitted to immense, intelligent, intention-understanding programs which will themselves construct the actual, new programs. We shall no longer be burdened with the need to understand all the smaller details of how computer codes work. All of that will be left to those great utility programs, which will perform the arduous tasks of applying what we have embodied in them, once and for all, of what we know about the arts of lower-level programming. Then, once we learn better ways to tell computers what we want them to get done, we will be able to return to the more familiar realm of expressing our own wants and needs. For, in the end, no user really cares about how a program works, but only about what it does — in the sense of the intelligible effects it has on other things with which the user is concerned.

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