The End of the Web, Search, and Computer as We Know It


People ask what the next web will be like, but there won’t be a next web.

The space-based web we currently have will gradually be replaced by a time-based worldstream. It’s already happening, and it all began with the lifestream, a phenomenon that I (with Eric Freeman) predicted in the 1990s and shared in the pages of Wired almost exactly 16 years ago.

This lifestream — a heterogeneous, content-searchable, real-time messaging stream — arrived in the form of blog posts and RSS feeds, Twitter and other chatstreams, and Facebook walls and timelines. Its structure represented a shift beyond the “flatland known as the desktop” (where our interfaces ignored the temporal dimension) towards streams, which flow and can therefore serve as a concrete representation of time.

It’s a bit like moving from a desktop to a magic diary: Picture a diary whose pages turn automatically, tracking your life moment to moment … Until you touch it, and then, the page-turning stops. The diary becomes a sort of reference book: a complete and searchable guide to your life. Put it down, and the pages start turning again.

Today, this diary-like structure is supplanting the spatial one as the dominant paradigm of the cybersphere: All the information on the internet will soon be a time-based structure. In the world of bits, space-based structures are static. Time-based structures are dynamic, always flowing — like time itself.

The web will be history.

David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale University and chief scientist at He foresaw the World Wide Web and has been described as “brilliant and visionary.” Gelernter’s books include Mirror Worlds, Machine Beauty, and the forthcoming Other Side of the Mind. A former member of the National Endowment for the Arts governing board, Gelernter is also a painter; his works are currently on show at Yeshiva University Gallery in Manhattan.

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.

Time as a metaphor may seem obvious now. Especially because it’s natural for us to see our lives as stories, organized by time.

Yet it took us more than 20 years in computing to get here. The field has finally moved from conserving resources ingeniously to squandering them creatively. In this new environment, we can focus on the best way — instead of the cheapest, most conservative way — for the internet to work.

And today, the most important function of the internet is to deliver the latest information, to tell us what’s happening right now. That’s why so many time-based structures have emerged in the cybersphere: to satisfy the need for the newest data. Whether tweet or timeline, all are time-ordered streams designed to tell you what’s new.

Of course, we can still browse or search into the past: Time moves forwards and backwards in the cybersphere. Any information object can be added at  “now,” and flows steadily backwards — like a twig dropped in a brook — into the past.

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