When I first read the passage below in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the sea of stories three years ago, it struck me as a remarkable word picture of my experience of the Web. So of course I went right to Google to see if anyone else had made this connection — My searching, surprisingly, has found little since then, so I’ve thought about writing it up, but it didn’t get done. In the last week, I’ve gotten nudges (discussed below) that tell me this is the time. Here’s Rushdie:

Haroun looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and [the Water Genie] explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each colored strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.

Pow! Isn’t this a strikingly clear metaphorical description of the Web Stream that we all swim in every day? My first idea of a title for this article was “Did Salman Rushdie predict the Web?” I decided that was a bit too presumptuous  — But not by much — The passage does indeed verge on prediction. It was written in 1990 — Interestingly, the same year that Tim Berners-Lee “invented” the World Wide Web. It’s tempting to imagine the left-brained engineer (Berners-Lee) and the right-brained artist-seer (Rushdie) both envisioning the future Web in their own ways — Berners-Lee in outlining his Web ideas at CERN, and Rushdie in writing Haroun.

How has this passage and its Webishness gone unnoticed for so many years? Haroun is a story on many levels — Rushdie wrote it for his young son, and it’s often put in the category of “childrens’ literature.” I suspect this is the main reason it hasn’t been read often enough by grown-up Web users for someone to have seen Rushdie’s Stream of the Web metaphor. (Note that Haroun is on a prominent list of the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time)

How about the library connections in the passage? As a librarian, it certainly occurs to me that it could be viewed as being especially about libraries, maybe even seen as a threat to the traditional print library (“storeroom of yarns”). But I think, to the contrary, that Rushdie’s passage does the library world a great service, ushering us into the “liquid tapestry” of the digital Ocean, in which the Stream of “the library” will be able to “weave in and out” with the “thousand thousand and one different currents” outside of the traditional library world. Recent discussions of Google Book Search and orphan books show that the world is eagerly anticipating the stories in libraries being put into “fluid form.” And, in fact, library leader Peter Brantley, in commentary on GBS written in January 2009, talking about the coming age of digital books, uses language reminiscent of Rushdie: “We stride into a world where books are narratives in long winding rivers … and seas from which all rivers and rain coalesce.”

Speaking of the library world — As mentioned, there has been a notable lack of anyone else seeing a connection between the Rushdie passage and the Web. But the closest I’ve seen is in a paper co-authored by an engineer (JH Lienhard) and two librarians (JE Myers, TC Wilson), that was written in 1992, Surfing the Sea of Stories: Riding the Information Revolution (Mechanical Engineering 1992 Oct; 114(10): 60-65). This does an excellent job of connecting the Rushdie passage to the coming digital revolution, as it was seen in 1992, and contains the perceptively-done graphic in this article (above). But of course the full-blown Web was not born until 1995, so this view is limited. (The paper is summarized in the transcript of a radio program about it.)

Nudges for writing about this in the last week: First, In his blog article, Is The Stream What Comes After the Web?, Nova Spivack suggests that the metaphor of The Stream may soon replace The Web. The article doesn’t mention Rushdie, but it has elicited much discussion on Twitter, and someone would surely make the connection soon. Spivack does mention Twitter, saying that it and other microblogging systems are “the best example of the Stream,” which is related to the other nudge I’ve gotten, a blog article by Joff Redfern, Twitter is becoming the Ocean of the Stream of Stories. This is short , consisting mainly of the Rushdie quote above, but with its title it would likely be connected to Spivack’s Stream and Rushdie’s Streams of Stories sooner or later. Taken together, I think the articles by Spivack and Redfern indicate that Twitter is bringing to peoples’ minds the “stream-like” nature of the Web — The way big streams (e.g. swine flu 2 weeks ago) weave in and out with the day-to-day small streams of peoples’ lives on the Twitter ocean, with the stories constantly rewriting themselves.

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Eric Rumsey is at @ericrumsey

7 thoughts on “Did Salman Rushdie envision the Web in 1990?

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  3. um, gee. i’m rather speechless…

    “envisioning” the web in 1990 wasn’t prescient.
    it wasn’t groundbreaking. it wasn’t remarkable.

    i got online in 1985, with a 300-baud modem,
    which was quickly replace with a 1200-baud,
    after having read “network nation” by hiltz and
    turoff, a book that had been published in 1978
    and which described all kinds of past projects,
    and there was substantial activity even _then_.
    (and certainly no shortage of people who could
    see that this movement would soon be huge.)

    the source and compuserve were both national
    computer networks with very large user-bases,
    and local bulletin-board systems had already
    linked themselves together by using fido-net.

    moreover, arpanet — which is the thing that
    became “the internet” — was going strong…
    (it hit with such prominence only because it
    had received substantial government money.)

    i mean, hey, salman rushdie is a smart guy –
    he didn’t snag padma with his looks! — but
    “envisioning” the web in 1990 was no big deal.

    -bowerbird

  4. bowerbird: Note that I make no claims of precedence – I agree that Rushdie was probably not the first to see something like the Web coming. But I think the unique quality of Rushdie’s “vision” is its poetic clarity — It would be notable as a metaphoric description of the Web even if it were written today, don’t you think?

    Re: Arpanet, Compuserve, The Source, fido-net — My impression is that these were pretty much habitated by geeky tech people, far from the circles that humanists like Rushdie related to. Do you know examples of humanists using the “Net” in that era?

    My impression is that “Net” was the main metaphor that was used to think about the “Internet” in those days — That’s still a good metaphor, I think, in a lot of ways. But Rushdie is remarkable in “envisioning” the “water-stream-flow” metaphor that many people have come to feel fits the Web as we experience it now.

    Thanks for bringing Network Nation to my attention — I will certainly take a look at it. Do you know of other such writing that “envisions” the Internet?

    If you run into Salman Rushdie, please ask him if he knew anything about the Internet in 1990 ;-)

    Thanks for your comments!

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  6. > bowerbird: Note that I make no claims of precedence

    not directly, perhaps, but it’s implicit to a large degree…

    > I agree that Rushdie was probably not the first
    > to see something like the Web coming.

    actually, i would say he _most_definitely_ was not the first.
    not even close to first… and his description is too vague to
    count, in any substantial way, as a technological “prediction”.

    > But I think the unique quality of Rushdie’s “vision”
    > is its poetic clarity — It would be notable as a
    > metaphoric description of the Web
    > even if it were written today, don’t you think?

    i’m a poet, so i can speak to this very directly…

    rushdie’s “metaphoric description” exhibits some “vision”
    which is certainly “poetic”, but it contains little “clarity”…

    but it’s certainly a pleasant read… :+)

    except i don’t see how the currents retain their colors
    when they merge into each other. it’s like he’s having it
    both ways, via the disingenuous use of language. but
    i guess that’s the part that’s “poetic”, eh? ;+)

    > Re: Arpanet, Compuserve, The Source, fido-net —
    > My impression is that these were pretty much
    > habitated by geeky tech people, far from the circles
    > that humanists like Rushdie related to. Do you know
    > examples of humanists using the “Net” in that era?

    well, first of all, arpanet was the defense department, so
    we can rule that out of the picture. (however, i studied
    with some university psychology professors and knew
    some rand consultants who were involved with arpanet
    who could certainly fall under a “humanist” label, yes.)

    and as far as compuserve and the source go, heck yes!
    there were “humanists” crawling all over those networks.

    and the basic conversations were _societal_ in nature,
    not technical, or what has come to be called “geeky”…
    (technology wasn’t complex or advanced or fast-moving
    enough to sustain much of a conversation for very long,
    while politics and religion and sex are perennial topics.)

    if i remember correctly, i was fond of some forum software
    called “parti” that was the product of methodist ministers,
    although i’m not sure if you’d qualify them as “humanists”.

    there was a palpable sense that this was a revolution in
    _communication_, so the people who were most drawn to
    the networks were those who cared about communication.

    and perhaps the very best example of this is _the_well_,
    which i’d forgotten to mention. the networks were full of
    smart people who cared deeply about important issues…

    it didn’t have people instant-messaging each other about
    wine they had at dinner, or their dumb dog or strange cat.

    (not that there’s anything wrong with that — because the
    importance of a network is that it enables communication
    of _all_types_ — but you understand what i’m driving at.)

    there wasn’t a lot of _fluff_ on the pre-internet networks…

    (perhaps bandwidth was too limited to tolerate bullshit.)

    > My impression is that “Net” was the main metaphor that
    > was used to think about the “Internet” in those days —
    > That’s still a good metaphor, I think, in a lot of ways.
    > But Rushdie is remarkable in “envisioning” the
    > “water-stream-flow” metaphor that many people
    > have come to feel fits the Web as we experience it now.

    ok. yes, i can see that. but today’s metaphor will change tomorrow.
    there’s nothing too magical or more fundamental about “the stream”.
    (for instance, if you were more into facebook, you’d call it “a wall”.)

    but yes, i think we do gain something by seeing “the stream” too…
    a more enlightened view might see it as both — a static structure
    that then entertains a stream of connections between all its nodes.
    kind of like we see a brain as static, and neural activity as a stream,
    such that it is the interaction between the two which is important…

    > Thanks for bringing Network Nation to my attention —
    > I will certainly take a look at it. Do you know of
    > other such writing that “envisions” the Internet?

    you can never go wrong reading (and rereading) ted nelson,
    especially if you want to know about what’s going to happen
    in the future, when we all (hopefully) get a little bit smarter…

    > Thanks for your comments!

    no, thank you. you’re one of the smart bloggers around…

    -bowerbird

  7. bowerbird – I agree that Rushdie was not making a conscious “technological prediction” — That’s more what science fiction writers do. I think Rushdie’s “vision” was more like the images that are found in dreams — Hazy, cloudy “visions” that may not have much meaning to the person experiencing the dream. I think artists can serve as prophets – Sort of like “scouts” who live on the cultural frontier, and sense deep trends before they actually happen, like the advent of the Web was in 1990. If “clarity” (as you mention in your comment) is meant to imply that Rushdie saw clearly, specifically what was going to happen, then I agree that the passage does not qualify. I’m happy to settle for it’s being considered a “poetic vision” of the soon-to-come Web.

    In some ways, what’s more remarkable about the passage, beyond its admittedly cloudy, dreamlike vision of the Web, is its anticipation of a more specific aspect of Web that’s still now unfolding — The world of BOOKS on the Web — The way it catches the flavor of Kevin Kelly, writing in 2006, and others who have continued in the same vein since then, on the theme of Books: The Liquid Version – What Happens When Books Connect (my article on Rushdie, Kelly, et al). … After writing this response, I noticed that you mentioned Kelly’s work in a comment on another another article in Seeing the Picture — Interesting …

    Before leaving this discussion I do want to mention your comment on the “Net vs Stream” metaphor for the Web — In talking about the Net metaphor, you say:
    >but yes, i think we do gain something by seeing “the stream” too…
    >a more enlightened view might see it as both — a static structure
    >that then entertains a stream of connections between all its nodes.
    >kind of like we see a brain as static, and neural activity as a stream,
    >such that it is the interaction between the two which is important…
    >
    I really like your insightful idea here — It sort of catches the flavor of the modern physics theme of the Wave–Particle duality of light. I might come back to it sooner or later for another article, giving you full credit of course — OK?

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