The Wonders of Hypertext:

Non-Linear Informational Adventures

THE KEY to the Web's success lies in its ability to present information in a non-linear format. Though a user may begin with a given starting point (often known as a home page), where to go from there is up to the whim of that user. Order becomes irrelevant, at least in the tradition sense of reading a book from one end to another. Because the Web allows you to click and choose your next subject, you can skip over entire sections of information while nesting through others in great depth. This ability to "surf the 'Net," exploring the Internet with no defined end point or order, is known as hypernavigation, and the form in which it appears on the Web is commonly referred to as hypertext.

Hypertext was first conceived of nearly 50 years ago when futurist and FDR technology policy advisor Bush (left) published his article, As We May Think in the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In the piece, he discussed how society and technology must cope with the ever-increasing scientific advances in post-War America. Among other things, he predicted the invention of a curious device known as a Memex (or Memory Extender), a data storage device "in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility." Electronic "links" would allow the Memex user to connect different points of information together, so he or she could go from one page of a book to another, or from one page to an entirely different publication or subject. There would be no convention of linking subjects together - the user of the Memex could link together anything at will. According to Bush:

The process of tying two items together is the important thing. . . . When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions. . . . Thereafter, at any time, when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button below the corresponding code space. Moreover, when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail, they can be reviewed in turn, rapidly or slowly, by deflecting a lever like that used for turning the pages of a book. It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together to form a new book. It is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails.

Though Bush's prediction of the actual technology involved isn't exactly as it turned out to be, his concepts of linking previously unassociated information was an intriguing idea. A Memex user could become the editor of a customized encyclopaedia, a codex of knowledge presented in an customized fashion.

In the years that followed Vannevar Bush's seminal depiction of this non-linear world to come, Ted Nelson lead the charge into hypertextual exploration using computers. Ever since he coined the word hypertext in the early 1960s, Nelson has articulated a vision of a society where on-line, hypertext documents are as common as books or magazines are today. The advent of digital, high capacity data storage now allows us to house seemingly infinite amounts of information; hypertext, according to Nelson, is the key to how we access and and present that information. As hypertext's non-linear architecture becomes more popular and mundane in non-scientific circles - as is now becoming the case with the Web - a whole new cultural attitude will develop in the worlds of reading, writing publishing. Says Nelson:

First, there would be new documents, a new literary genre, of branching, non-sequential writings on the computer screen. Second, these branching documents would constitute a great new literature, but they would subsume the old, since all words, all literature would go online and extend to a new branching generality.

When Nelson first began to toss around his ideas 30 years ago, his prognostication of an entirely networked culture seemed far flung at best - computers were expensive and cumbersome while data capacity and bandwidth had yet to advance even into their Bronze Age. But with the growth of the PC market in the late 70s and early 80s, hardware development picked up speed, as did consumer purchases and software design. With more people buying more computers and storing more information, the need for a simple, yet efficient way of accessing that information was obvious. Pioneering the way, among others, was Apple Computer, with its Hypercard software. Essentially a primitive form of Nelson's (and Bush's) vision of hypertext, Hypercard allows a user to create and organize the equivalent of digital 3x5 cards in a computer's memory. It is easy enough for all ages to use, yet Hypercard offers a handy way to arrange segmented bits of information and link them together in any order, even in a continuous loop. Its greatest limitation, though, is its insular nature - a Hypercard stack can link you to the data on your computer, but it can't allow you to interact with other computer's data over a network. And by the mid- to late 1980s it was already clear that international networking was the next step into the Information Age. The World Wide Web provided the right solution at the right time - sophisticated hypertext interconnected by an enormous lattice of computers.

But beyond the World Wide Web's hypertextual architecture, it is the official standardization of hypertext publishing that has turned the Web into an international phenomenon. In order for the Web to work, all computers on the Web must be able to understand everyone else. If two computers each speak a different language - or more accurately, if a person's Web navigation software can't understand another computer's hypertext, garbage instead of useful information appears on the screen. To alleviate this problem of incompatibility, researchers lead by teams at at CERN and MIT have come up with what is called a standard generalized markup language for the Web. This standard, known as HTML (HyperText Markup Language), is a basic set of codes that can be added to any regular text. By including these codes, any computer on the Web can interpret that text as hypertext. Here's an example of what HTML looks like:

<TITLE>Andy's Home Page</TITLE>
<H1>Andy Carvin's Home Page</H1>
Welcome to Andy's home page. If you'd like, you can go to the  
<A HREF="">CPB Home Page</A>, visit my web site 
<A HREF="">EdWeb</A> or browse through the 
<A HREF="">Rolling Stones Page</A>.

When interpreted by a Web browser, such as Mosaic or Netscape, the HTML would appear on your screen something like this:

Andy Carvin's Home Page

Welcome to Andy's home page. If you'd like, you can go to the CPB Home Page, visit my web site, EdWeb or browse through the the Rolling Stones Page.

platform gamesmatch 3 gamesbrain teaser gameshidden object gamestime management gamesaction gamesdownloadable games

As you can see, the various bracketed codes in the HTML document tell the computer how to present the information. Adding <H1> and </H1> around a phrase tells the computer to print it in a larger font. Similarly, the <A HREF> </A> codes let the computer know that any text between those codes should be links to other documents, and the information provided immediately after the <A HREF> code (see HTML above) designates an address on the Web to which the links should go.

HTML codes may seem a bit daunting to the uninitiated, but the total number of HTML commands is relatively limited, so after a few practice pages, even casual computer users usually get used to it. To make things even simpler, a variety of commercial and freeware HTML converters have hit the market, so converting a document to HTML becomes as simple as running text through the proper software. And once you've learned HTML, that's all there is to learn in terms of having your information accessible by any computer in the world. For the time being, the vast majority of HTML codes will be accepted by every computer on the World Wide Web.

How does the Web relate to education?
Forget this history stuff - I wanna learn HTML!
I'd like to go back to the Web and Education Page.

Return to the EdWeb Home RoomI'd like to see the Edweb DictionaryI'd like to send comments to EdWeb

EdWeb: Exploring Technology and School Reform, by Andy Carvin. All rights reserved.