From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

October 30, 2015*: Rowing not required

I honestly can't remember when I last heard someone refer to "surfing the web". I suppose that over the past few years I've used the term more than a few times, but most of those have probably been in the context of explaining how things used to be. The jury may still be out as to whether web surfing is an active or a passive activity, but even if we choose the etymology that suggests "passive", that passivity would seem to be considerably more active than the flowing with the stream that seems most prevalent for internet use today.

Do people today still "surf" the web? I'm sure that there are a number of "weavers" out there, but it's a good guess that these are a small minority. They're probably writers, or journalists who when researching a topic find themselves getting carried away with where things lead. That can be problematic if they have deadlines to meet, so they may have to limit the amount of tangential linking they allow themselves. But again, both "surfers" who may simply be enjoying the wave, or "weavers" who have a picture of a totality that they hope to achieve, seem to me to be endangered species. The web today has become the place you turn to for answers, rather than one that continually offers an invitation to follow your curiosity.

But that of course belies the point that it's very possible that today people don't "turn to" the web at all. To a certain extent this means that the web comes to them, but that suggests a sort of agreement; that people have consciously chosen to interact with the web in that way. I'm not suggesting that it's been thrust on them, but though it may not have been inevitable that today we'd encounter information in the way that we do, it seems fair to claim that the dynamics of internet use, the economics that led to a concentration of our eyeballs on only a handful of web sites, has ushered in a very different method of accessing information than that of the early days of the web. The basic metaphor for how people interact with information on the web today is via "the stream".

I'm not sure there's an accepted working definition of the stream. It seems as though it was first identified as a distinct internet phenomenon by John Borthwick in a post on his blog from May, 2009. Borthwick claimed that the web metaphor of pages had been superseded:

This world of flow, of streams, contains a very different possibility set to the world of pages. Among other things it changes how we perceive needs. Overload isnt a problem anymore since we have no choice but to acknowledge that we cant wade through all this information. This isnt an inbox we have to empty, or a page we have to get to the bottom of - its a flow of data that we can dip into at will but we cant attempt to gain an all encompassing view of it. Dave Winer put it this way in a conversation over lunch about a year ago. He said "think about Twitter as a rope of information - at the outset you assume you can hold on to the rope. That you can read all the posts, handle all the replies and use Twitter as a communications tool, similar to IM - then at some point, as the number of people you follow and follow you rises - your hands begin to burn. You realize you cant hold the rope you need to just let go and observe the rope".
In this sense, acknowledging that the prevailing metaphor is the stream means acknowledging our inability to keep up, to encompass the entirety of the web - though it's hard to imagine that anyone ever really thought that such a thing was possible. But it also, and perhaps more realistically, acknowledges that information isn't, and can't be, static. Borthwick's opening example places this issue in a wider cultural framework. It seems, however, that his primary interest isn't culture, but business, and how understanding that the stream is the new metaphor can affect the way we do business.

Internet styles, the ways in which pages are presented to us on the web, are notoriously short-lived. By the time many of us adjust to the latest we learn that it's been superseded by something else that we have to adjust to. Some people think that the stream has already run its course. Almost two years ago Alexis Madrigal, in The Atlantic, declared that 2013 was The Year the Stream Crested. Madrigal gave a number of reasons for the success of the stream, the primary reason being "nowness". But he also suggested that it satisfies our desire for "more":
There are great reasons for why The Stream triumphed. In a world of infinite variety, it's difficult to categorize or even find, especially before a thing has been linked. So time, newness, began to stand in for many other things. And now the Internet's media landscape is like a never-ending store, where everything is free. No matter how hard you sprint for the horizon, it keeps receding. There is always something more.
Why should this "more" be different from the more of "surfing" or of "weaving"? The answer, again, would seem to be that even at its most passive, surfing still demands we make decisions, that we choose what we want to view or read. With the stream, making those decisions is no longer necessary. YouTube, for instance, has an autoplay "feature" which if activated brings us the "next" video that YouTube has algorithmically determined is the one we'd most like to watch. The "feature" is about a year and a half old. According to YouTube users have to activate it, though I found that I had to deactivate it even though I'd never requested it be turned on in the first place. In the ethos of the stream, however, I can well understand that autoplay makes sense: Just keep those videos coming without requiring us to make any decisions about what we'd like to view.

I can't speak for the multitudes of Facebook users but from more than only occasionally viewing how they view their accounts, and the fact that for many people Facebook and the web, and even the internet, are synonymous, I get the feeling that Madrigal jumped the gun: the stream seems to definitely still be with us, and is going strong. After all, what's to stop it? Information, such as it is, continues flowing onto the page, and probably at least a passable amount of that information is interesting or relevant to the person viewing it. What reason might there be to seek out something beyond what shows up in the feed?

We might also ask whether in today's information landscape anything other than the stream is really possible. We're inundated with immediacy, and what separates "now" from "then" is the simple fact that something new has entered our stream, or more accurately, is continually entering our stream. Lest we assume that this is primarily a digital issue, it's worth remembering that, in a manner that today is most definitely not politically correct, the Rolling Stones sang precisely about this almost fifty years ago. This was a real problem back when desktop computers were our primary means of interacting with the internet, and the ascendance of mobile has made it the defining characteristic of our time.

But this forces us to ask why, in that case, does Madrigal think that the stream has already crested, and that we're now in need of a new metaphor? Madrigal suggests that this nowness isn't solely an inherent quality of the internet and the way we interact with it, but that it's also heavily promoted and marketed, even thrust on us:
Some of these people will be professionals who are paid to make stuff as quickly as possible that will be just perfect for your stream like "20 Signs You Went to San Jose State University."
Catchy headlines (particularly those that end in question marks) and other sorts of clickbait try their best to keep us in the stream. We've always been told that time is money, and now the amount of time we spend on a site can truly be translated into (someone else's) profit. But Madrigal makes this point only in passing. His central concern is a considerably more existential issue. He cites Brian Eno's claim that we're in a constant state of "permanently unfinished". That's a terribly exhausting state to constantly find ourselves in, and somewhere along the line, no matter how great an attraction the stream has for us, at some point we also realize that we simply can't keep up the pace. Madrigal writes:
The necessity of nowness plus the professionalization of content production for the stream means that there are thousands and thousands of people churning out more crap than can possibly be imagined.
Maybe there's a hidden blessing in the fact that we're not just going with the flow of "information" of our own (and our friends') making, but also with the flow of that vast churning out that Madrigal writes about. Somewhere along the line, as we come up gasping for air, we realize how worthless it all really is. It's my guess that the development of tools that make digital information (even more) ephemeral stems from that realization - that so much of it is crap. Maybe the logical conclusion that we should reach from the realization that so much of what we're flowing with is worthless is one that's taken us too many cocktail parties to learn, and is only now seeping into our digital consciousness. If it's all crap anyway, it doesn't really matter if it's old or new. Who knows - maybe there's good reason to feel attached to the old crap instead of jumping ship for the new. And beyond that, we realize something much more important. We realize that we can allow ourselves to flow gently down the stream, but that when, instead, we row in it we're making decisions, we have input, we define ourselves in relationship to what we encounter. Basically, it's the making of a distinction, perhaps even any distinction, instead of simply acquiescing to the blending together of everything, that's the defining factor. Which is precisely why at the very least rowing is necessary.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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