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A Ghost and the Machine

By Kai Staats MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Aug 11, 2004 9:11 AM PT

Several years ago, as a junior at Arizona State University, College of Architecture and Environmental Design, I conducted my internship with Robert Leathers & Associates in Ithaca, New York. I had the great fortune of being provided a room in a house once owned by Ezra Cornell, now in the ownership of Leathers employee Dave Ianello.

A Ghost and the Machine

The house, more than 200 years old, sits atop a hill a few miles outside of town, overlooking rolling fields of green crops and deciduous trees. My rent for the summer was paid through assistance with the remodeling. Some evenings and each weekend, we removed original siding whose natural stain was derived, if I recall correctly, from the ocra plant.

We replaced each plank, one at a time, with new shiplap. Every length of pine was given a generous bead of silicon caulk on its backside before the holes were predrilled and the nails driven home. Dave was intent upon perfection, and rightfully so, for his home offered a history unlike most others.

Secrets of House

The house was very large, with vaulted ceilings and soft pine floors. It both welcomed by day with warm southern and western sun, and taunted by night with boards that creaked and beams that moaned for no apparent reason.

One night, we sat in the kitchen from dinner until midnight while Dave told the secrets of his home. It had once offered safe haven to the escaped slaves of the south, in a time when those who granted passage were as much at risk as those who fled.

Above Dave and I hung a light, inducing singular, subtle reflections upon the cookware that hung to my front, over the sink and against the wall. It cast a luminous cone just slightly beyond the space that Dave and I filled.

In many ways, the kitchen was a theater with attention focused upon two actors, while the stage behind us was left in shadow. Had other actors been present, it would have been difficult to determine.

A Ghost

In a hushed voice, Dave carefully explained that in the middle of the house, between the walls of two interior rooms, was a staircase that led from the basement to the attic without exit at either level between. This unique architecture provided safe haven for runaway slaves, the stairway designed to quickly, quietly allow persons to move from one level of the house to the other in order to evade detection.

The more Dave's story unfolded, the more the cone of light seemed to contain us, the kitchen outside of our immediate conversation darkening with each quarter hour that passed. The reflections on the kitchen utensils seemed to dim.

He spoke of what he knew, that entire families lived here atop this hill. When it was safe, the families played in the yard between the house and field and slept at night in the barn, which during my stay housed a piano that was so weather worn that the hammers had to be manually retracted with one hand while the other played simple melodies. They cooked meals and ate in the same room where we were sitting and talking.

In the next brief moment, Dave's story was both interrupted and confirmed. At midsentence, we both heard the clatter of metal pots and pans, the laughter of children and the conversation of adults.

Another Time

My hands were instantly coated with sweat. The cone of light was broken. I could see the kitchen walls clearly again -- and I searched for the source of the sounds.

But when I returned to Dave, he was smiling. This told me, without words, not where but whenI could find the echoes that had moved through that room. They were not of that moment, but of years long since past.

There was no reason to speak. We chose to leave the perfection of that spellbinding moment unaltered. We stood up, left the kitchen and climbed the wooden flight of stairs to find our beds and sleep. We never again spoke of what we heard.

More recently, late last year I was giving a quick tour of the Terra Soft Solutions facilities. We wound round the twisting corridor of our offices then situated in Loveland, Colorado's original Light, Heat and Power building. Careless additions had swallowed exterior doors, transforming them into curious transitions between otherwise unassociated rooms.

My friend was not technically inclined and certainly not interested in the width of our datapipe nor redundant nature of the fiber optic ring. The pulsing heartbeat of the fail-over connection between our primary Web server and its trusted mirror was about as interesting as a dissertation on the efficiency of Linux over Windows.

Thousands of Visitors

In a moment of hesitation in which I contemplated how best to describe what was contained in the server room, I placed my hand on the primary Web server, moving to explain that it housed the Yellow Dog Linux and Terra Soft Solutions Web sites. I explained that with an average 3,000 to 5,000 visitors each day, at any given time there are likely to be a dozen people viewing our site, and from at least two or three countries.

In that space between words where the cool plastic shell of the computer met the warmth of my human hand, for a very brief moment, I considered the movement of electrons through the Ethernet port across the PCI bus, to the North bridge, CPUs, and back again -- all just inches below my palm.

This journey was not random. In a very real way, these electrons were the ghostly extension of human beings. And if every electron were traced back to its origin, it would find a human with keyboard, mouse and monitor in reach.

Each human had reason to visit our Web sites. Each human had a lifetime of stories to tell. In that instant, the otherwise uni-directional pull of data from my server to those who requested became a bi-directional communication.

The Machine

What if I could place myself back in that cone of light in the kitchen of Ezra Cornell's house, focused upon the story unfolding, with both the teller and audience lost in the words, and hear the laughter of a child whose fingers tapped lightly on the keyboard of a computer 10,000 miles away.

In that moment, I felt as though I could hear that child. If I didn't try too hard, if I let go completely, perhaps I could hear the voice of the welcomed visitors from abroad -- not through the trail of security logs, nor from voice-synthesized speech, nor from video conferencing, but through the simple touch of the computer case and subsequent, passive receipt of the intended message.

What if technology could move past this crude presentation of thinner, lighter and faster to the ability to enable a truly dynamic, yet passive, connection between two distant human beings? What if we can one day share thoughts without the need to transcribe emotion into the logical construct of language and, yet again, into the confines of a keyboard?

What if the stories of generations past were not confined only to one place and time, but instead were reissued at will, enabled to echo across centuries?

This would be technology come full circle, back to the humans who gave it life. This potential would be a reminder of how far we have come -- but that for now remains elusive, a vision for how far we have to go.


Kai Staats, a MacNewsWorld columnist, is the cofounder and CEO of Terra Soft Solutions, developer of Yellow Dog Linux for PowerPC.


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Contact Center AI Explained by Pop Culture
Contact Center AI Explained by Pop Culture