David Gelernter has a fascinating essay over at Wired on: The End of the Web, Search, and Computer as We Know It. He argues that our web-based spatial metaphors for computing are being replaced by time-based metaphors, or what he calls lifestreams, which are highly individual and instantaneous, which get melded together to form a global worldstream. Some of his commentators think that Gelernter was ‘under the influence’ when he wrote the piece, it is certainly an intriguing and allusive mix:
Until now, the web has been space-based, like a magazine stand; we use spatial terms such as “second from the top on the far left” to identify a particular magazine. A diary, on the other hand, is time-based: One dimension of space has been borrowed to represent time, so we use temporal terms like “Thursday’s entry” or “everything from last spring” to identify entries.
Time as a metaphor may seem obvious now. Especially because it’s natural for us to see our lives as stories, organized by time. The End of the Web, Search, and Computer as We Know It
He predicts a world in which our digital experience is much more individual, more transient, more self-narrated, but completely accessible since it is wholly based on information streams, managed for us by stream browsers, which divert channels from the global information lifestream.
This future doesn’t just kill the operating system, browser, and search as we know it — it changes the meaning of “computer” as we know it, too.
Whether large or small (e.g., a smartphone), a computer’s main function in the near future will be tuning in to — as a car radio tunes in a broadcast station — the constantly flowing global cyberflow. We won’t care much about the computer devices themselves since we’ll be more focused on the world of information … and our lives as attached to it.
Finally, the web — soon to become the cybersphere — will no longer resemble a chaotic cobweb. It’s already started to happen. Instead, billions of users will spin their own tales, which will merge seamlessly into an ongoing, endless narrative: the earth telling its own story. The End of the Web, Search, and Computer as We Know It
This is heady stuff, but the metaphor that leapt out at me, was his suggestion that the ‘old web’ is like a newsstand with our content based on fixed ‘magazines’ (aka web sites) — his spatial metaphor of the magazine as “second from the top left” puts a front cover into the mind’s eye. Yet most of us in reading this will be just as likely to be visualising Apple’s very successful but skeuomorphic digital newsstand as the news kiosk at Grand Central Station or the Gare du Lyon, and yes we will be thinking about the magazine as a single issue, which pokes up on that newsstand, whether it be digital or physical. This is the way we do often think of magazines. The front cover, probably of the current issue is the focus of our attention, and once we have perused the magazine for a while we drop it in a bin or leave it on the bus.
This use of the magazine metaphor hit me over the head, because at Exact Editions we have been steadily, but with growing conviction moving towards the idea that magazines are not like this. To put the primary focus on the front cover of the current issue is a mistake for digital magazines. Digital magazines really are content streams, they are potentially much richer as streams than as haphazard collections of single issues, and the ways in which digital users are subscribing to digital magazines is much more like the picture of timelines and content-streams that Gelernter has us weaving into our lifestreams, than it is like the 128 page illustrated bundle that pops up in the newsagent’s wire rack, and then gets left on the train-seat after our commute.
In fact the digital magazine becomes an incredibly stream-like information channel, when we think of it as a service which has the following characteristics:
- Consumers pull it into their digital world when they subscribe to it.
- When they subscribe to it they get all of it (for the period of their subscription) including any available back issues or archive.
- When they stop subscribing they step out of the stream, but they can always and easily pop back in.
- The magazine which has an archive of real quality and reputation will do a lot to make the whole archive digitally accessible (rivers care about their tributaries).
- Making a digital magazine usable (including all its back issues) means that it must be completely and easily searchable.
- Subscribers who subscribe to the same magazine must be able to share digital content and discourse about that content with their fellow subscribers
- Digital streams must be searchable if they are to be usable, and their parts must also be ‘likeable’, ‘tweetable’ and shareable.
- Consumer-orientated magazine streams should be ‘bookmarkable’, and Heraclitus was partly wrong, because with ‘stepping stones’ you can indeed step into the same stream twice.
- Apps that channel streams can be rich resources on tablets and mobile devices, partly because they are selective, curated and designed. Also because they are searchable, tweetable and bookmarkable.
I like Gelernter’s piece very much, but I think he is working with an old-school model of what a magazine is. Digital magazines with content-streaming archives are becoming a part of the emergent digital lifestream. With their periodical and social qualities they are rich fodder for the global cybersphere.