We move from one metaphor to its opposite, swinging like the bob on a pendulum. As our daily activities start throwing off streams of data, and we aggregate the data of others into composite parallel streams for our consumption— we look across the great divide and gaze at the old metaphor of files, folders, explorer/finder and the desktop. We hop back and forth between the metaphors, juggling streams and file folders. Wondering at what point will we leap across the chasm— and be mostly here in the stream, instead of mostly there on the desktop.
Personal computing is largely a matter of time and where the user spends it. Using applications to manipulate files located in folders has dominated our computing experience for a long while. Perhaps it was the steady stream of emails filling up our inboxes that provided the bridge to the stream of tweets flowing through our selective view of the consolidated lifestream. The metaphor of a desktop, folders and files gave us a handle for managing digital things inside the world of personal computing. A user might have a messy desktop or clean one. One could use up energy keeping things organized, putting them away in the proper folder— or allow them to become messy and spend energy finding things amidst the chaos.
The Desktop, folder, file model corresponds to the outline. Other words we might use to describe this kind of formation include hierarchy, name space or tree structure. The problem with things is that they don’t seem to know where they belong. They don’t take the initiative, always have to be told what to do. But, as long as the numbers stay small— not too many files or folders; not too many streams, or too much velocity, we can manage on either side of chasm. However, to stay small in this context means to exclude possibility. And once the numbers get large, the amount of energy required to keep things organized in outlines exceeds the value derived from the organization.
As David Weinberger points out in his book Everything is Miscellaneous, search transformed the value of the outline as a system of organization. Once everything has been indexed, sorted and ranked by algorithm, the findability of a thing doesn’t depend on its place in a hierarchy of categorization. This was a transition from organization based on the metaphor of extension in physical space to the random access metaphor of computational space.
Moving from Space to Time is another kind of transition. David Gelernter is one of the few who has spent time thinking about organization based on time and stream. Why should we have to give names to digital files or assign them to folders? Can’t things just take the initiative?
Once we shift the axis of organization from Space to Time, we begin to think about how we could relate to dynamic flows of information. We glance again at outlines, files and folder systems. The numbers are too big, if we look a the problem through that lens we’re inevitably lead to the view that there’s information overload. Clay Shirky rebuts that claim, and calls it filter failure. But a filter is only one of the tools we’re missing. The spatial metaphor can’t even give us the basic steps to dance to the music of time. We need a different starting point. Gelernter, in his essay “Time to Start Taking the Internet Seriously” improvises on a theme:
17. There is no clear way to blend two standard websites together, but it’s obvious how to blend two streams. You simply shuffle them together like two decks of cards, maintaining time-order — putting the earlier document first. Blending is important because we must be able to add and subtract in the Cybersphere. We add streams together by blending them. Because it’s easy to blend any group of streams, it’s easy to integrate stream-structured sites so we can treat the group as a unit, not as many separate points of activity; and integration is important to solving the information overload problem. We subtract streams by searching or focusing. Searching a stream for “snow” means that I subtract every stream-element that doesn’t deal with snow. Subtracting the “not snow” stream from the mainstream yields a “snow” stream. Blending streams and searching them are the addition and subtraction of the new Cybersphere.
18. Nearly all flowing, changing information on the Internet will move through streams. You will be able to gather and blend together all the streams that interest you. Streams of world news or news about your friends, streams that describe prices or auctions or new findings in any field, or traffic, weather, markets — they will all be gathered and blended into one stream. Then your own personal lifestream will be added. The result is your mainstream: different from all others; a fast-moving river of all the digital information you care about.
19. You can turn a knob and slow down your mainstream: less-important stream-elements will flow past invisibly and won’t distract you, but will remain in the stream and appear when you search for them. You can rewind your lifestream and review the past. If an important-looking document or message sails past and you have no time to deal with it now, you can copy the document or message into the future (copy it to “this evening at 10,” say); when the future arrives, the document appears again. You can turn a different knob to make your fast-flowing stream spread out into several slower streams, if you have space enough on your screen to watch them all. And you can gather those separate streams back together whenever you like.
So, what does the toolset look like? Filters are a part of it. We’ll want to filter the stream based on keywords, selected social circles, location, time period, velocity of flow, media type of hyperlinked citation, authority of a person in particular slice and more. The results of a filtered stream will look like the surfacing of particular elements of the stream and the backgrounding of others. Stream splicing is a pre-requisite of filtering, blending together a bunch of streams doesn’t result in information overload if you have the right tools at your command. You’ll be able to filter and pause; go to super slo-motion; fast foward and even loop a section, manage public and private streams in the same workspace, mix recorded on-demand tracks with live real-time feeds and add in your own commentary in a live chat running alongside.
Music may provide the most developed set of metaphors to think this new landscape through. Here’s Thelonius Monk stream splicing:
Here’s Michael Tilson Thomas blending streams, pulling themes to the surface, modulating the information as it flows past:
The blends and modulations can be sophisticated and complex or rough and full of energy. Some lads from Liverpool get a little bit louder now:
When Gelernter describes the process of searching for ‘snow’ in the composite stream, he gets to the difference between search and track. Search was built on the ability to spider the corpus of web pages and links, build an index, and provide ranked results in response to queries. Track is a tool to help us manage and explore the real-time stream. The days of the world wide web conceived as a static set of hyperlinked pages are coming to an end. The file is a finished product, the stream is always unfinished. Gelernter describes the emergent new cyberstructure:
13. The traditional web site is static, but the Internet specializes in flowing, changing information. The “velocity of information” is important — not just the facts but their rate and direction of flow. Today’s typical website is like a stained glass window, many small panels leaded together. There is no good way to change stained glass, and no one expects it to change. So it’s not surprising that the Internet is now being overtaken by a different kind of cyberstructure.
14. The structure called a cyberstream or lifestream is better suited to the Internet than a conventional website because it shows information-in-motion, a rushing flow of fresh information instead of a stagnant pool.
Your connection to the item in a stream is open ended— the flow is open, or it is closed. If it is open, there’ll be a next item, and one after that. All these items are unfinished, they need response, routing, to be ignored, or decorated with gestures. We find ourselves in the in-between moment between the photograph and the motion picture. Our tools are at the level of the zoetrope, the praxinoscope, or the magic lantern. But once we start thinking in terms of Time instead of Space, the world looks very different.
At this moment of transition, we now have the tools to analyze our direction. Are we building tools for the static hierarchical namespace of the world wide web, or building tools for the real-time stream of the Network? If we look at Salesforce’s introduction of Chatter, Google’s introduction of Buzz, the expansions of Facebook and Twitter, FourSquare and GoWalla, the augmentation capabilities of Kynetx— we can see a shift in orientation from Space to Time. And while we might expect the leap across the chasm to require the bravery of the early adopter, I think we’ll be surprised at how natural most people find living in the stream of time to be.