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.