Is the stream passé?

In today's London Sunday Times, columnist Bryan Appleyard quotes David Edgerton, professor of the history of technology atImperial College London & author of the excellent Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 about the Internet's revolutionary qualities. “The internet is rather passé," Edgerton told Appleyard,  "It’s just a means of communication, like television, radio or newspapers.”

In a sense, of course, Edgerton is absolutely right. For example, much of the debate between bloggers and professional journalists about the future of newspapers has become painfully passé. The endless backwards and forwards in which everything is discussed and nothing resolved reached one of its messy little anti-climaxes this weekend, first with the publication of a reactionary op-ed in the Washington Post by a couple of big-media lawyers, then with the equally predictable response of orthodox mainstream-media bloggers like Koz & Jeff Jarvis.

But not everything about the Internet is passé. In the past, this Internet has appeared, as Edgerton says, "like television, radio or newspapers." Thus this endless debate about how "old" media would become "new" media and how print newspapers would morph into digital businesses. But, as Clay Shirky so elegantly argued in Thinking The Unthinkable, the old doesn't conveniently translate into the new and there is no certainty that newspapers will ever be reinvented. So we seem to be stuck in historical limbo, caught between the destruction of newspapers and the non-appearance of whatever it is that will replace them.

Maybe that's because most of us are looking in the wrong place. Alongside the staleness of the blogging/MSM debate, a new, more interesting -- albeit inchoate -- discourse around real-time media is emerging. Driven by daring thinkers like Steve Gillmor & John Borthwick, it suggests that the Internet is fundamentally being transformed from a controlled distribution flow of information into what Borthwick calls "a real-time stream of data". Twitter and its rich ecosystem of applications is, of course, the best example of the real-time stream. So is Friendfeed and the latest version of Facebook.

David Edgerton would probably argue that the real-time stream is another example of the shock of the old -- "just a means of communications". But in contrast with either Web 1.0 or 2.0, I think that it's a fundamentally different means of communications from television, radio or newspapers. The real-time stream not only changes all the rules and practices of traditional media, but it also transforms communications into the 21st century first mover, the thing-in-itself. Techcrunch's Erick Schonfeld gets it. He says we should jump into the stream:

So jump into the stream and let it carry you away. Or you can stand timidly on the banks until everyone else around you has already taken the plunge.

Schonfeld is right. I'm not entirely clear where the stream is taking us, but surely it's better to be drowned in the torrent of real-time media that to be suffocated to death by the torturously boring debate between bloggers and journalists. Both newspapers and blogs have become passé. The stream is the new. Don't let it pass you by.

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