Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

The evolution of digital enhancement: Hypertext

Modern Fossils by Christopher Locke. Source:

Last week, I recounted my shock at the surprising history of ebooks with a look at print adaptations and CD-ROM in the 90s. The floppy disk has long since gone the way of the dodo, and while discs are still prevalent, the Internet and streaming make me think they, too, might soon be endangered.

But hovering in the background of any discussion of digital enhancement is a technology with a much longer history, and a much more promising future: hypertext. 

It’s what made those early print adaptations such a wonder to their users: the ability to create indexes and references. In CD-ROMs, it allows for linking material to multimedia. And in new, enhanced ebooks, it sometimes allows a video to start, or a footnote to appear, or a cross-reference to other points in the text, or references to other texts…

Vannevar Bush. Source:

Although hypertext seems quintessentially modern, the history of hypertext originates in 1945. In “As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush (maybe better known for his roles in the Manhattan Project and Raytheon) theorized a system for the organization of information, called “memex.”

To Bush, traditional data storage forced documents and ideas to remain artificially separated from each other. “The human mind does not work that way,” he said. “It operates by association.” He envisioned a system in which a researcher could use documents on microfilm, adding notes to create “an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”

Memex operated like traditional research, but it allowed the researcher to create links and make notes far more easily than before. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that we got hypertext in its current form, with Ted Nelson‘s Project Xanadu. Nelson recognized the computer as the way to break free of sequential, print-based reading and writing, as unlimited connections could be made between texts, and all the world’s information could be made available to everyone. (Hello, Google? Ted Nelson called…)

As with CD-ROMs, hypertext seems mostly useful for reference purposes. Most ebooks use links and cross-referencing abilities as replacements for indexes and footnotes. The enhanced version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land has been lauded as “the best example yet of how to make an ebook,” something I attribute to its highly successful use of linked notes and multimedia.

We’re still getting used to it. Research indicates that even when we have the option, we still function better with the familiar, hierarchical structure print can offer. But this may be more a function of having grown up used to print.

And reference isn’t the whole story of hypertext. In the 90s, authors were doing something unusual—they used hypertext to build narratives. Stuart Moulthrop’s hyperfiction “Victory Garden” prompted Robert Coover to rhapsodize about the future of hypertext:

[T]he potential of this fascinating new reading and writing medium has scarcely been glimpsed. The conventional nature of most of the fictions so far written in it probably reflects the apprehension felt in adjusting to a new medium (it took a century and a half after the Gutenberg revolution before Don Quixote first sallied forth, did it not?), but this transitional time will soon pass.

It was supposed to be the next big thing in books. But then, nothing happened. Paul Lafarge thinks its failure was due to the fact that the world “wasn’t quite ready for it”—computers weren’t ready, authors weren’t ready, and readers got bored.

But with hypertext being just the way people read now (you clicked at least one of these links I’ve given you, admit it), and more ereaders in more hands, hypertext narratives may well be poised to make a comeback.


This entry was posted on December 20, 2011 by in Industry Research, Technology and tagged , .

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