Thursday, February 7, 2013

The End of the Web (not)

Self-appointed computer 'visionary' David Gelernter has news for us -- buzz buzz! -- the end of the Web is coming! Well, not exactly, but there will be no 'next' browser or web protocol; instead, we'll stop thinking spatially, in terms of 'pages,' and start thinking in a time-based manner, in terms of 'streams.' Presumably, our metaphors will change as well; we'll no longer speak of "going to" or "visiting" internet resources; neither will we 'surf' or 'browse' or 'explore.' No, we'll just swim in the stream, merge one stream with another, blend streams into a custom cappuccino of information, and search streams using exclusionary paradigms -- his example is a stream which we tell to temporarily edit itself so that it displays only those moments that mention cranberries. We won't use any of the old search language; instead we'll dynamically edit constant real-time streams. We will, however, do a heck of a lot of "scrolling."

But of course there's just one problem with this: we won't. The metaphors of information are, and have been, spatial ones, since the era of hieroglyphics and cuneiform. Our minds are, it seems, programmed for a sort of visual/spatial thinking -- it goes back, doubtless, to our very old days as hunter/gatherers. Whereas time, that seemingly old friend of ours, is quite a recent invention, and an annoying one as well; until well into the modern era, with the invention of the bimetal strip, which led to reliable and affordable pocket-watches, no one, quite literally, knew 'what time it was.' Time, although it exists in our minds as a constant flow, is in fact made up of all kinds of disparate material that our conscious minds work to stitch together; it is a production, not an exterior condition.  And, when it comes to the past, time gets murky; studies have shown that each time we recall past events, we alter our memory of them; it's the reason eyewitness testimony is often unreliable. A "line" of time, unlike a horizon-line in an image, is very much a cultural construct. 

Beyond that, we have some very suggestive empirical evidence that Internet users don't like to interface with life this way. Facebook has tried this with their "timelines" and the result has been almost universal hatred. Gelernter points to blogs, and to Twitter, as time-stream paradigms, but in fact the vast majority of Tweets that have any lasting impact contain URL's to more 'static' web resources. Blogs do indeed self-archive, and put the newest postings first, but people rarely search through these archives; if they come upon archived pages, it's usually through lateral links such as those generated by a search engine. Who among us has read a blog from start to finish?  Who would want to?  But Gelernter goes even farther; he expects that everyone will be accessing everything through streams that constantly flow in real time.  But do we want that either?  The number of Facebook users who leave or quit, frustrated with the continual barrage of 'news' and 'likes' suggests that this paradigm isn't going to be a crowd pleaser.  And isn't the current web founded on the pleasure of crowds, whence comes their (often unpaid) labor? 

But the other reason that the spatially-metaphored web isn't going to come to an end in favor of a time-metaphored one is that, to paraphrase Sun Ra, it's after the end of the world.   We already make time for our online doings, and whatever we do online becomes, if you want it to, part of a stream.  Those who want to access it that way already have all kinds of software to do so; if you'd like to get real-time updates to all the blogs you follow as an RSS stream, you can do it.  And more: if you want to think of the internet as a creature of time and flowing data, you already can think of it that way, model it that way, study it that way.  But while you're doing that, most of the people who are using it will be using it with spatial metaphors, and software to match.

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