The Stream

Starting in the Sixteenth century, European aristocrats built Wunderkammern: collections of exotic objects such as antlers, paintings, weapons, mineral specimens, and mechanical knick-knacks. According to Umberto Eco’s memorable description, in a Wunderkammer “a unicorn’s horn would be found next to the copy of a Greek statue, and, later, among mechanical crèches and wondrous automata, cocks of precious metal that sang, clocks with a procession of little figures that paraded at noon.” These bricolage samplings of the wonders of reality were meant to impress: The more arcane the collection, the greater the power of the collector. The effect can be dizzying, even in our age of one-click ordering and overnight delivery.

The Web doesn’t dictate how we should organize information. As a result, all sorts of structural frameworks have been tried online. One, in particular, has come to dominate our attention over the past decade or so: the stream, an endless sequence of seemingly random curiosities in the form of posts, messages, tweets, memes, events, etc. These morsels are mostly non-sequiturs: One moment it’s a job posting, the next a photograph of a cat, a review of a fountain pen, a visit to an abandoned Soviet monument, a religious chain letter, a supplication to fund somebody’s medical procedure, a poem by Langston Hughes, an optical illusion. The only context they share is the place where you encounter them: Twitter, Facebook, Medium, YouTube, etc. These information environments have become immensely popular; as a result, streams are now central to many people’s experience of the Web. (It’s very likely these words came to your attention via one of them.)

From a formal perspective, streams are not new. (Email inboxes, for example, precede the Web.) However, in time they’ve changed both in character and pervasiveness. For one thing, our streams used to be more intentional; we would proactively curate them. (I still use — and prefer — an RSS reader to get my news.) For another, they used to be (mostly) chronological, the expectation being that whatever was demanding your attention was the latest on the subject. (Not the most important, mind you — only the latest.) This has changed. Streams are now increasingly curated and sequenced by algorithms: engines of titillation and outrage designed to keep us engaged (and buying); wondrous automata that assemble mechanical crèches on the fly — just for us — from fragments of our friends’ lives, the news of the day, the latest TV show, celebrity gossip, ephemera. Trifles accreting haphazardly in a cognitive cabinet of curiosities. Expressions of power — but not our own.