The Pinterest Metaphor

"It was clear that by keeping our stuff in a time line we could throw away the idea of names, we could throw away the idea of files and folders, we could throw away the desktop. 
Instead we'd have the stream, which was a virtual object that 
we could look at using any computer..."

David Gelernter invented the idea of streams when the web was full of static pages.
It still is, but now almost a billion people spend much time interacting with timelines, feeds, swiping their way through the past. The recent past, because as we'll see in a few moments, the current web streams are not an exact realization of Gelernter's ideas: they are the always unexpected, less than perfect, real version of the future.

In the ideal version, the part of the digital universe visible from our screens should be a mirror-world, an elegant simulation of the flowing of time and its tasks and a graceful record of the infinite appointments of our lives. This is what Facebook is trying to do with frictionless sharing, but their timeline eats away at the past, in its blue and white version there are only highlights and recent stories, no deep memories, no drifting thoughts or loose, wandering associations of images.

The mirror world is always scanning its physical counterpart, 
constantly updating its representations. 
A real butterfly leaves a shadow-butterfly behind. 

There are obvious echoes of these ideas in the contemporary consumer internet, 
but not enough of them, and this matters because of the dominant metaphors 
that we use to understand and relate to the screens.

Despite all the current streams, or because of them, the web is still construed and consumed through the same mental models and design implementations that applied to bulletin boards, and yes, desktops. We deal mostly with flat interfaces, without temporal depth, and if Apple's software comes to mind as a brilliant exception it's because they allegedly stole their innovation from the mirror-world man.

The appearance of the flow of time on the web, besides spawning the whole information overload genre, created the need for filters, thus completing the urban and fluid metaphor of the new paradigm. One filters the noise through social media, custom feeds, apps, and of late, recommendation engines such as Pinterest.

It's irrelevant if Pinterest will succeed as a company. What matters is what the system's deliberate use of the bulletin-board metaphor, and its explosive growth, are saying about contemporary culture and its limits.

Organize and share

It's important to keep in mind that Pinterest came after Facebook and Twitter, so it's not like they don't know about the streams. It's just that the first word of their slogan is "Organize". Pinterest is a reaction against the current disorder of the web.

There is too much stuff out there, goes the accepted wisdom, so we use our filters to extract, or impose, some order onto the network. The fastest site in history to break through the 10 million unique visitor mark, one of the top 10 social networking sites on the planet, with 80% of female users in the U.S, Pinterest is a safe haven of categories and collections, all neatly arranged and ready to be discovered, and eventually purchased, or at least desired. In this area of the internet, every shadow-butterfly will be swiftly named, categorized, and pinned on several Walls.

Like the American 1950's, Pinterest is a carefully constructed illusion, a reassuringly fun and peaceful universe of products and jokes and smart quotes. Beautiful pictures. The fact that it became so popular, so fast, and among so many different groups, should tell us something about what the connected humans are really looking for when they plug into the network. The American Midwest housewife mindset turned out to be expandable to a much bigger demographic, because the need for order seems to be the most obvious response to the current stage of the internet, which, again like the 50's, is really only the prologue to what will later be seen as a major disruption in how we deal with media - or how media deals with us.


In the mean time, Apple unleashed onto the world the perfect companion to the tame user of the future: Siri the slave.The product of years of military research, Siri is the first mass-consumer AI to hit the market, and already it has set the precedent, and the blueprint, for the docile, appropriately witty, and ever so useful robotic personal assistant. Once you're done pinning, you just ask Siri for directions to the nearest retailer.

In its ongoing war against the web, Apple is reaching for a model of connectivity where you don't ever have to leave the suburbs, real or soft, and where convenience and slick design become your only gateways to discovery and that still uncharted marketing turf known as serendipity. What Siri and its clones are trying really hard to build is a docile network, made out of trust, certainty, and safety.

The Mirror World
All of this brings us back to the simulation, and to the question of which metaphors will prevail when dealing with the digital universe. The only credible alternative to the bulletin board, mall-type system, seems to be coming, oddly enough, from Mountain View. Google, in all its might, is now willing and able to construct an evolving, real-time, increasingly accurate mirror of our human world. With its Maps, Street View, and lately the Knowledge Graph, Google is attempting to put in place the kind of digital environment that Gelernter could only dream about back in 2001. Glass seems to be the novel connecting tissue between the human world and its mirror, delivered through PR-friendly concepts such as urban navigation, intimate video and photo-sharing, and seamless, enhanced social networking.

When pressed for more details about its mirror world, (former) Google executives like Marissa Mayer choose to talk about "contextual discovery", or "search without search". What they really mean is a state of affairs where by putting on a pair of shades, or lenses, we will be able to live in the impossible border between an image and its reflection. At best, they will succeed, and the colonized version of the future represented by Pinterest will be nothing but another media hype and silicon bubble. Henceforth, the network will be increasingly physical and immersed in the messy business of everyday interactions.

Watch Marissa Mayer talk about Google's simulation of the world:

At their worst, Glass and the whole Augmented Reality movement will also fail, and the chaos lurking behind the current version of the internet will become somewhat more menacing and unimaginable than we can currently predict.

If so, if the future of the network turns out to be something like this, then we will all be in much bigger trouble, because most of our mental models will just break, and everyone above a certain age will be left out in the cold, unable to comprehend the digital universe, and thus unable to understand their lives, by themselves.

Instead of a bulletin board, or an augmented reality, we will get an alien network.
Something inextricable from the fabric of the world, of its infrastructure, but that only the very rich, the young, or the religious will be able to interact with.

A network that talks mostly, and most meaningfully, to itself.