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Boundaries of the Real-Time Stream: The Ping and The Tweet


Omniscience is the capacity to know everything infinitely—from the strangest sub-atomic particle to the thought that just drifted through my mind. As finite creatures we long for the infinite, for the chance to peer through the lens of the all seeing eye. The boundaries of omniscience tend to form around the idea of ‘what is knowable’ and the event horizon of time. It’s possible that we could know everything that had already occurred— especially if there was some form of documentation, a written record. Things that have recently occurred are contained in the set of things that have already occurred. Time future has not yet happened, and so is only a possibility. Knowable perhaps only as a probability. And what of time present? That set of things rising just now over the horizon—what of everything that is happening right now?

This is the problem of the live web, or real-time search— how shall we know all that is in the state of becoming in time present? Here again we must speak of what is knowable. The knowable is a thing that has entered language, has registered its presence in a system of re-presentation. The thing-itself cannot be spoken, so we make do with the artifacts of re-presentation. But even here, as we scour the record for instances of wet ink to determine what has just been noted down, we find ourselves looking at the very recent past.

The apparatus created to capture time present are necessarily built around the activity of encoding re-presentations— making a mark in a medium, something to stand for the new thing.

Subscription and polling works by me asking you if you’ve done anything new lately. And then asking you again at regular intervals. Eventually, I’ll ask and you’ll answer with something new. The list of those new things is a kind of picture of what’s happening now.

The ping server is a kind of centralized carbon paper. As a publication event on the Network occurs at a remote endpoint, a ping is sent to a central repository noting that some new thing has happened. Presumably we could watch the pings as they come in to the server to get an idea of what is happening now. Obviously this would only include those events that chose to concurrently ping the server as they pressed the publish button. A feed of these new items can be constructed to provide a picture of what’s being published right now.

If we continue with the carbon paper metaphor and move up the stack through the top layer of paper to the tip of the pen itself, we have the other point from which we have a view of what’s happening now. The ink, as it flows through the nib of the pen, forms shapes on the paper— encoding (re-presenting) the new thing. (Or perhaps we should talk about fingers pressing keys on a keyboard causing typographic characters to spill forth in a linear sequence across a screen.) Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed, and eventually Google Wave are the pens with which we write. The 140 character limit is the boundary that trails the present moment. The tweet captures the thing that happened at least 140 characters ago. While with Google wave, we will have character-by-character recording of the present moment—phonemes that haven’t yet fully manifested as words. Here also, we have a real-time view of the things written with these particular pens. Although through connections to the SMS and email systems, most cellular telephones will serve the purpose of real-time authoring tools.

Knowledge (what is knowable) is equated with a certain set of techniques for re-presenting a thing. Linear typography is the preferred mode. But when we share what’s happening right now, we might use a photograph or a sound/video stream. When operating in real time we often employ ostension. We gesture toward the thing itself. Rather than translate a thing into words, we use its image, or its sound. We say, “it’s like this.” And then shrug in the direction of the thing to which we refer. Twitter is a citation medium par excellence, a few words and link that points. This is where the web of sites becomes a web of citations.

When we talk of the real-time stream on the Network we sometimes fall into thinking that we could achieve a kind of omniscience. We believe that there might be some way to know every single thing that is happening now— just as we can index, search and sort things that exist at known locations in the name space of the Network. While these streams eventually flow into the ocean of the Network, they currently run between well-defined boundaries. It’s only at the very tip of the pen that the real time manifests as real time.

Published in digital language media real time web tribes