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David Gelernter: Bring on the 'stream browser'

The Yale computer science prof mulls the end of the Web and search as we know them. He expects they will be swept away by the arrival of the "worldstream: a way to picture the cybersphere as a whole."

Close your eyes and look beyond the Firefox, Chrome, IE, and Safari of today. Do you see a "stream browser"? David Gelernter does.

The Yale computer science professor has been musing about what comes next for all the digital information that swarms and surrounds us, and it has led him to write an op-ed piece on Wired called "The End of the Web, Search, and Computer as We Know It." The emphasis in the online time/space continuum, he says, will be shifting from the "space-based web" of the present day to a "time-based worldstream" -- an outgrowth from the "lifestream" phenomenon that Gelernter and Eric Freeman wrote about in the 1990s.

David Gelernter

Gelernter argues that we're already in the midst of the shift to a dynamic, diary-like structure -- consider what we have already in the form of RSS feeds, blogs, Facebook's Timeline, Twitter and other "chatstreams" -- that's taking us beyond the flat Earth of the desktop.

"What happens," he posits, "if we merge all those blogs, feeds, chatstreams, and so forth? By adding together every timestream on the net -- including the private lifestreams that are just beginning to emerge -- into a single flood of data, we get the worldstream: a way to picture the cybersphere as a whole."

When that whole other world arrives, it will be adios to today's operating systems, browsers, and search models, and hello to the stream browser. Says Gelernter:

What people really want is to tune in to information. Since many millions of separate lifestreams will exist in the cybersphere soon, our basic software will be the stream-browser: like today's browsers, but designed to add, subtract, and navigate streams.

Searching content in a time stream is a matter of stream algebra, which is easier than the algebra of space-based structures like today's web. Add two timestreams and get a third (simply merge the AP news feed and my friend Freeman's blog streams into time-order); and content search is a matter of stream subtraction (simply subtract all entries that don't mention "cranberries" to yield all the entries that do). The simple, practical features of stream algebra have one huge benefit: giving us made-to-order information.

Gelernter doesn't say when the timestream era will finally arrive; first, all those millions of streams will need to "share the same interface for the stream browser to draw on." Whenever it does come, the main function of a computing device will be simply to tune into that global cyberflow from billions of user -- "an ongoing, endless narrative: the earth telling its own story."

Yes, this time/space stuff does get pretty trippy sometimes.

And as was the case with certain substance-induced trips of psychedelic decades past, there might perhaps be some unsavory aspects to this altered state of Web consciousness. At sister site ZDNet, Jason Perlow worries that "our obsession with what some people are calling the 'Lifestream' is leading us towards an entire society of Technology Augmented Autism." It's something that Perlow griped about, somewhat ironically, in a recent tweet, singling out Twitter, Vine, and Instagram:

It's not that Perlow says there's no place for those miniaturist services (he says he uses Twitter and Instagram a lot), just that they need to be balanced "with real art, real films, large format digital photography, real talking, listening to real music, having real sex, eating real food and engaging with real humans."

Author Nick Carr, who himself has done some serious thinking about the Web and its effects on our abilities to think and do, largely dismisses Gelernter's article as old news, cluttered up with solipsistic mumbo-jumbo. "It's not so much post-web as anti-web," writes Carr. "Imagine Whitman's 'Song of Myself' as a media production, with tracking and ads."

Gelernter's thoughts get a gentler reception from Steven Sinofsky, until just a few months ago Microsoft's longtime Windows chief. "It was a thought-provoking essay. I think that is what the author intended," he says on his new blog about product development. "Essays that challenge the status quo and push us to think about our world differently are the very source of breakthroughs that we all want."