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“The Telephone Transformed—Into Practically Everything”


“I carry around one of these little boxes,” says a Motorola executive, Al Zabarsky, “and get every day, besides my personalized mail, clippings from services that clip according to your temperament, from companies that specialize in original source material—whatever you guys in the business call it.”

We used to call it news, Al.

It’s the twenty-fifth anniversary of this New York Times Magazine cover story. In other words, it was written fourteen years before the arrival of the iPhone.

Does it hold up? You be the judge. I mentioned in the opening paragraph a new and little-known communications medium called “electronic mail.” I said, “Our sense of what can be private and what must be public is being overhauled under our noses.” I claimed:

Well into its second century, the telephone has begun a transformation more profound than any in its history—dragging with it much of our other technological baggage, including the computer, the fax machine, the clock, the pager, the compass, the stock ticker and the television.

Pager? Stock ticker? That was a fast twenty-five years.

Oop: Time Travelers Missing from My Book Time Travel

The odds that anyone’s favorite time travelers appear in the pages of Time Travel are, unfortunately, less than 100%. Perhaps much less. Some readers are already, graciously, pointing out the omissions.

One such is Alley Oop, the caveman hero of the comic strip with that name, created by V. T. Hamlin in 1932. He was not a time traveler right from the start. ooptimemachine4939At first he was just a caveman. But let Perry Bowker explain. He is a reader from Burlington, Ontario, and he has the whole story:

I want to point out a possible addition to the Philosophers and Pulps” chapter … I refer to the comic strip “Alley Oop,” which ran in daily papers from the 1930s to the present. The strip took its ultimate shape in the 1939 when the artist, V. T. Hamlin, introduced a peculiar time machine which had the ability to reach into the past, transporting caveman Oop from his prehistoric home, and later shuttling he and companions back and forth to various historic eras. Having quickly absorbed 20th century skills and attitudes, Oop became an explorer of sorts, transported to somewhere in the past, where he often interacted with historic figures like Cleopatra (well-endowed females were a feature of the artwork). The machine’s inventor, Dr. Wonmug, could follow the action on a TV monitor, and often rescued Oop from sticky situations, or not. As was common in funny papers, a story arc played out over weeks or months (a style regrettably almost all gone from comic strips today). Oop could have changed history — how would we ever know?
Oddly, as far as I know, Dr. Wonmug never explored the future with his device.

Clifford Simak paid tribute to Alley Oop by creating a debonair Neanderthal of that name in his 1968 novel, The Goblin Reservation. Wikipedia—the ultimate completist—provides a List of Alley Oop Time Travels.

I’m not a completist myself, obviously. Still, please do send in your missing time travelers.

Time for Earth Time


[First published in slightly different form in The New York Times, Nov. 6, 2016]

We awaken to yet another disturbance in the chronosphere — our twice-yearly jolt from resetting the clocks, mechanical and biological. Thanks to Daylight Saving Time, we get a dose of jet lag without going anywhere.

Most people would be happy to dispense with this oddity of timekeeping, first imposed in Germany exactly 100 years ago, during the First World War. But we can do better. The time has come to deep-six not just Daylight Saving Time but the whole jury-rigged scheme of time zones that has ruled the world’s clocks for the last century and a half.

The time-zone map is a surrealist hodge-podge—a jigsaw puzzle by Dalí. Logically you might assume there are 24, one for each hour. You would be wrong. There are 39, crossing and overlapping, defying the sun, some offset by 30 minutes or even 45, and fluctuating on the whims of local parliamentarians and satraps. The cacaphony of hours confuses global communication. If your teleconference is scheduled for 10:00 BST, will that be Bangladesh Standard Time, Bougainville Standard Time, or British Summer Time?

Let us all—wherever and whenever—live on what the world’s timekeepers call Universal Time, or UTC (though “Earth time” might be less presumptuous). When it’s noon in Greenwich, England, let it be 12:00 everywhere. No more resetting the clocks. No more wondering what time it is in Peoria or Petropavlovsk. No more befuddled headaches crossing the International Dateline from Tuesday back into Monday.

Our biological clocks can stay with the sun, on local time, as they have from the dawn of history. We can continue to live our days and nights as we like, waking and sleeping with the light and the darkness, or not, according to taste. Only the numerals on our devices will change, and they have always been arbitrary.

Some mental adjustment will be necessary at first. Every place will learn a new relationship with the hours. New York (with its longitudinal companions) will be the place where people breakfast at noon, where the sun reaches its zenith around 4 PM, and where people start dinner close to midnight. (“Midnight” will come to seem a quaint word for the zero hour, in places where the sun still shines, and future folk will puzzle over the term “high noon.”) In Sydney, the sun will set around 7 AM, but the Australians can handle it; after all, their winter comes in June.

The human relationship with time changed dramatically with the arrival of modernity—trains and telegraphs and wristwatches all around—and we can see it changing yet again in our globally networked era. It’s time to synchronize our watches for real.

I’m not the first to propose this seemingly radical notion. The visionary Arthur C. Clarke suggested a single all-Earth time zone when he was pondering the future of global communication as far back as 1976. Two Johns Hopkins University professors, Richard Conn Henry and Steve H. Hanke, an astrophysicist and an economist, have been advocating it for several years. Aviation already uses UTC (they call it “Zulu time”), and so do many computer folk. Scientists know that UTC is maintained to the nanosecond by a global array of atomic clocks. Strange as Earth time might seem at first, the awkwardness would soon pass and the benefits would be “immense,” Henry and Hanke argue. “The economy—that’s all of us—would receive a permanent ‘harmonization dividend.’”

Perhaps you’re asking why the Greenwich meridian gets to define Earth time. Why should only Britain keep the traditional hours? Yes, it’s unfair, but that ship has sailed. The French don’t like it either. With e whole world on Earth time, the English would get a nostalgia bonus. “The U.K. would turn into a time theme park,” tweets John Powers from the Lake District, “where you could experience 9 o’clock as your grandparents knew it.”

People forget how recent is the development of our whole ungainly apparatus. A century and a half ago, time zones did not exist. They were a consequence of the invention of railroads. At first they were neither popular nor easy to understand. When New York officially reset its clocks to railway time on Sunday, Nov. 18, 1883—known afterwards as “The Day of Two Noons”—this newspaper methodically explained the messy affair:

When the reader of The Times consults his paper at 8 o’clock this morning at his breakfast table it will be 9 o’clock in St. John, New- Brunswick, 7 o’clock in Chicago, or rather in St. Louis—for Chicago authorities have refused to adopt the standard time, perhaps because the Chicago meridian was not selected as the one on which all time must be based—6 o’clock in Denver, Col., and 5 o’clock in San Francisco. That is the whole story in a nut-shell.

It was by no means the whole story. Time, that most ancient and mysterious of our masters, seemed to be coming under human jurisdiction. Time seemed malleable. It was no coincidence that H. G. Wells now invented his time machine, nor that Einstein invented relativity soon after. With everything still unsettled, Germany created Sommerzeit, “summer time,” as Daylight Saving Time is still called in Europe. In England, King Edward VII, had the clocks on the royal estate moved forward a half-hour—“Sandringham time”—to allow more evening light for hunting.

“There was much talk of relative time, physiological time, subjective time and even compressible time,” wrote the French novelist Marcel Aymé in “The Problem of Summer Time,” a 1943 time-travel story. “It became obvious that the notion of time, as our ancestors had transmitted it down the millennia, was in fact absurd claptrap.”

Aymé was reacting in part to the politicization of time zones: the Nazis imposed Berlin time on Paris when they occupied it in World War II. It is no less political today, no less arbitrary, and no less confusing. Last year North Korea set its clocks back 30 minutes to create an oddball time zone all its own, Pyongyang time—just to show that it could, apparently. On the other hand, China has established a single time zone across its breadth, overlapping six time zones in its northern and southern neighbors.

Drawbacks? Those bar-crawler T-shirts that read “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere” will go obsolete.

It might seem impossible to imagine all the world’s nations uniting behind an official Earth time. We’re a country that can’t get seem to rid of the penny or embrace the meter. Still, the current system is unstable, a Rube Goldberg contraption ready to collapse from its own complexity.

The human relationship with time is changing again. We’re not living in the railroad world anymore. We’re living in a networked world—a zone of experience where the sun neither rises nor sets. What time zone governs Twitter? What time is it on Facebook? There’s plenty to argue about in cyberspace, as in the real world. We could at least agree on the time.

The Discovery of Time

Twenty-five years after the publication of H. G. Wells’s first book, The Time Machine, the “new realist” philosopher Samuel Alexander said this:

If I were asked to name the most characteristic feature of the thought of the last twenty-five years I should answer: the discovery of Time.

That’s the the “new realist” philosopher Samuel Alexander, twenty-five years after the publication of H. G. Wells’s first book, The Time Machine

I do not mean that we have waited till to-day to become familiar with Time. I mean that we have only just begun in our speculation to take Time seriously and to realize that in some way or other Time is an essential ingredient in the constitution of things.

More about the discovery of time in my new book, Time Travel.)

Remembering “Chris Marker”

Ben Lerner offers a beautiful tribute in the Paris Review to the creator of La jetée, the movie—or “photo-novel”—that serves as my touchstone in Chapter Ten of Time Travel (The Paradoxes). Lerner introduces that strange and wonderful man this way:

Chris Marker, whose name was not “Chris Marker,” was a play of masks and avatars, an artist who leapt, like one of his beloved cats, from medium to medium.  

It’s almost impossible to find a photograph of the elusive Marker. The occasion for Lerner’s essay is a years-long accumulation of photographs by Adam Bartos of Marker’s studio in Paris—portraits, as Lerner says, “from which the subject has gone missing.” It is a strange memorial: objects displaced in time, spaces both crowded and empty. Fitting for an artist whose subject was memory. Which is to say, forgetting.

See also the cornucopia of Marker images and archives at

Annals of Internet Porn: 1995

[First published in The New York Times Magazine, June 11, 1995,
under the headline “This Is Sex?”
A version of this essay appears in What Just Happened.]

AT FIRST GLANCE, THERE’S a lot of sex on the Internet. Or, not at first glance—nobody can find anything on the Internet at first glance. But if you have time on your hands, if you’re comfortable with computing, and if you have an unflagging curiosity about sex—in other words, if you’re a teen-ager—you may think you’ve suddenly landed in pornography heaven. Nude pictures! Foul language! Weird bathroom humor! No wonder the Christian Coalition thinks the Internet is turning into a red-light district. There’s even a “Red Light District” World Wide Web page.

The battle cry of the online voyeur is “Host Contacted—Waiting for Reply”

So we explore. Some sites make you promise to be a grown-up. (O.K.: you promise.) You try “Girls,” a link leading to a computer at the University of Bordeaux, France. The message flashes back: Document Contains No Data. “Girls” at Funet, Finland, seems to offer lots of pictures (Dolly Parton! Ivana Trump!)—Connect Timed Out. “Girls,” courtesy of Liberac University of Technology, Czech Republic, does finally, with painful slowness, deliver itself of a 112,696-byte image of Madchen Amick. You could watch it spread across your screen, pixel by tantalizing pixel, but instead you go have lunch during the download, and when you return, there she is—in black-and-white and wearing clothes.

These pictures, by the way, are obviously scanned from magazines. And magazines are the ideal medium for them. Clearly the battle cry of the online voyeur is “Host Contacted—Waiting for Reply.”

With old Internet technology, retrieving and viewing any graphic image on a PC at home could be laborious. New Internet technology, like browsers for the Web, makes all this easier, though it still takes minutes for the typical picture to squeeze its way through your modem. Meanwhile, though, ease of use has killed off the typical purveyor of dirty pictures, capable of serving hundreds of users a day but uninterested in handling hundreds of thousands. The Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers has turned off its “Femmes femmes femmes je vous aime” Web page. The good news for erotica fans is that users are redirected to a new site where “You can find naked women, including topless and total nudity”; the bad news is that this new site is the Louvre.

The Internet does offer access to hundreds of sex “newsgroups,” forums for discussion encompassing an amazing spectrum of interests. They’re easy to find—in the newsgroup hierarchy “” (“alt” for alternative) comes right after “alt.sewing.” And yes, is busier than alt.sewing. But quite a few of them turn out to be sham and self-parody. Look at—practically nothing.—aha! just what Jesse Helms fears most—gives way to, and fascinating as this sounds, when you call it up you find it’s empty, presumably the vestige of a short-lived joke. is followed by—help!

Still, if you look hard enough, there is grotesque stuff available. If pornography doesn’t bother you, your stomach may be curdled by the vulgar commentary and clinical how-to’s in the militia and gun newsgroups. Your local newsstand is a far more user-friendly source of obscenity than the on-line world, but it’s also true that, if you work at it, you can find plenty on line that will disgust you, and possibly even disgust your children.

This is the justification for an effort in Congress to give the Federal Government tools to control the content available on the Internet. The Communications Decency Act, making its way through Congress, aims to transform the obscene-phone-call laws into a vehicle for prosecuting any Internet user, bulletin-board operator, or on-line service that knowingly makes obscene material available.

As originally written, the bill would not only have made it a crime to write lewd E-mail to your lover; it would also have made it a crime for your Internet provider to transmit it. After a round of lobbying from the large on-line services, the bill’s authors have added “defenses” that could exempt mere unwitting carriers of data, and they say it is children, not consenting adults, they aim to protect. Nevertheless, the legislation is a historically far-reaching attempt at censorship on a national scale.

The Senate authors of this language do not use E-mail themselves, or browse the Web, or chat in newsgroups, and their legislation reflects a mental picture of how the on-line world works that does not match the reality. The existing models for Federal regulation of otherwise protected speech—for example, censorship of broadcast television and prohibition of harassing telephone calls—come from a world that is already vanishing over the horizon. There aren’t three big television networks now, serving a unified mass market; there are thousands of television broadcasters serving ever-narrower special interests. And on the Internet, the number of broadcasters is rapidly approaching the number of users: uncountable.

With Internet use spreading globally, most live sources of erotic images already seem to be overseas. The sad reality for Federal authorities is that they cannot cut those off without forcing the middlemen—on-line services in the United States—to do the work of censorship, and that work is a practical impossibility. Any teen-ager with an account on Prodigy can use its new Web browser to search for the word “pornography” and click his way to “Femmes femmes femmes” (oh, well, better luck next time). Policing discussion groups presents the would-be censor with an even more hopeless set of choices. A typical Internet provider carries more than 10,000 groups. As many as 100 million new words flow through them every day. The actual technology of these discussion groups is hard to fathom at first. They are utterly decentralized. Every new message begins on one person’s computer and propagates outward in waves, like a chain letter that could eventually reach every mailbox in the world. Legislators would like to cut off a group like at the source, or at its home—but it has no source and no home, or rather, it has as many homes as there are computers carrying newsgroups.

This is the town-square speech the First Amendment was for: often rancorous, sometimes harsh and occasionally obscene. Voices do carry farther now. The world has never been this global and this intimate at once. Even seasoned Internet users sometimes forget that, lurking just behind the dozen visible participants in an out-of-the-way newsgroup, tens of millions of potential readers can examine every word they post.

If a handful of people wish to share their private experiences with like-minded people in, they can do so, efficiently—the most fervent wishes of Congress notwithstanding — and for better or worse, they’ll have to learn that children can listen in. Meanwhile, if gun-wielding extremists wish to discuss the vulnerable points in the anatomy of F.B.I. agents, they too can do so. At least the rest of us can listen in on them, too. Perhaps there is a grain of consolation there—instead of censorship, exposure to the light. Anyway, the only real alternative now would be to unwire the Information Superhighway altogether.

Her Majesty Defines Time

I learned the hard way that after one writes a book disgruntled readers will ask, “All right—but what is [X], anyway?” (where X may be, for example, chaos or information). Apparently one has failed to provide a succinct definition of the thing in question.

“What is time?” This may be the most difficult of all.

So you can imagine my relief at discovering that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has settled the question legislatively. In 1880, “the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty” (Victoria, of course), by and with “the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal” (Time Lords!), enacted once and for all the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act. It declares itself to be “an Act to remove doubts as to the meaning of Expressions relative to Time occurring in Acts of Parliament, deeds, and other legal instruments.”

Statutes Definition of Time ActRemoving doubts about the meaning of time is an ambitious goal. Alas, it turns out that the question answered by this legislation is not What is time? but a related and simpler question, What is the time?

Answer: The time, in Great Britain, is Greenwich mean time. Oh, well. That’s a little deflating. Even this simple Act, however, failed in its hope of removing all doubts.

A few years later—to be exact, on August 19, 1898, at 8:15 PM (Greenwich mean time)—a man named Gordon was nabbed, nicked, busted, and collared by the police in Bristol for riding his bicycle without a lamp. The local law clearly stated that every person riding a bicycle (which, by the way, was defined as a “carriage”) shall carry a lamp, so lighted as to afford adequate means of signaling the approach of the bicycle, during the period between one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise. Got it? On the evening in question, sunset in Greenwich had occurred at 7:13 PM, so Gordon was caught riding lampless a full hour and two minutes after sunset.

This did not sit well with the accused man, because the sun set ten minutes later in Bristol than in Greenwich: 7:23, not 7:13. Nonetheless, the Justices of the city of Bristol, relying on the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act, found him guilty. After all, they reasoned, everyone would benefit by having “a readily ascertained time of lighting up.”

With the help of his solicitors, Darley & Cumberland, poor Gordon appealed. The question before the Court of Appeals was described as “an astronomical one.” And the appellate court saw it his way. They ruled that “sunset” is not a “period of time” but a physical fact. Justice Channell was especially insistent:

According to the decision of the Justices, as it stands, a man on an unlighted bicycle may be looking at the sun in the heavens, and yet be liable to be convicted of the offence of not having his lamp lighted an hour after sunset.

Next question: what is “noon”?

Let Twitter Be Twitter

[First published in New York Magazine, August 10, 2015]

Twitter is a mess—everybody says so. Twitter is mostly nonsense. You can’t find what you need on Twitter. Twitter is all haystack and no needles, all static and no signal.

By the lights of many investors Twitter is floundering. Its long-time CEO (five years is long in Internet time), Dick Costolo, jumped or was pushed in June, the board is scrambling to find a replacement, and Wall Street is sounding the alarm. The company’s revenue merely doubled last year, to $1.4 billion. Only 300 million people use Twitter every month. Apparently that isn’t enough.

Advice is flowing in torrents: “How Twitter Can Be Fixed”; “Re-imagining Twitter.” A Washington Post column explains “How to Fix Twitter, As Told via Tweets.” Twitter must pivot, must be transformed, must “reinvent itself.”

“I yearn to know where this company is headed,” writes one of its earliest and largest investors, the internet billionaire Chris Sacca. His 8,000-word  screed, “What Twitter Can Be,” has been making the rounds for weeks. His motivation is simple: “I want this stock to be worth more. I own more of it than virtually anyone working at the company.”

What’s the problem? Twitter isn’t growing fast enough. Maybe it is reaching a plateau. Five times as many people use Facebook—something like a billion and a half active users per month, which, if you believe it, is almost a quarter of the Earth’s population. Twitter makes money from its modest amount of advertising, but it could make so much more.

It’s hard to use. It’s a textual medium, which means reading and writing. It’s intimidating. “N00bs just don’t get it,” says Wired. Vast numbers of Twitter people just lurk and never tweet. (No one considers that this may be a happy choice.) Twitter can be lonely. Sacca says, “Almost one billion users have tried Twitter and not stuck around.” No one knows, however, how many of those billion were bots, pseudonyms made up on the fly, changes of alias, and just plain fake users—created and sold by the million to make celebrities and politicians look popular.

The main case against Twitter, though—the heart-rending frustration felt by Sacca and so many others—is that it’s a mess. It is large, it contains multitudes (for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you), and no one can find what they need. “All of the news, sports, entertainment, human interest, music, branding, social justice, humor, politics, celebrities, technology, and beyond,” writes Sacca. “Twitter not only has it all, Twitter has it in real-time.” But users get lost. “Hundreds of millions of those tweets are noisy distractions. For any sample of accounts, the odds are extremely high that the most recent tweets are not the best tweets.” It’s time to abandon the idea that users can find what they want just by choosing other users to follow.

Sacca was featured on the cover of this year’s Forbes “Midas” issue. Attire: signature embroidered cowboy shirt. Motto: “When I invest, I’m in your face.” He urges “scheduling and promotion to build traffic.” Sacca-ForbesOther analysts want Twitter to add buy buttons. Some dream of smart algorithms. Some want active human editors and “thoughtfully curated follows.”

None of them trust the users.

These people threaten to destroy one of the internet’s nicest things. Twitter is a happy accident, a fortuity, a quirk. A giant quirk, to be sure. Its inventors had no idea what they were creating (see Nick Bilton’s excellent history, Hatching Twitter). Even now no one really understands it. It’s an elephant surrounded by more than the usual number of blind men. A hundred forty characters? That makes no sense, but it creates a microblogging protocol of exceeding simplicity, with particular constraints that contribute to its power—like Haiku. (It’s just well as that Bashō never said, hey, we could juice this up by letting the poets attach selfies.)

Its investors are getting golden eggs but they want foie gras.

I am “on” Twitter (odd phrase). I’m not on Facebook; I don’t like the caged environment, with marketers and algorithms absorbing my information and distracting people with shiny objects. Twitter is a free-for-all. I love it, but I would never advise anyone else to “join,” so I may be part of the problem the owners are trying to solve.

I know I’m not a typical Twitter user. I also know there is no such creature. Reasons for using Twitter, or being on Twitter, are hard to categorize. There are a variety of models, like parallel universes, coexisting and barely aware of one another. A partial taxonomy:

  • Giant celebrities with millions of followers. @JustinBieber. @TaylorSwift. At last count @KatyPerry was number one, boasting 72,930,106. How many in these statistical mobs are sentient humans, no one can say. Lately @KatyPerry is tweeting in promotion of a fragrance. Does she perform her own tweets?katyperry If it’s a bot, they haven’t got all the bugs out.
  • Politicians. @BarackObama’s account is operated by his staff, and it says so. The newer @POTUS account seems, relatively, more real, and Obama will pass it on to his successor. Another politician with a huge and loyal Twitter following is Hugo Chávez, who tweets in Spanish. Or did. He died two years ago and still has four million followers. It is conventional wisdom now that the modern politician must use Twitter to “engage” with the public. (By the way, power tip: if you want to be retweeted by a celebrity politician, trumptweet something supportive of @realDonaldTrump.)
  • Pretty much every business and organization, pro forma. You’ve got to do it. Everyone says so.
  • Friends and relations. Twitter is routinely called a social network, but I think that’s misleading. It’s not social for me. I don’t follow most of my friends (to use the word in its old-fashioned sense) and they don’t follow me. I don’t tweet what I’m eating, and I certainly don’t tweet family news. Why would I do that in a public forum? In turn, I want to know the version of my friends they show me in private, not the version they create for the world.
  • Fast-moving political movements. Riots. Freedom fighters. Terrorists. They’ve found a channel for fast messaging, and newspapers and TV commentators sift it for nuggets.
  • Hookups, sex pictures, et al. I didn’t know Twitter was a practical way to transmit photographs of one’s genitalia until Anthony Weiner demonstrated that it isn’t, but amateur and semipro erotics are quite rampant in the Twitter universe. As in every other human communication channel.
  • Information of immediate but localized concern: “#Vancouver Police are responding to Seymour St & W Pender St for reports of 10 people fighting and using their fingers as guns.”
  • What might loosely be termed educational initiatives. Fun facts. Twitter is full of unaccredited popup mini-universities. @frenchwords_, to pick one at random, tweets a French word every day.
  • Random chatter. Many people seem to tweet fragments of thought passing between the medulla and the thalamus—their mood, their desires, their “status,” their dreams. In all the languages. They act as though their messages were private, and in a sense they are, protected by the blooming noise all around. “I dont want to get out of my bed.” “High babe love you” (retweeted by thousands, because why not?). “I need someone to go to Walmart with me. By go with me I mean I give you my keys and you drive me there.” “Super babe kskskskskssk oh deus.” “Dog-snores.” (The science-fiction writer Nick Harkaway tweets from London, “Thank God Twitter isn’t some appalling mass broadcast medium and it’s just us here.”)

None of this is how I use Twitter. I usually keep my status to myself, and I don’t know what’s “trending.” These worlds barely impinge on mine. But I breathe their air. I hear their murmurs.

Twitter for me is what the printing press was for Robert Burton in the seventeenth century: “I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, &c. daily musters and preparations, and such like, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies, and sea-fights, peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarms. A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances are daily brought to our ears.” Some people say vast confusion like it’s a bad thing.

If you go to tech conferences, a word you hear constantly is curation. Sometimes curation is the problem and sometimes it’s the solution. This is an old concept that’s become a buzzword. Curation is what museum curators used to do: put the right stuff on display and organize it intelligently. Curators point users to what matters and keep the detritus in the basement. Wise old booksellers and librarians were curators, consulted for their knowledgeable recommendations. Newspaper editors decided what was fit to print; now the blogging hordes print everything. So experts either bemoan the loss of curation or hail the new algorithmic curators: recommendation engines, collaborative filtering.

Twitter executives are obsessed with curation or the lack thereof. In March they announced Curator, a tool “to allow media publishers to search, filter and curate Twitter content” and gain “audience engagement, participation and attention.” In May, shortly before his unceremonious departure, Costolo was talking about “migrating” Twitter from “being tech-centric, follow-based, reverse-chronologic-centric to a mix of that and curated, media-centric relevance-based content.”

They’re missing the point. Twitter—the epitome of shallowness and distraction—has already solved the curation problem. It has created a paradigm of human curation: dynamic and recursive. This is its genius.

Twitter is not about who follows you. It’s about who you follow. Personally, I follow about 150 people. Everything they tweet appears in my “timeline,” in chronological order, which means semantically jumbled. This is thought to be a problem. Sacca again: “Twitter timelines are spontaneous, but scattered and of inconsistent relevance.” He wants “consistent, focused content.” My timeline is the opposite of that.

My 150 people are a small number, almost infinitesimal, not even a millionth of all the twitterers. I stop following people all the time, even when I love and admire them, because they tweet so much I can’t keep up. Some Twitter users follow thousands—some follow millions—but obviously they aren’t reading their timelines. As far as I’m concerned, the timeline is the whole point.

Though I follow only 150, each day I see tweets from thousands, because the people I follow retweet the ones they most value. A man calling himself @TheoTypes is stuck in a train under the Hudson River. Who cares? But he tweets. “My train is stuck under the Hudson River. @NJTransit just announced that the tunnel power cables have become unstable. Train 5126.” Within a couple of hours, nineteen of his followers retweet this to their followers. A few of them retweet it to their own followers. A little cascade is under way,  a chain reaction, analogous to the kind that leads to a nuclear explosion. Virtually all Twitter chain reactions fizzle out quickly, of course. I don’t follow Theo. But somewhere in the chain of Theo’s followers’ followers’ followers is ProfB, at the University of Pennsylvania. Theo’s plight stirs something in her: “Whooo no sir … be safe!” she tweets. I don’t follow her, either, but the science-fiction writer Jack Womack does, and for whatever reason he finds this amusing or interesting, so he retweets it, and there it is, in my timeline.

I can hardly claim that this particular tweet has made me wiser or more knowledgeable or more au fait. But it’s a piece in the puzzle of how my timeline makes me happy. My timeline brings me news that may be beneath the notice of the New York Times. It brings me weird and insightful commentary. Tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays: then again, as in a new shifted scene, treasons, cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villanies Pepysin all kinds … Thus I daily hear, and such like. I hear Steve Martin experiment with the medium, trying out new joke forms. I used to hear Umberto Eco tweet experimental mini-essays,in English and Italian, though he seems to have gone silent (he recently described social networks as “legioni di imbecilli” but I still follow him, just in case). Joyce Carol Oates recaps True Detective epigrammatically.Samuel Pepys tweets from the grave.

My timeline is unique to me. No one else follows exactly the same shifting group of gurus, so no one assembles exactly the same set of maskings and mummeries. This is my exceedingly fine slice across the global conversation.

In the same way, when I tweet something myself, the only immediate recipients are my followers, another infinitesimal cohort in the Twitter universe. But any of my tweets is liable to be retweeted by someone or other. If  @Famous-Novelist retweets one to her hundred thousand followers, then my voice has been momentarily amplified. They don’t need to follow me; they receive a special subset of my tweets, chosen for them by @Famous-Novelist. She is a curator. I am a curator. Everyone is part of a limitless branching tree of curation, and everyone is choosing a particular tangle of branches. The whole is an interlocking library of Best Of playlists.

This is what the company is trying to muck up. They push extraneous tweets into my timeline, especially sponsored tweets, supposedly targeting my desires. Please, Twitter—don’t do that. I would prefer to pay directly. A monthly fee would be fine. A few others might join me.

Don’t send me other people’s random “favorites.” They tried that last year and caused a minor uproar. The science writer Ed Yong tweeted: “Everyone: ‘TWITTER, WHY?’ Twitter: ‘Cos monkey press lever, monkey no get snack, monkey sad.’” (By the way, “favorites” are not “likes.” Twitter’s Favorite button is another example of technology subverted by users for their own unpredictable ends. The sarcastic favorite is a thing.)

This fall Twitter plans to unveil another high-octane addition, codenamed Project Lightning, possibly to be called Moments. It is said to be centrally curated, visually driven, and packaged. In other words, everything I don’t want. “This beautiful vessel for us to surface great content,” Katie Jacobs Stanton, a Twitter vice president, told Buzzfeed.

Twitter doesn’t just want to make it easy for users to find tweets. They want to make it easier for marketers to find users. Everyone wants to know the secret of how to use Twitter to reach their million potential customers. I will tell you the secret. You can’t do it. Twitter is not a giant megaphone. There is no mouthpiece. Those 300 million people, that glistening prize, are not waiting for your message. They’re not tuning to your channels. They’re choosing their own.

Twitter wants to monetize them nonetheless. The company wants to know what they like and what they don’t, and they want to sell the knowledge. This is the FaceBook way; for that matter, it’s the Google way. Of all the internet giants only one, Wikipedia, has created a service of immense value without monetizing its users. The venture capitalists can’t help it. Twitter has already made its creators very rich, but now it has shareholders, buying and selling, and they feel entitled to make some money, too. The company is legally obligated to them. Their interests and the customers’ interests are, famously, not always aligned. For that matter, the shareholders’ long-term interests may not be the same as their short-term interests, and nowadays the short-termers tend to prevail. Once a company goes public, as Dick Costolo said, “You’re on a 90-day cadence.”  When it reported quarterly earnings July 28, Twitter’s revenue was up 61 percent and the stock, naturally, plunged.

Reaching for more, Twitter keeps buying companies that might help: most recently, Periscope, for live streaming of video (and presumably ads), TwitPic for sharing photos (and presumably ads), ZipDial, an Indian “missed call” marketing platform, CardSpring for real-time commerce, whatever that means (something about tweets and shopping carts), and Trendrr, to “help us to build great tools for the rest of the TV ecosystem.”

They should let Twitter be Twitter. A vast confusion. A global conversation. A repository of wealth not measured in money. No thought is wasted, no joke is lost.

That Forbes Midas List yearly honors tech investors who “embody the Midas touch”—the ones looking for “the next billion-dollar score.” In twenty-first century America, have we forgotten the point of the Midas story? Look again. Midas is not to be admired but pitied. What he loves, he destroys.