Erin, a friend in ETS, posted to her blog a brief comment on a new Google product that is still in development, called Google Wave.  She notes that the Wave is

part Google Doc/wiki-ish, part Instant Message/Chat, and part multi-media host/presenter. A “wave” allows people to create a living, working document and uses real-time collaboration where you can add text, video, photos, maps, etc. All participants can add other participants, edit content, and also playback the wave to see what changes were made, when, and by whom.

If you follow the Wave link above, you will mostly just see this video (there’s a few other links on the page, which lead to a briefer explanation of what Wave is, but as far as I can tell the video demo is the most concentrated information Google is providing).  It’s an HOUR AND TWENTY MINUTES LONG.  But you know what?  I watched the whole thing last night.  And it was amazing.

One of the things that struck me the most about the beginning of the presentation (probably because it relates to stuff I’m working on) was the point that Lars Rasmussen made about the origin of email.  He points out (starting around 5:08 in the video, I believe) that email is modeled after the point-to-point communication of snail mail.  A similar observation is made by Mark Nunes in his book Cyberspaces of Everyday Life (which I think I’ve written about here before).  Rasmussen points out that, while the point-to-point nature of email makes sense, there are a whole lot of other possibilities for communication out there.  In fact, he suggests, if we decided to re-invent email, knowing what we know now about what computers are capable of, email would look radically different than the essentially letter-writing interface we have now.  Which is what Wave is: the future, un-moored from the dead weight of the past.

Ok, maybe Rasmussen isn’t as futuristic as I’m making him sound, but there is a little bit of that “we’re doing something no one has ever done before” vibe to the presentation, and I certainly can’t fault them for it.  Google Wave is incredible.  If you don’t have the patience to sit through the demo, let me hit some highlights for you: imagine an application that had the functionality of an Instant Messenger, an Email client, a file client like Flickr, a wiki, and some other random cool stuff all its own… all in one place.  Sounds awkward, right?  Sounds like one function would get in the way of another, or at least leave you with a complicated mess of buttons and controls?  Well, as always with Google, the beauty is in the simplicity of the product.  The controls look incredibly simple to use, relying in large part on a “playback” function that lets you scroll through the history of a “wave” as if it were a video (that’s the wiki part: people can edit this document all at the same time, and you can not only see who is editing what, but you can use playback to look at older versions).  Thus a wave might start out as an IM conversation between two people who want to go on a hiking trip for Spring Break.  That same wave could then morph into an email-type message that is “sent” to a number of potential members of the expedition (this metaphor doesn’t really work in some ways, since the Wave is seens as central, and it is the users who are “invited” to join the wave.  Still, a copy of it would show up in their wave client, like an email, so maybe the specific spatial metaphor is unimportant at the moment).  Then, once the participants have been decided upon, the same wave could become a planning document for the trip, detailing who will bring what, editable by all (this is the wiki part, again).  Then the wave becomes an album where people share pictures and video of the trip, and then maybe it gets turned into an exportable blog entry.

As you can tell, I’m pretty convinced that I’m seeing the future.  But when I look at wave, I can’t help but also see all of the older technologies that have gone into it, protocols and logics of organization and orientation that are clearly the successors of the various communication technologies developed in the past 40 years.  There’s more to be said about this aspect of remediation (I feel like the cycle of remediation is speeding up, as if we don’t even really have a technology around for very long before it is morphing into a new and different version of itself).  Something having to do, perhaps, with me remembering when I first signed up for AOL instant messenger in, say, seventh grade (I still use the screenname I chose then, lightscene, for way too many things).  But my thoughts on the subject are scrambled at the moment.

One last thing I did want to comment on, though, was the emphasis throughout the video, and on the page, on synchronicity or “real-time.”  One of the ways the wave makes use of synchronicity is to show you the text other users are writing almost character by character.  One of the emphasis points for the Google team was “how often do you, while IMing with someone, sit and watch the ‘so-and-so is typing’ text, waiting for them to finish what they are saying?  If you were talking in real life, you wouldn’t have to do that!”  In other words, IM used to be like passing notes in study hall, and Google is trying to make it more like sitting with your friend in a coffee shop.  What I loved about the Wave, though, was the way it seemed to jump back and forth so deftly from synchronous real-time conversation to asynchronous delayed conversation.  There’s something more to be said here, too, about the ways in which programs like Wave, and other web apps, are changing out relationship to time and writing…. but I have a whole dissertation to figure that out, don’t I?

Anyway, I guess my end comment is: I can’t wait for the future to get here.