Time-based structures of information and flowing data — on a global scale — will increasingly dominate the Web. Eventually, this flow is likely to transform how we organize, consume and disseminate our digital knowledge. While we see evidence of this in effect today, in blogs, Facebook’s wall and timeline and, most basically, via Twitter, the long-term implications of this fundamentally new organizing principle have yet to be fully understood — especially in business.
For a brief snapshot on a possible, and likely, future of the Internet I turn to David Gelernter. He is Professor of Computer Science at Yale University, an important thinker and author who has helped shape the fields of parallel computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and networking. Many of Gelernter’s papers, some written over 20 years ago offer a remarkably prescient view, most notably: Mirror Worlds (1991), The Muse In The Machine (1994) and The Second Coming – A Manifesto (1999).
People ask where the Web is going; it’s going nowhere. The Web was a brilliant first shot at making the Internet usable, but it backed the wrong horse. It chose space over time. The conventional website is “space-organized,” like a patterned beach towel—pineapples upper left, mermaids lower right. Instead it might have been “time-organized,” like a parade—first this band, three minutes later this float, 40 seconds later that band.
We go to the Internet for many reasons, but most often to discover what’s new. We have had libraries for millennia, but never before have we had a crystal ball that can tell us what is happening everywhere right now. Nor have we ever had screens, from room-sized to wrist-sized, that can show us high-resolution, constantly flowing streams of information.
Today, time-based structures, flowing data—in streams, feeds, blogs—increasingly dominate the Web. Flow has become the basic organizing principle of the cybersphere. The trend is widely understood, but its implications aren’t.
Working together at Yale in the mid-1990s, we forecast the coming dominance of time-based structures and invented software called the “lifestream.” We had been losing track of our digital stuff, which was scattered everywhere, across proliferating laptops and desktops. Lifestream unified our digital life: Each new document, email, bookmark or video became a bead threaded onto a single wire in the Cloud, in order of arrival.
To find a bead, you search, as on the Web. Or you can watch the wire and see each new bead as it arrives. Whenever you add a bead to the lifestream, you specify who may see it: everyone, my friends, me. Each post is as private as you make it.
Where do these ideas lead? Your future home page—the screen you go to first on your phone, laptop or TV—is a bouquet of your favorite streams from all over. News streams are blended with shopping streams, blogs, your friends’ streams, each running at its own speed.
This home stream includes your personal stream as part of the blend—emails, documents and so on. Your home stream is just one tiny part of the world stream. You can see your home stream in 3-D on your laptop or desktop, in constant motion on your phone or as a crawl on your big TV.
By watching one stream, you watch the whole world—all the public and private events you care about. To keep from being overwhelmed, you adjust each stream’s flow rate when you add it to your collection. The system slows a stream down by replacing many entries with one that lists short summaries—10, 100 or more.
An all-inclusive home stream creates new possibilities. You could build a smartwatch to display the stream as it flows past. It could tap you on the wrist when there’s something really important onstream. You can set something aside or rewind if necessary. Just speak up to respond to messages or add comments. True in-car computing becomes easy. Because your home stream gathers everything into one line, your car can read it to you as you drive.
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