August 19, 2012

The Future is not Real-Time

Many technology pundits have insisted that the future is in real-time communication. You will know about everything going on in the world, instantly—bzzt, you have a new push notification.

On a daily basis, we’re exposed to hundreds of articles, tweets, emails and advertisements. We are, as some put it, an “overcommunicated” society.

To quote from an email a friend sent me recently,

We’re exposed to more content than at any time in our lives yet the amount of time to consume it isn’t increasing.

There are only so many waking hours in the day, and even fewer of those can be dedicated to consuming the world of content. Worse yet, filtering the wheat from the chaff has become an even more strenuous activity—efforts such as Inbox Zero reflect this.

With all of this content vying for our attention at virtually every hour of the day, I believe the future is not real-timeInstead, we will find ways to artificially stem the constant flow of information through algorithmic summarization. We will find ways to bring information we are truly interested in back to us at a pace and time that is more manageable. Instant notifications will be reserved for those few precious individuals and apps that absolutely need our attention, rather than those that simply want it.

There are already small efforts to make this happen. Look at the recent addition of Twitter’s weekly digest, Facebook’s relatively recent switch to a Top News feed, or—my personal favorite—The Slow Web Movement. We’re at the very forefront of this trend and our understanding of how to coalesce all of this information into valuable, individually relevant, and timely packages is still in its infancy.

The real-time web is a bit like a fire hydrant—either the valve is opened or closed, but there’s no filter to stem the flow; we become the filter for the massive flow of information. Content should always feel like a gift, not a burden. To turn it into a gift, we need to start focusing on ways to control the flow.

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Joshua Gross is web designer and developer, and principal of Planetary based in Brooklyn, NY.