The emerging realtime Web is not only going to speed up the Web and our lives, it is going to bring about a kind of awakening of our collective Global Brain. It’s going to change how many things happen on online, but it’s also going to change how we see and understand what the Web is doing. By speeding up the Web, it will cause processes that used to take weeks or months to unfold online, to happen in days or even minutes. And this will bring these processes to the human-scale — to the scale of our human “now” — making it possible for us to be aware of larger collective processes than before. We have until now been watching the Web in slow motion. As it speeds up, we will begin to see and understand what’s taking place on the Web in a whole new way.
This process of of quickening is part of a larger trend which I and others call “Nowism.” You can read more of my thoughts about Nowism here. Nowism is an orientation that is gaining momentum and will help to shape this decade, and in particular, how the Web unfolds. It is the idea that the present-timeframe (“the now”) is getting more important, shorter and also more information-rich. As this happens our civilization is becoming more focused on the now, and less focused on past or the future. Simply keeping up with the present is becoming an all-consuming challenge: Both a threat and an opportunity.
The realtime Web – what I call “The Stream” (see “Welcome to the Stream”) — is changing the unit of now. It’s making it shorter. The now is the span of time which we have to be aware of to be effective our work and lives, and it is getting shorter. On a personal level the now is getting shorter and denser — more information and change is packed into shorter spans of time; a single minute on Twitter is overflowing with potentially relevant messages and links. In business as well, the now is getting shorter and denser — it used to be about the size of a fiscal quarter, then it became a month, then a week, then a day, and now it is probably about half a day in span. Soon it will be just a few hours.
To keep up with what is going on we have to check in with the world in at least half-day chunks. Important news breaks about once or twice a day. Trends on Twitter take about a day to develop too. So basically, you can afford to just check the news and the real-time Web once or twice a day and still get by. But that’s going to change. As the now gets shorter, we’ll have to check in more frequently to keep abreast of change. As the Stream picks up speed in the middle of this decade, to remain competitive will require near-constant monitoring — we will have to always be connected to, and watching, the real-time Web and our personal streams. Being offline at all will risk missing out on big important trends, threats and opportunities that emerge and develop within minutes or hours. But nobody is capable of tracking the Stream all 24/7 — we must at least take breaks to eat and sleep. And this is a problem.
Big Changes to the Web Coming Soon…
With Nowism comes a faster Web, and this will lead to big changes in how we do various activities on the Web:
- We will spend less time searching. Nowism pushes us to find better alternatives to search, or to eliminate search entirely, because people don’t have time to search anymore. We need tools that do the searching for us and that help with decision support so we don’t have to spend so much of our scarce time doing that. See my article on “Eliminating the Need for Search — Help Engines” for more about that.
- Monitoring (not searching) the real-time stream becomes more important. We need to stay constantly vigilant about what’s happening, what’s trending. We need to be alerted of the important stuff (to us), and we need a way to filter out what’s not important to us. Probably a filter based on influence of people and tweets, and/or time dynamics of memes will be necessary. Monitoring the real-time stream effectively is different from searching it. I see more value in real-time monitoring than realtime search — I haven’t seen any monitoring tools for Twitter that are smart enough to give me just the content I want yet. There’s a real business opportunity there.
- The return of agents. Intelligent agents are going to come back. To monitor the realtime Web effectively each of us will need online intelligent agents that can help us — because we don’t have time, and even if we did, there’s just too much information to sift through.
- Influence becomes more important than relevance. Advertisers and marketers will look for the most influential parties (individuals or groups) on Twitter and other social media to connect with and work through. But to do this there has to be an effective way to measure influence. One service that’s providing a solution for this (which I’ve angel invested in and advise) is Klout.com – they measure influence per person per topic. I think that’s a good start.
- Filtering content by influence. We also will need a way to find the most influential content. Influential content could be the content most RT’d or most RT’d by most influential people. It would be much less noisy to be able to see only the more influential tweets of people I follow. If a tweet gets RT’d a lot, or is RT’d by really influential people, then I want to see it. If not, then only if it’s really important (based on some rule). This will be the only way to cope with the information overload of the real-time Web and keep up with it effectively. I don’t know of anyone providing a service for this yet. It’s a business opportunity.
- Nowness as a measure of value of content. We will need a new form of ranking of results by “nowness” – how timely they are now. So for example, in real-time search engines we shouldn’t rank results merely by how recent they are, but also by how timely, influential, and “hot” they are now. See my article from years ago on “A Physics of Ideas” for more about that. Real-time search companies should think of themselves as real-time monitoring companies — that’s what they are really going to be used for in the end. Only the real-time search ventures that think of themselves this way are going to survive the conceptual paradigm shift that the realtime Web is bringing about. In a realtime context, search is actually too late — once something has happened in the past it really is not that important anymore –what matters is current awareness: discovering the trends NOW. To do that one has to analyze the present, and the very recent past, much more than searching the longer term past. The focus has to be on real-time or near-real-time analytics, statistical analysis, topic and trend detection, prediction, filtering and alerting. Not search.
- New ways to understand and navigate the now. We will need a way to visualize and navigate the now. I’m helping to incubate a stealth startup venture, Live Matrix, that is working on that. It hasn’t launched yet. It’s cool stuff. More on that in the future when they launch.
- New tools for browsing the Stream. New tools will emerge for making the realtime Web more compelling and smarter. I’m working on incubating some new stealth startups in this area as well. They’re very early-stage so can’t say more about them yet.
- The merger of semantics with the realtime Web. We need to make the realtime Web semantic — as well as the rest of the Web — in order to make it easier for software to make sense of it for us. This is the best approach to increasing the signal-to-noise ratio of content we have to look at whether searching or monitoring stuff. The Semantic Web standars of the W3C are key to this. I’ve written a long manifesto on this in “Minding The Planet: The Meaning and Future of the Semantic Web” if you’re really interested in that topic.
Faster Leads to Smarter
As the realtime web unfolds and speeds up, I think it will also have a big impact on what some people call “The Global Brain.” The Global Brain has always existed, but in recent times it has been experiencing a series of major upgrades — particularly around how connected, affordable, accessible and fast it is. First we got phone and faxes, then the Internet, the PC and the Web, and now the real-time Web and the Semantic Web. All of these recent changes are making the Global Brain faster, more richly interconnected. And this makes it smarter. For more about my thoughts on the Global Brain, see these two talks:
- My detailed History and Future of the Global Brain given at the Singularity Summit.
- A talk on the emerging Global Brain and human-machine cybernetic superorganism, with specific focus on what it means for media companies, from the GRID Conference.
What’s most interesting to me is that as the rate of communication and messaging on the Web approaches near-real time, we may see a kind of phase change take place – a much smarter Global Brain will sort of begin to appear out of the chaos. In other words, the speed of collective thinking is as important to the complexity or sophistication of collective thinking, in making the Global Brain significantly more intelligent. In other words, I’m proposing that there is a sort of critical speed of collective thinking, before which the Global Brain seems like just a crowd of actors chaotically flocking around memes, and after which the Global Brain makes big leaps — instead of seeming like a chaotic crowd, it starts to look more like an organized group around certain activitities — it is able to respond to change faster, and optimize and even do things collectively more productively than a random crowd could.
This is kind of like film, or animation. When you watch a movie or animation you are really watching a rapid series of frames. This gives the illusion of there being cohesive, continuous characters, things and worlds in the movie — but really they aren’t there at all, it’s just an illusion — our brains put these scenes together and start to recognize and follow higher order patterns. A certain shape appears to maintain itself and move around relative to other shapes, and we name it with a certain label — but there isn’t really something there, let alone something moving or interacting — there are just frames flicking by rapidly . It turns out that after a critical frame rate (around 20 to 60 frames per second) the human brain stops seeing individual frames and starts seeing a continuous movie. When you start flipping pages fast enough it appears to be a coherent animation and then we start seeing things “moving within the sequence” of frames. In the same way, as the unit of time of (aka the speed) of the real-time Web increases, its behavior will start to seem more continuous and smarter — we won’t see separate chunks of time or messages, we’ll see intelligent continuous collective thinking and adaptation processes.
In other words, as the Web gets faster, we’ll start to see processes emerge within it that appear to be cohesive intelligent collective entities in their own right. There won’t really be any actual entities there that we can isolate, but when we watch the patterns on the Web it will appear as if such entities are there. This is basically what is happening at every level of scale — even in the real world. There really isn’t anything there that we can find — everything is divisible down to the quantum level and probably beyond — but over time our brains seem to recognize and label patterns as discrete “things.” This is what will happen across the Web as well. For example, a certain meme (such as a fad or a movement) may become a “thing” in it’s own right, a kind of entity that seemingly takes on a life of its own and seems to be doing something. Similarly certain groups or social networks or activities they engage in may seem to be intelligent entities in their own rights.
This is an illusion in that there really are no entities there, they are just collections of parts that themselves can be broken down into more parts, and no final entities can be found. However, nonethless, they will seem like intelligent entities when not analyzed in detail. In addition, the behavior of these chaotic systems may resist reduction — they may not even be understandable and their behavior may not be predictable through a purely reductionist approach — it may be that they react to their own internal state and their environments virtually in real-time, making it difficult to take a top-down or bottom-up view of what they are doing. In a realtime world, change happens in every direction.
As the Web gets faster, the patterns that are taking place across it will start to become more animated. Big processes that used to take months or years to happen will happen in minutes or hours. As this comes about we will begin to see larger patterns than before, and they will start to make more sense to us — they will emerge out of the mists of time so to speak, and become visible to us on our human timescale — the timescale of our human-level “now. As a result, we will become more aware of higher order dynamics taking place on the real-time Web, and we will begin to participate in and adapt to those dynamics, making those dynamics in turn even smarter. (For more on my thoughts about how the Global Brain gets smarter, see: “How to Build the Global Mind.”)
See Part II: “Will The Web Become Conscious?” if you want to dig further into the thorny philosophical and scientific issues that this brings up…