Zillions of tiny rivers connected yet apart

Stream In September I’m giving one of the keynotes at Ethicomp 2011 in Sheffield. I’m going to take this opportunity to talk about what will be the prologue chapter of my book – the watery internet. Here’s the abstract:

“We plug into the data stream as casually as we plug into an electric socket” writes Chris Anderson. J.P. Rangaswami calls Twitter “zillions of tiny rivers connected yet apart” and David Terrar describes it as “a twisty canyon with a fast flowing river.” Thomas Vanderwal proclaims it to be like “a flood and a creek”. Indeed, people use the metaphor of a stream not just for applications like Twitter but also for larger flows of data. In 1995, however, the data stream was not seen as a rushing river but as an esoteric place for meditation. According to the Buddhist magazine Shambhala Sun, cyberspace is frequently

described as “a feeling of complete and total immersion in which the individual’s observer-self has thoroughly and effortlessly integrated and is at one with the experience of the moment.” Today this is reflected in the words of a 2008 Facebook user who posted a reply to the Facebook group ‘Where are you now?’. She wrote “my body is at home… in Córdoba, but me…. i am flowing on the net :)”

Of the many metaphors which have evolved in relation to computers and the internet, a substantial proportion are watery. Surf, rivers, and streams are common, and even Al Gore’s 1993 speech in which he claimed the meme ‘information highway’ (not his term, incidentally, but that is another story) was more about ships than it was about roads. The metaphor of internet-as-ocean connotes a free and unbounded metaphysical experience, sometimes spiritual, often adventurous, exhilarating and even life-changing. Witness celebrated net-head J.C.Herz in her 1994 classic Surfing on the Internet “Today I logged off at dawn, walked out of my apartment, four blocks to the blue Atlantic, and jumped in. Wow, I thought, now this is bandwidth.”

But as connected media become globally ubiquitous, there seems to be a shift away from the thrill of surfing on the ocean towards the more fragmented experience of riding individual streams and rivers or even surging upwards to conjoin with the cloud. As Nick Carr wrote poignantly in The Shallows (2010): “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” Are we destined to drift away from the great ocean of cyberspace and fragment into zillions of tiny rivers connected yet apart?

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