In his book The Life of the Cosmos, which everyone should read, Lee Smolin gives the best description I've ever read of how our universe emerged from an uncannily precise balancing of different fundamental constants. The mass of the proton, the strength of gravity, the range of the weak nuclear force, and a few dozen other fundamental constants completely determine what sort of universe will emerge from a Big Bang. If these values had been even slightly different, the universe would have been a vast ocean of tepid gas or a hot knot of plasma or some other basically uninteresting thing--a dud, in other words. The only way to get a universe that's not a dud--that has stars, heavy elements, planets, and life--is to get the basic numbers just right. If there were some machine, somewhere, that could spit out universes with randomly chosen values for their fundamental constants, then for every universe like ours it would produce 10^229 duds.

Though I haven't sat down and run the numbers on it, to me this seems comparable to the probability of making a Unix computer do something useful by logging into a tty and typing in command lines when you have forgotten all of the little options and keywords. Every time your right pinky slams that ENTER key, you are making another try. In some cases the operating system does nothing. In other cases it wipes out all of your files. In most cases it just gives you an error message. In other words, you get many duds. But sometimes, if you have it all just right, the computer grinds away for a while and then produces something like emacs. It actually generates complexity, which is Smolin's criterion for interestingness.

Not only that, but it's beginning to look as if, once you get below a certain size--way below the level of quarks, down into the realm of string theory--the universe can't be described very well by physics as it has been practiced since the days of Newton. If you look at a small enough scale, you see processes that look almost computational in nature.

I think that the message is very clear here: somewhere outside of and beyond our universe is an operating system, coded up over incalculable spans of time by some kind of hacker-demiurge. The cosmic operating system uses a command-line interface. It runs on something like a teletype, with lots of noise and heat; punched-out bits flutter down into its hopper like drifting stars. The demiurge sits at his teletype, pounding out one command line after another, specifying the values of fundamental constants of physics:

universe -G 6.672e-11 -e 1.602e-19 -h 6.626e-34 -protonmass 1.673e-27....

and when he's finished typing out the command line, his right pinky hesitates above the ENTER key for an aeon or two, wondering what's going to happen; then down it comes--and the WHACK you hear is another Big Bang.

Now THAT is a cool operating system, and if such a thing were actually made available on the Internet (for free, of course) every hacker in the world would download it right away and then stay up all night long messing with it, spitting out universes right and left. Most of them would be pretty dull universes but some of them would be simply amazing. Because what those hackers would be aiming for would be much more ambitious than a universe that had a few stars and galaxies in it. Any run-of-the-mill hacker would be able to do that. No, the way to gain a towering reputation on the Internet would be to get so good at tweaking your command line that your universes would spontaneously develop life. And once the way to do that became common knowledge, those hackers would move on, trying to make their universes develop the right kind of life, trying to find the one change in the Nth decimal place of some physical constant that would give us an Earth in which, say, Hitler had been accepted into art school after all, and had ended up his days as a street artist with cranky political opinions.

Even if that fantasy came true, though, most users (including myself, on certain days) wouldn't want to bother learning to use all of those arcane commands, and struggling with all of the failures; a few dud universes can really clutter up your basement. After we'd spent a while pounding out command lines and hitting that ENTER key and spawning dull, failed universes, we would start to long for an OS that would go all the way to the opposite extreme: an OS that had the power to do everything--to live our life for us. In this OS, all of the possible decisions we could ever want to make would have been anticipated by clever programmers, and condensed into a series of dialog boxes. By clicking on radio buttons we could choose from among mutually exclusive choices (HETEROSEXUAL/HOMOSEXUAL). Columns of check boxes would enable us to select the things that we wanted in our life (GET MARRIED/WRITE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL) and for more complicated options we could fill in little text boxes (NUMBER OF DAUGHTERS: NUMBER OF SONS:).

Even this user interface would begin to look awfully complicated after a while, with so many choices, and so many hidden interactions between choices. It could become damn near unmanageable--the blinking twelve problem all over again. The people who brought us this operating system would have to provide templates and wizards, giving us a few default lives that we could use as starting places for designing our own. Chances are that these default lives would actually look pretty damn good to most people, good enough, anyway, that they'd be reluctant to tear them open and mess around with them for fear of making them worse. So after a few releases the software would begin to look even simpler: you would boot it up and it would present you with a dialog box with a single large button in the middle labeled: LIVE. Once you had clicked that button, your life would begin. If anything got out of whack, or failed to meet your expectations, you could complain about it to Microsoft's Customer Support Department. If you got a flack on the line, he or she would tell you that your life was actually fine, that there was not a thing wrong with it, and in any event it would be a lot better after the next upgrade was rolled out. But if you persisted, and identified yourself as Advanced, you might get through to an actual engineer.

What would the engineer say, after you had explained your problem, and enumerated all of the dissatisfactions in your life? He would probably tell you that life is a very hard and complicated thing; that no interface can change that; that anyone who believes otherwise is a sucker; and that if you don't like having choices made for you, you should start making your own.

Copyright 1999 by Neal Stephenson

In The Beginning Was The Command Line
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