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The patron saint of the internet is St Isidore of Seville – not that he ever got to use it, having died in the year 636. Regarded as one of the greatest scholars of his time, he attempted a compilation of all human knowledge, in the process preserving ancient texts that would otherwise have been lost. 

Humanity has been pre-occupied with the organisation of knowledge ever since and the internet, and more specifically the world wide web, represents the latest and, so far, greatest stage in this endeavour.

When different stages of the evolution of the internet are given names like ‘web 1.0’ and ‘web 2.0’, it’s natural for people to ask: what comes next? what will web 3.0 look like?

But, according to David Gelernter, professor of computer science at Yale, “there won’t be a next web”. In a fascinating piece for Wired, he argues that we’re already in the process of transition to an entirely different way of organising human knowledge:

  • “How should we arrange all the stuff on the internet? Conventional solution: use links to form a web. Users follow links from one information-object to related ones. Unconventional alternative: use narrative streams… Users follow time-ordered sequences from one info-object to the next, and these streams flow: their tails lengthen constantly as new information arrives.”

Gelernter uses analogies to explain what he means:

  • “Until now, the web has been space-based, like a magazine stand; we use spatial terms such as 'second from the top on the far left' to identify a particular magazine. A diary, on the other hand, is time-based: One dimension of space has been borrowed to represent time, so we use temporal terms like ‘Thursday’s entry’ or ‘everything from last spring’ to identify entries.”

This very website is proof the space-to-time transition. For instance, here is the front page of ConservativeHome from March 2005. As you can see, if you click on the link, the information is just spread out across the screen, like a display of merchandise in a shop window. Visually, there’s no obvious direction to it all (other than a few inconspicuous dates). Contrast that with today’s ConHome, where everything is structured by the flow of time, with the latest links, posts, tweets and comments displayed at the top of the screen and then moving down the screen as even fresher information comes in.

From Twitter to Facebook, this is increasingly the shape of the internet. This will drive further changes, because while there’s nothing consistent about the way that different parts of the internet organise themselves spatially, time provides a common structure – allowing different sources of information to be combined: 

  • “…if we merge all those blogs, feeds, chatstreams, and so forth… by adding together every timestream on the net — including the private lifestreams that are just beginning to emerge — into a single flood of data, we get the worldstream: a way to picture the cybersphere as a whole.”

The future development of the internet will be about providing us with new tools for adding and subtracting individual timestreams so that we can ‘tune’ the worldstream to deliver what we’re most interested in.

However, the time-structured internet isn’t just additive in nature, it’s also addictive. It is designed to deliver the most powerful drug of them all – novelty. While spatial, web-based structures invite you to explore, hopping from link to link – after a while, you tend to get lost and so give up and do something else instead – like some work. The worldstream, however, always has you exactly where it wants you.

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