“Ripeness,” Shakespeare told us, “is all.” The Bard did not anticipate the realtime web. On the New Net, ripeness is nothing. Nowness is all, as David Gelernter tells us in his essay “Time to Start Taking the Web Seriously.” Web 2.0 was supposed to bring us a creative outpouring of “social production.” Instead it’s tossed us into the rapids of instant communication. The Web has become a vast multimedia telephone system, where everyone is on the same party line, exchanging millions of bite-sized updates and alerts with every tick of the clock. Google, Facebook, Twitter: the Net’s commercial giants are locked in a fierce competitive battle to speed up “the stream.”
The Net’s bias, Gelernter explains, is toward the fresh, the new, the now. Nothing is left to ripen. History gets lost in the chatter. But, he suggests, we can correct that bias. We can turn the realtime stream into a “lifestream,” tended by historians, along which the past will crystallize into rich, digital deposits of knowledge. We will leap beyond Web 2.0 to “the post-Web,” where all the views are long.
It’s a pretty vision. I wish I could believe it. There are times when human beings are able to correct the bias of a technology. There are other times when we make the bias of an instrument our own. Everything we’ve seen in the development of the Net over the past 20 years, and, indeed, in the development of mass media over the past 50 years, indicates that what we’re seeing today is an example of the latter phenomenon. We are choosing nowness over ripeness.