Category Archives: Realtime

A new chapter in the theory of messages

One of the goals of the software coder is parsimoniousness. Because every line, even every character, of code places a demand on the computer processor, the pruning of instructions to their essence makes for faster, more efficient programs and an optimized system. The art of the coder, like that of the aphorist, is one of compression.

Twitter, it has become clear, was “never about what you’re doing for breakfast,” as Steve Gillmor writes. It was about creating “the realtime universal message bus.” It was, in other words, about building an electronic conduit, a “bus,” through which the people on the network – the human nodes – can efficiently exchange what have come to be called “status updates.” The use of engineering terms to describe social relations is both apt and necessary. The social network is a computer network, a platform for programming in which man and machine enter a symbiotic, or cybernetic, relationship.

In Twitter messages, or tweets, the use of the “@” sign is a means of denoting a specific address on the computer network at which a human operative is stored. The human operative receives the realtime message, the instruction, and is activated, usually resulting in the issuance of another message. The 140-character limit on messages is a means of imposing parsimoniousness on a lay audience who, without the limit, might revert to their natural human loquaciousness and gum up the system. The realtime human-machine network is able, as a result, to operate with a high degree of efficiency, leading to an optimal deployment of cybernetic resources.

In his 1950 book The Human Use of Human Beings, cybernetics pioneer Norbert Wiener provided the context for the social networking systems that are becoming so popular today:

… society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and … in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever-increasing part.

When I give an order to a machine, the situation is not essentially different from that which arises when I give an order to a person. In other words, as far as my consciousness goes I am aware of the order that has gone out and of the signal of compliance that has come back. To me, personally, the fact that the signal in its intermediate stages has gone through a machine rather than through a person is irrelevant and does not in any case change my relation to the signal. Thus the theory of control in engineering, whether human or animal or mechanical, is a chapter in the theory of messages …

The needs and the complexity of modern life make greater demands on this process of information [exchange] than ever before … To live effectively is to live with adequate information. Thus, communication and control belong to the essence of man’s inner life, even as they belong to his life in society.

Wiener was writing a half century ago. Today, the complexity is much magnified and the need for efficient messaging all the greater. Hence man’s rapid embrace of the realtime messaging bus, not only via Twitter but via other increasingly realtime social networks such as FriendFeed (which today announced that realtime messaging “will underlie everything about FriendFeed from now on”) and Facebook (which also recently rolled out a new “realtime” design for its site).

The human benefits are real. The enforced introduction of parsimoniousness into social messaging relieves the pressure of worldly complexity and can provide the sense of well-being that often comes from radical simplification. Vanessa Grigoriadis gives eloquent voice to the benefits of our new cybernetic social system in her cover story on Facebook in the new issue of New York magazine:

On Facebook, I didn’t have to talk to anyone, really, but I didn’t feel alone, and I mean “alone” in the existential use of the word; everyone on Facebook wished me well, which I know not to be the case in the real world; and, most important, there was nothing messy or untoward or unpleasant—the technology controlled human interaction, keeping everyone at a perfect distance, not too close and not too far away, in a zone where I rarely felt weird or lame or like I had said the wrong thing, the way one often feels in the real world. This is the promise of Facebook, the utopian hope for it: the triumph of fellowship; the rise of a unified consciousness; peace through superconnectivity, as rapid bits of information elevate us to the Buddha mind, or at least distract us from whatever problems are at hand. In a time of deep economic, political, and intergenerational despair, social cohesion is the only chance to save the day, and online social networks like Facebook are the best method available for reflecting—or perhaps inspiring—an aesthetic of unity.

It might at this point be suggested that our new transcendentalism is one in which individual human operatives, acting in physical isolation as nodes on a network, achieve the unity of an efficient cybernetic system through the optimized exchange of parsimonious messages over a universal realtime bus.

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.

How many tweets does an earthquake make?

If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to send a tweet about it, did it really fall?

This is the question I’ve been trying to wrap my head around today, after reading Steve Gillmor’s latest missive from the realtime future (where they speak a somewhat different version of English than we do at present). Gillmor reports on a seismic event that happened near his home earlier today:

This morning I felt a jolt and reached for my iPhone to check in with my wife on the highway. She immediately asked whether it was on Twitter …

Now at first, I have to confess, this struck me as kind of odd. Your spouse calls you to tell you about an earthquake at your house, a potentially catastrophic natural event, and the first thing you say is, “Was it on Twitter?” But then I realized I wasn’t thinking of it from a fully realtime perspective. (I still find myself drifting back to real time now and then.) As soon as I recalibrated my mindset, everything came into focus: In realtime, nothing ever happens firsthand. Reality becomes real only after it has been mediated, encapsulated into an electronic message and shot through a network into a virtual community. The unstreamed life is no life at all.

One thing remained disconcerting, though: Gillmor actually called his wife before checking Twitter.* He appears to have given credence to a mere “jolt,” an unmediated and purely sensory perception. In fact, he says, it took him a full “10 seconds” after his wife’s question before he successfully checked Twitter, at which time he found “three screens of earthquake tweets.” Finally, after unconscionable delay, the earthquake – a three-screener, no less! – had at last been granted entrance to the realm of the real. The tree had fallen.

Oh, Mr. Gillmor, I had looked up to you as my realtime guru, my Maharishi of the Perpetual Status-Update. Now it turns out that – dare I say it? – you have feet of flesh.


*The author suggests that readers not fully familiar with Twitter consult Dan Kennedy’s fairly comprehensive introduction to the popular microblogging service.

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.

The energy

The great thing about the two-dimensionality of the realtime-realspace continuum is that the sense of intimacy gets disconnected from the act of intimacy. You get the pleasure of the intimate exchange without having to clean up afterwards. No risk, no mess.

In today’s New York Times, Noam Cohen delivers the profoundly unstartling revelation that a lot of celebrities have hired flacks to feed content into their Twitter streams, their blogs, and the various other online channels of faux authenticity. A gentleman named Broadway (not his real name) thumbs tweets for rapper 50 Cent (not his real name), who has nearly a quarter million pseudonymous followers, making him an avatar among avatars. “He doesn’t actually use Twitter,” Broadway says of his famously bullet-puckered boss, “but the energy of it is all him.”

Ah, to be distilled to an essence, to merge into the electron/photon stream. Add this to Baudrillard’s list:

Ecstasy of identity: the energy. More personal than the personal.

Even Owen Thomas, lonely maintainer of the much-reduced Valleywag brand, finds himself waxing philosophical, serving up Baudrillardian mcnuggets:

That’s the grand irony of Twitter: Even the real people on the service are fake. They are their own simulacra. No one actually lives their life 140 characters at a time. What we do is turn ourselves into works of fiction. Who’s real? Who’s not? Who cares?

Simulacrum = avatar = the energy.

The reason Dan Lyons had to quit being Fake Steve Jobs is that Fake Steve Jobs had become more Steve Jobs than Real Steve Jobs. It worked until Real Steve Jobs got sick. That tore a hole in the realtime-realspace continuum – illness is irreducibly physical – and Lyons lost his nerve. The existential nausea that is the lot of the ghostwriter overwhelmed him. He became Real Dan Lyons. Better to be a ghostwriter of the self than of the other. The nausea’s still there, but at least it’s endurable.

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.

More present than the present

As we move deeper into the shallows, so to speak, we naturally seek a guide. Contemporaries offer little help. Those that know the technology cannot see beyond it, and those that don’t know the technology cannot see into it. Both end up trafficking in absurdity. So we look to the past for our prophet. McLuhan is the natural candidate, but it turns out his vision only extended to 1990, and even then he was half-blind. The transformation of the telephone from a transmission mechanism for voice to a transmission mechanism for text – from an ear medium to an eye medium – leaves McLuhan, literally, speechless. He has nothing to say.

No, I think it’s Jean Baudrillard, dead two years ago this month, who has to be our designated seer. I’ve never been much of a fan of the French postmodernists or postpostmodernists. When I read them I feel like an inchworm watching a butterfly. Whatever element they exist in is not mine. But it’s the nature of prophetic speech to become more lucid as time passes, and that, for me, is what’s happening with Baudrillard’s words. Take the following passage from a series of lectures he gave, in California, in May of 1999 (collected in the book The Vital Illusion), in which he limns our era:

Ecstasy of the social: the masses. More social than the social.

Ecstasy of information: simulation. Truer than true.

Ecstasy of time: real time, instantaneity. More present than the present.

Ecstasy of the real: the hyperreal. More real than the real.

Ecstasy of sex: porn. More sexual than sex …

Thus, freedom has been obliterated, liquidated by liberation; truth has been supplanted by verification; the community has been liquidated and absorbed by communication … Everywhere we see a paradoxical logic: the idea is destroyed by its own realization, by its own excess. And in this way history itself comes to an end, finds itself obliterated by the instantaneity and omnipresence of the event.

If a clearer depiction of realtime exists, I have not come upon it in my inchworm meanderings.

The fact that Baudrillard could so clearly describe the twitterification phenomenon ten years before it became a phenomenon reveals that the phrase “new media,” when used to describe the exchange of digital messages over the Internet, is a coinage of the fabulist. What we see today is not discontinuity but continuity. Mass media reaches its natural end-state when we broadcast our lives rather than live them.

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.

Realtime kills real space

I’m starting to think we may need a new Einstein.

In a comment on my earlier realtime post, David Evans observed: “A realtime system for connecting humans to each other in surprising and free-form ways is a park bench. Pity that when two people sit down on a park bench these days, they are more likely to be twittering via 3G than talking to each other.”

I was reminded of a haunting passage in a recent New Yorker article about the boom in Japanese cellphone novels:

A government survey conducted last year concluded that eighty-two per cent of those between the ages of ten and twenty-nine use cell phones, and it is hard to overstate the utter absorption of the populace in the intimate portable worlds that these phones represent. A generation is growing up using their phones to shop, surf, play video games, and watch live TV, on Web sites specially designed for the mobile phone. “It used to be you would get on the train with junior-high-school girls and it would be noisy as hell with all their chatting,” Yumiko Sugiura, a journalist who writes about Japanese youth culture, told me. “Now it’s very quiet—just the little tapping of thumbs.”

Realtime, you see, doesn’t just change the nature of time, obliterating past and future. It annihilates real space. It removes us from three-dimensional space and places us in the two-dimensional space of the screen – the “intimate portable world” that increasingly encloses us. Depth is the lost dimension.

Since we need a word to describe this new kind of space, I’m going to suggest “realspace,” which ties together nicely with “realtime.” What we need now is an overarching theory to describe how realtime and realspace come together to form, well, a realtime-realspace continuum. What are the laws that govern existence in realtime-realspace? What’s it like in there?

UPDATE: Adds Rob Horning: “We know what gets us into realspace; it seems to me a continuation of the space of consumerism—of impulsiveness, instrumentality, convenience for its own sake, and ersatz individualism. And obviously it is not just going to go away. We are all complicit in it, eventually. At some point it suits our purposes and we go along, as though we control the terms by which we interact with it. We don’t notice the creeping ways in which it begins to dictate terms to us.”

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.

Real time is realtime


I’m glad to see that “realtime” is officially one word now rather than two. It’s an update long overdue. That space between “real” and “time” had become an annoyance. Looking at it was like peering into a black hole of unengaged consciousness, a moment emptied of stimulus. It was more than an annoyance, actually. It was an affront to the very idea of realtime. As soon as you divide realtime into real time it ceases to be realtime. Realtime has no gaps. It’s nonstop. It runs together.

Believe it or not, it was not much more than a thousand years ago when some scribe in a monastery – some monk – decided to begin putting spaces between words. Uptothenpeoplewrotelikethiswithallthewordsbangingagainsteachother. Monks don’t live in realtime. They live in the blank spaces – and for the last millennium they’ve forced us to live in the blank spaces with them. It’s been a drag. I think if it were up to monks, we’d all write like this:





All spaces, no letters. Total disengagement from the here and now. Unrealtime. I mean: un real time.

But it wasn’t just that one meddlesome monk. Pretty much the whole history of civilization has been a war on realtime. Culture, we’ve been taught, is what goes on in the blank spaces, the mind-holes that open up when we exit realtime. Before the civilizers came along to muck things up – to put things in perspective, as they’d probably say – the universe was entirely realtime. There was no before. There was no after. There was only the instant in which stuff happens.

Realtime is our natural state – it’s what we share with the other animals – and now at last we’re going back to it. Listen to the birds. They’ll tell you all you need to know: realtime is a stream of tweets. Yesterday, when he announced the twitterification of Facebook, the realtiming of the social network, Mark Zuckerberg said, “We are going to continue making the flow of information even faster.” The first one to remove all the spaces wins.

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.

The free arts and the servile arts


This post, published on February 22, 2009, is the first installment in Rough Type’s series “The Realtime Chronicles.”

I have taken it upon myself to mash up the words of Steve Gillmor, posted yesterday at TechCrunchIT, and the words of the priest and theologian Andrew Louth, published in 2003 at the Times Higher Education site:

Gillmor: We’re at the threshold of the realtime moment. The advent of a reasonably realtime message bus over public networks has changed something about the existing infrastructure in ways that are not yet important to a broad section of Internet dwellers. The numbers are adding up — 175 million Facebook users, tens of thousands of instant Twitter followers, constant texting and video chats among the teenage crowd.

The standard attack on realtime is that it is the new crack. We’re all addicted to our devices, to the flow of alerts, messages, and bite-sized information chunks. We no longer have time for blog posts, refreshing our Twitter streams for pointers to what our friends think is important. It’s the revenge of the short attention span brought on by 30-second television ads — the myth of multi-tasking spread across a sea of factoids that Nick Carr fears will destroy scholarship and ultimately thinking. Of course this is true and also completely irrelevant.

Louth: The medieval university was a place that made possible a life of thought, of contemplation. It emerged in the 12th century from the monastic and cathedral schools of the early Middle Ages where the purpose of learning was to allow monks to fulfil their vocation, which fundamentally meant to come to know God. Although knowledge of God might be useful in various ways, it was sought as an end in itself. Such knowledge was called contemplation, a kind of prayerful attention.

The evolution of the university took the pattern of learning that characterised monastic life – reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation – out of the immediate context of the monastery. But it did not fundamentally alter it. At its heart was the search for knowledge for its own sake. It was an exercise of freedom on the part of human beings, and the disciplines involved were to enable one to think freely and creatively. These were the liberal arts, or free arts, as opposed to the servile arts to which a man is bound if he has in mind a limited task.

In other words, in the medieval university, contemplation was knowledge of reality itself, as opposed to that involved in getting things done. It corresponded to a distinction in our understanding of what it is to be human, between reason conceived as puzzling things out and that conceived as receptive of truth. This understanding of learning has a history that goes back to the roots of western culture. Now, this is under serious threat, and with it our notion of civilisation.

Gillmor: My daughter told her mother today that her boyfriend was spending too much time on IM and video-chat, and not enough on getting his homework done. She actually said these words: “I told him you have to get away from the computer sometimes, turn it off, give yourself time to think.” This is the same daughter who will give up anything – makeup, TV, food — just as long as I don’t take her computer or iPhone away.

So realtime is the new crack, and even the naivest of our culture realizes it can eat our brains. But does that mean we will stop moving faster and faster? No. Does that mean we will give up our blackberries when we become president? No. Then what will happen to us?

Louth: Western culture, as we have known it from the time of classical Greece onwards, has always recognised that there is more to human life than a productive, well-run society. If that were not the case, then, as Plato sourly suggests, we might just as well be communities of ants or bees. But there is more than that, a life in which the human mind glimpses something beyond what it can achieve. This kind of human activity needs time in which to be undistracted and open to ideas.

Gillmor: The browser brought us an explosion of Web pages. The struggle became one of time and location; RSS and search to the rescue. The time from idea to publish to consumption approached realtime. The devices then took charge, widening the amount of time to consume the impossible flow. The Blackberry expanded work to all hours. The iPhone blurred the distinction between work and play. Twitter blurred personal and public into a single stream of updates. Facebook blurred real and virtual friendships. That’s where we are now.

Louth: Martin Heidegger made a distinction between the world that we have increasingly shaped to our purposes and the earth that lay behind all this, beyond human fashioning. The world is something we know our way around. But if we lose sight of the realm of the earth, then we have lost touch with reality. It was, for Heidegger, the role of the poet to preserve a sense of the earth, to break down our sense of security arising from familiarity with the world. We might think of contemplation, the dispassionate beholding of reality, in a similar way, preventing us from mistaking the familiar tangle of assumption and custom for reality, a tangle that modern technology and the insistent demands of modern consumerist society can easily bind into a tight web.

The Realtime Chronicles continues in these posts:

Real time is realtime

Realtime kills real space

More present than the present

The energy

How many tweets does an earthquake make?

A new chapter in the theory of messages

Deriving real value from the social graph

The stream

Twitter dot dash (reissue)


The unripened word

2 minutes ago from Tweetie

The New York Real Times

The eternal conference call

Does my tweet look fat?

Raising the realtime child

The crystal stream


New frontiers in social networking

Exile from realtime

What realtime is before it’s realtime

Worldstream of consciousness

Conversation points

Absence of Like

Automating the feels

Ambient tweetability

Pret-a-twitter and the bespoke tweet

Ambient reality

My computer, my doppeltweeter

The soma cloud

Facebook’s automated conscience

Jonathan Swift’s smartphone

The seconds are just packed

Chatbots are saints

Image: Sam Cox.