I’ve had cause lately to go into tidy-up mode. You know the drill; dig out boxes of fascinating and valuable stuff you stored away, only to find that mildew and mutant dust bunnies are the only life forms with an interest in your collection. Apparently in the late 1980’s I decided I’d put down a kind of time capsule of paper with a vast collection of print materials relating to the computer (mostly Apple II I should add) but there’s a fine selection of other gems as well.
I don’t want you young’uns missing out on the excitement – this from Compute! (that was a magazine, darling) from February 1988.
Superconducting supermicrocomputers probing super CDs jammed with information. Computers so portable that they become inseparable from the user, always ready to access information the instant it’s needed.
What information will these computers be working with? Maybe all of it.
The information revolution has accomplished many things, not least of which is the generation of more information. We’re drowning in the stuff, with new volumes appearing every minute.
How do we sort through these universes of data, shaping their contents to our own needs?
What the author (Keith Ferrell) is leading up to is ‘Hypertext: Here, There, And Everywhere’ (pp. 26, 28). And what Keith is wrestling with ‘macroindexes’ loading up from Vannvar Bush’s (no relation) article As We May Think leading on to memex a kind of microfilm precursor to USENET. This provoked Alan Kay (and others) at Xerox PARC to think (and act) on dynamic books – dynabook, which nudged Apple CEO John Scully to activate a concept: Knowledge Navigator – and the truth is, memex, dynabook, or knowledge navigator – they’re founded on hypertext – a word author Ted Nelson coined back in the 60s. Yes, Timmy, the 60s.
Keith then spirals off into how you might magic up information about Elvis. All of it without leaving your desk. And then he kind of gets the breakfast cereal of the today – tagging. Remember, this is 1988. Keith captures the mechanics of tagging, but who could’ve foreseen the elegant understatement of:
As computers become more universally linked and able to intercommunicate, everything tagged by one user on one computer will be available to other researchers on other computers. The pathways through knowledge that we can follow can, in turn, be followed by others, who may reach far different conclusions than ours.
Nice, Keith, nice. He goes on to explain hypertext, and then interestingly slips his visionary hat back on – he writes about the potential hypertext systems, electronic libraries bringing closer and more immediate contact between researchers from all disciplines, and tagging; as well as risks. Check this –
Will we witness the transition of disciplines away from continuous bodies of knowledge and toward conglomerations of snippets, of patterns and associations rather than continuity and flow?
Well, yes, Keith, I don’t think there’s many bodies of knowledge that haven’t been dismembered, and those that have resisted are those that are not written in English. Keith wraps with a couple of comments worthy of further consideration:
To be effective, any index must serve as a discriminating guide, an intelligent if not interactive interface between the user and a mass of information. The promise of hypertext is that of true interactivity, yet it carries the risk of being completely without discrimination.
As with any new or emerging technology, hypertext will require us to bring our own abilities, our own discrimination and intelligence. With those human tools, and these new technological tools, another level of the information revolution is already being shaped.
What did happen was we gave up on the concept that humans would be able to manage the mass of information, and instead we created Googlebots in our own image, and send them forth to discriminate on our behalf. Interestingly, in another article in the same magazine (pp. 54-55), Dr David Thornburg (associate editor) in The Power of Hypercard, Part 2 (bare in mind Apple had just begun shipping Macs with hypercard) observes:
In many ways HyperCard suggests that the personal computer revolution has just begun in earnest.
Well, Dave, time will tell. But I think you’re probably right.