The Power of Words

The function of hypertext

The function of hypertext

We’ve been talking in class about the progression of media and how society has taken technologies from the past and, not only, built upon them but applied them to needs of today.  Steven Johnson’s discussion of hypertext does exactly this.  What is the function of hypertext?  Johnson connects the ideas about a machine conceived by an engineer, Vannevar Bush, in 1945 to links on the Web.  He argues that links have become a form of punctuation but have the potential to completely transform storytelling, or, more generally, how people relate to information.

In “As We May Think”, Bush observed that society had reached a point where it was incapable of handling the knowledge now accessible due to technological advancements.  He argues that information is useless until aids are developed that can provide quick access to and facilitate the processing of pertinent information—a direct path to knowledge (sect. 8).  He goes through current technologies and theorizes how each can be advanced.  Since compression technology allows the storage of data, the next step is a selection device.  Advancement is useless if it can’t be consulted for “man only profits by acquiring knowledge (sect. 5)”.  Selection devices help with narrowing down information but fail to aid the processing of data.  His ultimate answer is the Memex, a machine comparable to the internet.  The Memex is a desk with two levers (for going forward and backward), a screen, and a storage space able to hold any amount of information necessary.  It consists of a code book in order to recall information faster and the ability to allow the user to create trails and take notes on the information he is sorting.  The idea is that the user will be able to search for any information on a topic and link his findings by associations instead of using an indexing system which is inefficient.  The efficiency comes from the fact that it is not simply mimicking how the human mind works, allowing finding to hold more meaning, but improves the process by making it faster and permanent.  He projects that once a device like this exists, society will change:  “new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them (sect. 8)”.

Multiple connections that can be drawn from the Memex to the internet: Bush’s code book is similar to today’s tagging feature and, the part Johnson focuses on; his trails are advanced versions of links.  Hypertext allows links of association to be formed; they can forge semantic relationships for they bind together ideas in digital prose and should be seen as a tool to bring multifarious elements together (111).  Links are inferior to trails for they do not allow the reader to create associations, and they lack permanency.  He also compares links to Charles Dickens’ “links of association” between characters which allows for the narrative to reach a conclusion.  He calls them “high-tech descendents” for they both have a stitching effect (116).  WEB 2.0 allows users more creativity than in 1997; however, it still lacks the personalization of the link back feature for readers.  The ability to embed media content allows for various types of media to be linked but a reader still cannot create their own trail, they would need additional program (to be the author of a blog, etc.) to be able to create an permanent association (though even then permanency can be contested as links die).

Even though links are most commonly used in a supplemental manner, separate from the text (as shown by recommended reading links), Johnson uses Suck’s website to show how links can progress; they take on a role of punctuation.  SUCK’S LINKS are a way to withhold information; it forces readers to be interactive in order to fully understand the column—they add another dimension to the text.  Though this is progress, Johnson’s argument is that links could be useful on the macro level of storyspace.  HYPERTEXT LITERATURE attempts this.  They are meant to allow readers control their own experiences instead of the authors (even though it had its failures).  It has yet to be actualized and Bush is still ahead of the times but progress is slowly being made.

5 responses to “The Power of Words

  1. To go even further on the notion of links and linking, Johnson’s chapter provides an excellent insight into the depth of this concept. For many of us, links are naturally understood in the realm of our day to day surfing of the web. Many times links lend themselves to become a portal to a rabbit hole. There have been countless times when I’ve been sucked into an endless abyss of linkage…often leading me from one topic to one that is monumentally different from my original sparks of curiosity.

    That is the beauty of the “link” – they truly do represent “the power of words” due to their multi-dimensional quality that forces one to delve deeper than the words on the screen. Links require an actual “click-through”, both physically and mentally…you are passing through a true portal of information – unfortunately (or fortunately) time is often lost in links – before long hours have passed and you still have yet to move from your same position 5 hours ago — (hello, my life.)

    ***On a final note – Johnson’s chapter made me think of one of my favorite image websites that has unfortunately sucked away most of my life and caused Firefox to crash infinite times as a result of having far too many tabs due to my linking frenzy. If you are brave enough, and love finding super awesome images, gifs, product design, photographs, etc etc – CHECK OUT fffound.com – you won’t be disappointed!

  2. I think that on the most simple level this holds true from your summary of the article; “He argues that information is useless until aids are developed that can provide quick access to and facilitate the processing of pertinent information—a direct path to knowledge.” Since there is so much information on the ‘net it can become overwhelming for us to filter and find exactely what we want or even need. The beauty of it all is that we can indeed truely surf the net and find things that were totally unexpected and can even serve as muses, however this infinite amount of information would live isolated if it wasn’t for links. Even though links aren’t permenat and they are always in flux as to where they will be placed next and what type of information they will link up to, I think that this constant state of flux allows for a replenishment of knowledge and new knowledge. Unlike the encyclopedia’s of yesteryear we can now look up on Wiki and know that the information and links they have up there to back up the entry are the most up to date information possible.

  3. The discussion of linkage is very relatable to today’s life. The internet has an unfathomable amount of information available to us. We would not know or even be able to find the information we need without compressing this information and creating links to it to find what we need and relatable material. Even in this class for example, we are asked to ‘tag’ our posts so we can link common posts together in order to find related material to make it easier for us to compare topics.

  4. One important thing I gleaned from this posting is a from the quote the poster utilized above; “Hypertext allows links of association to be formed; they can forge semantic relationships for they bind together ideas in digital prose and should be seen as a tool to bring multifarious elements together (111).” I think that these “links of association” are perhaps the most important factors in this section. Not only does it enhance the ease of use by the user, it forges some sense of intimacy between that user and the technology at hand. If the user feels as if the machine knows enough about his/her habits enough to display the information so that one may physically see the path of how they got from one idea to another– a path of why one chooses to go from one idea to the other in terms of data retrieval.

    Similar to what our group discussed in class last week, this is similar to Facebook advertising on the side of our home pages based on the interests we may list on our profiles. A synthetic relationship is developed between the user and the program insofar that the web knows enough about us to suggest other links (associated to the content) of things we may like or use.

  5. Pingback: All Linked Up: An analysis on the growth of networks. « Introduction to Digital Media

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