Navigating hypertext

In a recent post I mentioned the process of semantic memory. I was again reminded (pun unintended) of this neurological remembering mechanism when reading about the emergence of hypertext navigation, an idea coined by Theodore (Ted) Nelson in the 1960s.

Nelson characterises hypertext as non-sequential writing ‘that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen’. Text chunks offer the reader different pathways through which they may follow their interests or current train of thought. Hypertext allows for the reader to follow their intuition and pursue one thought at one time, and then to return to their prior position and pursue another thought, sprung from the same original trigger, at another time, and again, and again.

Most importantly, hypertext ‘allows us to create new forms of writing unrestricted by sequence which better reflect the structure of what we are writing [or thinking] about’. Furthermore, hypertext enables multiple users to contribute to a discussion on a single topic at the same platform, and the initiatives of many are assumed to be worthwhile.

Hypertexts offer ‘new pluralistic styles based on many people adding to the body of writing’, which is something we will be exploring in the coming weeks of Networked Media. As part of our assessment, our class has been divided into small groups to research and develop a hypertext on assigned topics of relevance. Utilising knowledge gained from readings, class discussion, research and brainstorming (which I’d like to think perhaps presents as a hypertext itself), we will contribute a collaborative work to be published on our class’ dedicated wiki, called ‘niki’. What’s pertinent about this project though, is that we are able to contribute to, and edit, the contributions of other class members, following Nelson’s idea that different contributions by different people are important. Furthermore, we will be able to alter and add to our niki entries continually, without restriction. Once we’ve produced some content for the niki, I’ll be sure to post a link on countingletters.

Hypertext will represent the true structure of information will all its intrinsic complexity and controversy, and provide a universal archival standard worthy of our heritage of freedom and pluralism. – Nelson 

What I found most intriguing about the Nelson reading (an except from Literary Machines 91.1: The Report on, and of, Project Xanadu Concerning Word Processing, Electronic Publishing, Hypertext, Thinkertoys, Tomorrow’s Intellectual Revolution, And Certain Other Topics Including Knowledge, Education and Freedom. Sausalito: Mindful Press, 1992) apart from the extreme long title of his publication, was the way the prose is structured.

Nelson has presented his (printed) book as a work of hypertext, itself. He explains this as following the ‘pretzel’ or ‘infinity’ model, and hopes that by constructing his prose in this way, he will be able to communicate some of the benefits of doing so.


Hypertext allows the reader’s own freedom of association, being able to decide for themselves what their next move shall be. It allows for easy revisiting of older or previously read material, and facilitates the sharing of knowledge through associative indexing, rather than a system of alphabetical or numerical filing.

I came to this understanding of hypertext after reading Vannevar Bush’s proposition of the ‘memex’, a name he gave an imagined (and possible) ‘mechanised private file and library’ system which stores a person’s ‘books, records, and communications, and which is mechanised so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility’.

To me, this sounds awfully like the system we know as the world wide web, or the internet. But, Bush publicised these ideas in 1945, in response to physicists who, coming out of the war, were wondering what next to pursue.

Bush recognised and identified the problems with what were at the time, current mechanisms of recording and retrieving data. He acknowledged the economic constraints of the time but was certain these would relinquish their hold over technological production and advancement in due course. He noted that ‘If a record is to be useful to science it must be continuously extended, stored and consulted’. Referencing methods of writing, photography, printing, film, wax disks, and magnetic wire, he writes, with foresight, that ‘Even if utterly new recording procedures do not appear, those present ones are certainly in the process of modification and extension.’ He continues to project ahead and highlights the rapid development and constant improvement of recording mechanisms, but says there is an ineptitude present in ‘getting at the record… largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing’.

It is here, Bush proposes the memex, as a physical, mechanical representation of the way the human mind works and process information. Its basic idea, he says, will be ‘a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another’, where any item can be associated with numerous trails, and what is important is the association between the two items, or ‘tying two items together’. This then allows for a more natural, a more human storage process, dependent upon our semantic memory which is an inherent part of human neurology, rather than a process that is rather foreign, unintuitive, and to the human brain, disorderly.

Nelson envisions the world at 2020, which in the late 1980s, was (obviously) a lot further away than it is now. He says that despite environmental destruction and unsolved poverty, ‘there is some hope in the realm of human mental affairs, upon which the survival of humanity and the better parts of human culture depend’. Nelson says facilities to share products of the mind will have ‘reached a new richness’, and claims two hopes for the future, for this time.

  1. To have our everyday lives made simple and flexible by the computer as a personal information tool (which requires good design).
  2. To be able to read, on computer screens, from vast libraries easily, the things we choose being clearly and instantly available to us, in a great interconnected web of writings and ideas, (dependent upon a rebirth of literacy, a new richness and freedom coming to the human experience, and the cornucopia of ideas and writing pictures).

Nelson says at his time of writing, ‘Neither of these is happening’.

However, his call for a New Age changed by a universal repository hypertext network where stored text and graphics, ‘called on demand from anywhere, [have become] an elemental commodity, like water, telephone service, radio and television’ has, in the developed world at least, become a reality.

Now, if that’s not one ‘hyper’ demonstration of the value of design fiction, then I don’t know what is.

As a side note, Nelson also calls for an educational curricular structure that promotes initiative and understanding. I wonder what he would think of Bantick’s antics or LaPlante’s hackschooling philosophy?

And, check out my classmate Kimberly’s predictions for our world, one century on. Our future’s in your hands.

  1. the pretzel model ( and thus the hypertext) offers us a concept that begins to link the experience of reading text with that of reading an image

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