“No moment in technology history has ever been more exciting or dangerous than now. The Internet is like a new computer running a flashy, exciting demo. We have been entranced by this demo for fifteen years. But now it is time to get to work, and make the Internet do what we want it to.” – David Gelernter, “Time to Start Taking the Internet Seriously.” The Edge. (2010).
In 2014, the concept of information overload is well, overloaded and overdone. With laptops, tablets, and smartphones, we are bombarded with information everyday. News purveyors of all sorts are on repeat reminding us of this rather troubling fact.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect about the information overload problem is that we have actually invited this problem to come in and sit down in our lives. We have signed up for numerous enewsletters, social media websites, RSS feeds (rich site summary feeds). We have multiple schedules going with work, school, and personal lives.
So what to do about it? In 1996, Eric Freeman and David Gelernter of Yale University were already on the case pondering a solution—a solution that is finally coming to fruition. They called their solution “lifestreams.” Today, we commonly refer to it as the stream paradigm. The stream paradigm is a vast topic so, this short essay will focus on the stream paradigm for our digital lives.
As explained in Freeman and Gelernter’s 1996 paper “Lifestreams: A storage model for personal data,” the lifestream “uses a time-ordered stream as a storage model and stream filters to organize, locate, summarize and monitor incoming information” (1). In essence, the stream paradigm is a world view that believes in organizing your digital files and/or internet life chronologically. It is a fundamental change in how you experience your digital world. It is also a new storage model that uses filters to help you decide what you want to see. You choose what is worth your time.
We have seen the stream paradigm function online with RSS and social media. RSS feed viewers aggregate all the posts from your favorite websites and list them chronologically. Twitter is also another great example as everyone’s tweets are listed chronologically. This is a simple version of the stream paradigm at work. A more complicated version of the stream paradigm comes from HootSuite, Vancouver’s own social media content management system. HootSuite offers the ultimate stream solution with multiple streams of social media channels with substreams within each channel.
Taking the stream paradigm to the next level
The stream paradigm already exists in our online lives, but what about our computers themselves with all of our files, photos, music, and videos? Can the stream paradigm be integrated for our computers in general?
The files on our computers are organized into folders upon folders. My computer has various alias folders because I want to access my school materials from my desktop but they are stored on Dropbox. It is not a good solution but it is the one I am currently working with.
In Gelernter’s 2013 essay “The End of the Web and Computer as We Know It” for Wired he wrote, it’s natural for us to see our lives as stories, organized by time.” He suggests moving our desktops to a diary format: “Picture a diary whose pages turn automatically, tracking your life moment to moment … Until you touch it, and then, the page-turning stops. The diary becomes a sort of reference book: a complete and searchable guide to your life.”
This idea is working with Dropbox. The initial purpose of Dropbox was to provide online storage for all of your files—the cloud. Now, Dropbox markets itself as a photography service. If you are already putting your photos on Dropbox, why not do more with them on that same website? You can now streamline your photo storage and photo sharing.
So can we apply the stream paradigm to all of our files? Apple Time Machine does that quite effectively but it is a false take on the stream because it creates a stream of our desktops. Tricky no?
Can our digital lives be contained into one stream? Whoa, what an overwhelming thought! I do not want my photos, videos, and Word documents organized chronologically because I likely will not remember when I uploaded them. One stream would make it difficult to access what you want even if you can search them. (I suppose many people have accurate naming systems, but even then, searching the right keywords could prove tricky.) Luckily, David Gelernter thought of a solution—substreams.
Filtering Out the Noise with Substreams
Freeman and David discussed the importance of substreams back in 1996 with their paper “Lifestreams: A storage model for personal data”: substreams differ from conventional directory systems in that, rather than placing documents into fixed, rigid directory structures, they create virtual groups of documents from the stream” (2). An example of this is having a photo folder with another folder inside it. That interior folder is named Loki for all the dog photos. The Loki folder is a substream of the photo stream. The photo stream is a substream of the main stream.
Who Will Streamline Our Files?
The problem comes in when we think about who will create these substreams. Filtering is absolutely necessary and this is why filtering software has become so important. In his 2010 article for Edge.org titled “Time to Start Taking the Internet Seriously” Gelernter argues that “It’s simple for the software that runs your lifestream to learn about your habits; simple to figure out which emails, or social updates, or news stories, you are likely to find important and interesting.” This software filters out the noise or clutter. In essence, it attempts to streamline what we see.
In terms of social media, Facebook is already performing these filtering tasks in contrast with Twitter, which does not use filtering software. Another MPubber, Kaitlyn Till (@Bookful42) shared a video by 2veritasium titled “The Problem with Facebook.” In it, the user argues that filtering is required. I point to Twitter as proof that it is not required. The user states, “The beauty of social media is that it’s the user who gets to control the content, who they interact with and how.” That is the beauty of the stream paradigm—not the beauty of social media.
Operating system 1.0: Google?
I lament the ability of corporations such as Facebook and Google to dictate what I see in my streams. Twitter allows me to opt in and opt out of what I see. If the stream paradigm is going to work beyond social media, it needs to have transparency. With social media, I am an user of that website. I choose to be on it. When it comes to my personal documents, I do not want Google or another corporation making choices about my files.
The 2013 National Security Agency (NSA) scandal proved that people do care what happens to their data. Presumably, if Google released an operating system that used the stream paradigm, Google would claim ownership over our content in the sense it could do whatever it wanted with it.
There is no doubt that we need a streamlining system of what is most relevant in order to use the Internet. Google’s elimination of Google Reader took away our ability to create a simple custom-designed stream. An open-source stream paradigm application could be the solution to bringing the stream paradigm to fruition to cut the noise that disrupts our digital lives.
Removing a corporation’s control from our personal content is key. Not only does an open-sourced application remove a monopoly of ownership, it allows users to personalize it. It allows programmers to flourish as well. Personalize your stream as you personalize your Tumblr page. I paid $17 for my personalized Tumblr page and I would be willing to pay $17 or $37 for a personalized operating system that operated as a stream with custom substreams.
The stream paradigm is coming for you. Before you comment on this essay, I bet you will check your favourite decorating blogs, the best moose videos on Youtube, your most recent photos of your dog, and three or four of your favourite social media websites. Do it and ponder how much easier life would be if it would divided into streams and substreams.
*If you watched a moose video then you have now learned three things: a) moose are tricky and hilarious b) I shouldn’t be in charge of the stream paradigm c) You should always compliment a moose’s garden or else said moose may kick you.
- Eric Freeman and David Gelernter. “Lifestreams: A Storage Model for Personal Data”, ACM SIGMOD Bulletin, (1996).
- David Gelernter. “The End of the Web, and Computer as We Know It.” Wired. (2013). http://www.wired.com/opinion/2013/02/the-end-of-the-web-computers-and-search-as-we-know-it/
- David Gelernter. “Time to Start Taking the Internet Seriously.” The Edge. (2010). http://edge.org/conversation/time-to-start-taking-the-internet-seriously
- Aaron Steven Miller. “Real Pages Are All About Flow” Medium. (2013). https://medium.com/design-ux/398f6a680b49
- “The Problem with Facebook” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9ZqXlHl65g