The Serendipity of Streams

A stream is simply a life context formed by all the information flowing towards you via a set of trusted connections — to free people, ideas and resources — from multiple networks. If in a traditional organization nothing is free and everything has a defined role in some grand scheme, in a stream, everything tends steadily towards free as in both beer and speech. “Social” streams enabled by computing power in the cloud and on smartphones are not a compartmentalized location for a particular kind of activity. They provide an information and connection-rich context for all activity.


Unlike organizations defined by boundaries, streams are what Acemoglu and Robinson call pluralist institutions. These are the opposite of extractive: they are open, inclusive and capable of creating wealth in non-zero-sum ways.

On Facebook for example, connections are made voluntarily (unlike reporting relationships on an org chart) and pictures or notes are usually shared freely (unlike copyrighted photos in a newspaper archive), with few restrictions on further sharing. Most of the capabilities of the platform are free-as-in-beer. What is less obvious is that they are also free-as-in-speech. Except at the extremes, Facebook does not attempt to dictate what kinds of groups you are allowed to form on the platform.

If the three most desirable things in a world defined by organizations are location, location and location,1 in the networked world they are connections, connections and connections.

Streams are not new in human culture. Before the Silk Road was a Darknet site, it was a stream of trade connecting Asia, Africa and Europe. Before there were lifestyle-designing free agents, hackers and modern tinkerers, there were the itinerant tinkers of early modernity. The collective invention settings we discussed in the last essay, such as the Cornish mining district in James Watt’s time and Silicon Valley today, are examples of early, restricted streams. The main streets of thriving major cities are also streams, where you might run into friends unexpectedly, learn about new events through posted flyers, and discover new restaurants or bars.

What is new is the idea of a digital stream created by software. While geography dominates physical streams, digital streams can dominate geography. Access to the stream of innovation that is Silicon Valley is limited by geographic factors such as cost of living and immigration barriers. Access to the stream of innovation that is Github is not. On a busy main street, you can only run into friends who also happen to be out that evening, but with Augmented Reality glasses on, you might also “run into” friends from around the world and share your physical experiences with them.

What makes streams ideal contexts for open-ended innovation through tinkering is that they constantly present unrelated people, ideas and resources in unexpected juxtapositions. This happens because streams emerge as the intersection of multiple networks. On Facebook, or even your personal email, you might be receiving updates from both family and coworkers. You might also be receiving imported updates from structurally distinct networks, such as Twitter or the distribution network of a news source. This means each new piece of information in a stream is viewed against a backdrop of overlapping, non-exclusive contexts, and a plurality of unrelated goals. At the same time, your own actions are being viewed by others in multiple unrelated ways.

As a result of such unexpected juxtapositions, you might “solve” problems you didn’t realize existed and do things that nobody realized were worth doing. For example, seeing a particular college friend and a particular coworker in the same stream might suggest a possibility for a high-value introduction: a small act of social bricolage. Because you are seen by many others from different perspectives, you might find people solving problems for you without any effort on your part. A common experience on Twitter, for example, is a Twitter-only friend tweeting an obscure but important news item, which you might otherwise have missed, just for your benefit.

When a stream is strengthened through such behaviors, every participating network is strengthened.

While Twitter and Facebook are the largest global digital streams today, there are thousands more across the Internet. Specialized ones such as Github and Stack Overflow cater to specific populations, but are open to anyone willing to learn. Newer ones such as Instagram and Whatsapp tap into the culture of younger populations. Reddit has emerged as an unusual venue for keeping up with science by interacting with actual working scientists. The developers of every agile software product in perpetual beta inhabit a stream of unexpected uses discovered by tinkering users. Slack turns the internal life of a corporation into a stream.

Streams are not restricted to humans. Twitter already has a vast population of interesting bots, ranging from House of Coates (an account that is updated by a smart house) to space probes and even sharks tagged with transmitters by researchers.2 Facebook offers pages that allow you to ‘like’ and follow  movies and books.

By contrast, when you are sitting in a traditional office, working with a laptop configured exclusively for work use by an IT department, you receive updates only from one context, and can only view them against the backdrop of a single, exclusive and totalizing context. Despite the modernity of the tools deployed, the architecture of information is not very different from the paperware world. If information from other contexts leaks in, it is generally treated as a containment breach: a cause for disciplinary action in the most old-fashioned businesses. People you meet have pre-determined relationships with you, as defined by the organization chart. If you relate to a coworker in more than one way (as both a team member and a tennis buddy), that weakens the authority of the organization. The same is true of resources and ideas. Every resource is committed to a specific “official” function, and every idea is viewed from a fixed default perspective and has a fixed “official” interpretation: the organization’s “party line” or “policy.”

This has a radical consequence. When organizations work well and there are no streams, we view reality in what behavioral psychologists call functionally fixed 3 ways: people, ideas and things have fixed, single meanings. This makes them less capable of solving new problems in creative ways. In a dystopian stream-free world, the most valuable places are the innermost sanctums: these are typically the oldest organizations, most insulated from new information. But they are also the locus of the most wealth, and offer the most freedom for occupants. In China, for instance, the innermost recesses of the Communist Party are still the best place to be. In a Fortune 500 company, the best place to be is still the senior executive floor.

When streams work well on the other hand, reality becomes increasingly intertwingled (a portmanteau of intertwined and tangled), as Ted Nelson evocatively labeled the phenomenon. People, ideas and things can have multiple, fluid meanings depending on what else appears in juxtaposition with them. Creative possibilities rapidly multiply, with every new network feeding into the stream. The most interesting place to be is usually the very edge, rather than the innermost sanctums. In the United States, being a young and talented person in Silicon Valley can be more valuable and interesting than being a senior staffer in the White House. Being the founder of the fastest growing startup may offer more actual leverage than being President of the United States.

We instinctively understand the difference between the two kinds of context. In an organization, if conflicting realities leak in, we view them as distractions or interruptions, and react by trying to seal them out better. In a stream, if things get too homogeneous and non-pluralistic, we complain that things are getting boring, predictable, and turning into an echo chamber. We react by trying to open things up, so that more unexpected things can happen.

What we do not understand as instinctively is that streams are problem-solving and wealth-creation engines. We view streams as zones of play and entertainment, through the lens of the geographic-dualist assumption that play cannot also be work.

In our Tale of Two Computers, the networked world will become firmly established as the dominant planetary computer when this idea becomes instinctive, and work and play become impossible to tell apart.

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[1] A real-estate phrase that appears to date back at least to the 1920s. See Location, Location, Location by William Safire in the New York Times, 2009.

[2] More Than 300 Sharks In Australia Are Now On Twitter, NPR, 2012.

[3] Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that results in people viewing things exclusively in terms of their most visible functions.