The Lifestream of a Scholar

The lifestream of a scholar is in the notebooks. It is a very old tradition in which notebooks are a record of thoughts and actions. I thought this and this and this. I did this with x result. ETC. The lifestream in the notebooks was chronological -- one page after another. What is the 'notebook' today? Well, the lifestream is online so the notebook would be online as well -- at least it could be.

David Gelernter, a computer scientist at Yale, is the 'father' of lifestreaming. His idea was

A lifestream is a sequence of all kinds of documents — all the electronic documents, digital photos, applications, Web bookmarks, rolodex cards, email messages and every other digital information chunk in your life — arranged from oldest to youngest, constantly growing as new documents arrive, easy to browse and search, with a past, present and future, appearing on your screen as a receding parade of index cards. Documents have no names and there are no directories; you retrieve elements by content: "Fifth Avenue" yields a sub-stream of every document that mentions Fifth Avenue. (An Edge Roundtable)

He had his idea in the late 1990's. He thought everyone would have a lifestream by 2010. It is not yet a reality, but it is getting closer. There has been a lot of activity in 2008 and 2009. One person who has been tracking the development of lifestreaming is Mark Krynsky with his lifestreamBlog. What has been done reasonably well is aggregating documents from all over the web. FriendFeed is my favorite system working in this direction; they can bring together documents from 58 different, and popular, sites across the web. But that was not how Gelernter imagined lifestreaming. He did not imagine 'extracting' documents from one source into another. He imagined a 'cloud' in which documents 'floated' freely and were called forth when needed. Yes, he not only imagined lifestreaming long before anyone else he was thinking about and working on 'the cloud' long before others. He is a pioneer 20 years ahead of his 'time' along with some others -- Dave Winer being a prime example.

Back to the notebook -- I never had a notebook because I could not abide paper. I could not figure out how one would search for ideas and actions other than turning one page after another. It seemed too much of a bother. But I can imagine a notebook constructed out of small messages that are available and searchable. FriendFeed will do that as long as I develop a 'coding' scheme that lets me identify the messages as mine. Gelernter thinks we will all have a birth certificate that becomes our index in the cloud. My electronic birth certificate for FriendFeed is #grbs, that is, GRB scholar.

Gelernter does a 'hand wave' at the search problem in lifestreaming. Just search for all documents with Fifth Avenue and it will be a substream. Here is the problem -- imagine there is a store on Fifth Avenue, and I have a document about locating something in that store. But I did not put the location of the store in the document. When I search for Fifth Avenue I miss that bit of the lifestream that is relevant. It gets worse when you move away from geography. Language, especially English, is very flexible. The same thing can be said with different words. So words are not a very good way to constitute a substream. Librarians spend their lives 'pulling out their hair' trying to figure out how to constitute streams from the hundreds of millions of documents they handle. They use xml to segment information about the document in consistent ways, and they invent meta languages to characterize what is there. So I invent my own 'meta' characteriztion.

The stream above illustrates my 'notebook.' They are short messages I wrote in FriendFeed. Each begins with #grbs to identify them as mine. Each of these has a second 'index' which is #grblifestream. They are ideas I was thinking about as I thought about writing this page. FriendFeed will search for #grblifestream and find all the notes I have characterized that way. And it will let me embed the 'search' in this page. The entries are in order from most recent to oldest. And as I add notes in FriendFeed it updates the search that is embedded here.

Even keeping track of the meta characterizations means recording. I have done that on a page about building the site here. The list is likely to get rather long if I keep this up for many years. Gelernter's from childhood to present is not a challenge I want to take on.