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Tag: industrial design

Writing to the Stream: As Time Goes By


Jon Udell talks about teaching civilians about syndication. This, of course, makes me think of Heraclitus. Udell would like his local school to stop posting calendars in PDF format and start using something like iCal, a format with a more formal structure. The idea is to write events that stream across a calendar– something that can be subscribed to, parsed, mixed and mashed up. The reason that it’s hard to change the way people think about data is that the stream is not part of the metaphor we put in front of our operating systems.

There is nothing permanent except change. 
                         – Heraclitus

The file system is dead,” The guy who said that agrees with Jon Udell. His name is David Gelernter, and he’s one of the first people to talk about organizing data in terms of time rather than space. Lifestreams was something Gelernter talked about before there was Flickr, FaceBook, Twitter or FriendFeed. It’s simply a matter of changing the metaphor of the file system from a desk, file cabinets and a trashcan to something that more adequately fits the contours of our lives. In case you hadn’t noticed, we live our lives in both space and time.

What if instead of saving to a file or printing something out, we saved to a stream. What if that was acting within the normal metaphor for Human-Computer Interaction? We’ve come a long way with the graphic user interface metaphors developed by Doug Engelbart and the folks at Xerox Parc, but we’re in a period of transition. We’re moving from the solipsistic unNetworked desktop computer to the always already connected Network dashboard. We have an opportunity to expand the user interface metaphor we place between ourselves and the new internet operating system to include the concepts of time and the stream.

The other starting point for thinking about time-bound, documented objects in a stream is with Bruce Sterling’s idea of Spimes. He discusses the kind of design thinking that might go in to creating Spimes in his book Shaping Things. Boing Boing offers this summary:

A Spime is a location-aware, environment-aware, self-logging, self-documenting, uniquely identified object that flings off data about itself and its environment in great quantities. A universe of Spimes is an informational universe…

Sterling is speaking to the culture of industrial designers and the ecosystem of the manufactured object. But, of course, this doesn’t help with the problem of Jon Udell’s local school calendar.

Just as we’re always already part of the Network, all the marks we make are part of a stream. We keep the stream private and the make sections of it public when we choose to. It’s with Ward Cunningham’s idea of the Wiki that the document as a current public version begins to get purchase. Google Docs extends the metaphor to the typical office application suite. As Microsoft moves into the Network with Live Mesh, it has some opportunities to create foundational pieces of the new metaphor.

You could not step twice into the same rivers; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.
                          – Heraclitus

To understand the state of writing to the stream, all we need to do is look at what FriendFeed aggregates. To understand what the most common writing implements are, we can examine what makes up the flow that passes through FriendFeed. No doubt we’d find the usual suspects, Blogs via RSS, Twitter, Flickr, Delicious, YouTube, etc. Upcoming is the tool that writes events to the stream. Where, you may ask, is Microsoft’s Office in all this? While Outlook can export an iCal file, it is unable to publish it to a stream. It’s as though the program is unaware that it’s part of a Network and meant to serve humans who live their lives in a stream of space and time. The writing implements and storage metaphors of the new internet operating system must take the stream of time into the foundation of their UI metaphor. Once our tools understand and inhabit their proper ecosystem, Jon Udell’s local school will stop posting calendars as PDFs.

Of course, there is a psychological hurdle when it comes to incorporating time into our new tool set. It reminds us that we are mortals, and our time is not unlimited.

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