The crystal stream

David Gelernter peers into the ineffable nowness of realtime:

Nowness is one of the most important cultural phenomena of the modern age: the western world’s attention shifted gradually from the deep but narrow domain of one family or village and its history to the (broader but shallower) domains of the larger community, the nation, the world. The cult of celebrity, the importance of opinion polls, the decline in the teaching and learning of history, the uniformity of opinions and attitudes in academia and other educated elites — they are all part of one phenomenon. Nowness ignores all other moments but this. In the ultimate Internet culture, flooded in nowness like a piazza flooded in sea water, drenched in a tropical downpour of nowness, everyone talks alike, dresses alike, thinks alike.

And then, like his forerunner Vannevar Bush, he conjures up a future in which a technology is refashioned to solve the problem it created:

Once we understand the inherent bias in an instrument, we can correct it. The Internet has a large bias in favor of now. Using lifestreams (which arrange information in time instead of space), historians can assemble, argue about and gradually refine timelines of historical fact … Images, videos and text will accumulate around such streams. Eventually they will become shared cultural monuments in the Cybersphere. Before long, all personal, familial and institutional histories will take visible form in streams. A lifestream is tangible time: as life flashes past on waterskis across time’s ocean, a lifestream is the wake left in its trail. Dew crystallizes out of the air along cool surfaces; streams crystallize out of the Cybersphere along veins of time. As streams begin to trickle and then rush through the spring thaw in the Cybersphere, our obsession with “nowness” will recede, the dykes will be repaired and we will clean up the damaged piazza of modern civilization.

Around every technological bend lies utopia, where the streams are crystal and the levees never break.

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

One thought on “The crystal stream

  1. Andrew Kaplan

    Thanks for this great post.

    I understand the many circumstances where nowness has caused us all to think, talk and dress alike. But I feel that there are important exceptions to this trend that we shouldn’t exclude from the conversation. The biggest one that comes to mind is music. In the immediate pre-Web days, when the record labels were reaping their biggest profits and media conglomerates essentially dictated the music we consumed, then every major band really did sound the same, dress the same…They were all manufactured goods forged and delivered to us by a few large players in the business. Contrast this with today, where it’s easier than ever to discover new bands through blogs and smaller sites, not to mention iTunes and MySpace. The long tail phenomenon (I’m sorry to reuse this already over-used buzz term, but it’s apropos here), means that more artists can be discovered and consumed across a wider variety of content purveyors/aggregators. This really just beats the pants off the old model, where it was so difficult to learn about music that wasn’t on a Clear Channel radio station, or that wasn’t played in a cycle of top music videos. I can’t even quantify how much richer and more diverse my musical experience has been in the digital age. It never could have happened before the Internet.

    Finally, let’s talk about film. Independent film is more accessible than ever through the Web. Look at YouTube’s ScreeningRoom or, where independent filmmakers can connect instantly with audiences who otherwise would probably never have even heard of their work.

    So to sum up: as we complain about the shallows that we wade through online, let’s recognize the very real and very significant exceptions to this trend.

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