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Sami Maatta

Hypertext and Critical Discussion

There is a huge need for an easy to use tools in exploring the landscapes of the Web, in creating and reading hypertext and in annotating on other authors' documents. Something useful could be developed given the Web techniques and W3C recommendations (standards) and some tools as they are at the moment. But it is most fruitful to keep in one's mind that hypertext, the digital space is changing at it's very roots. The work is more or less inspired by and based on revolutionary ideas by Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson and his friends. For the latest Xanadu development see the Transliterature site and the "whole" story around Xanadu project.

At the moment it is far too easy to get lost in the Web and even lose information once at hand. It is also quite easy as a writer to hide one's text behind technical and other roadblocks, to accidentally have one's writings non-public. Lost tracks, broken links, software incompatibilities, disrespect of real authors' rights etc. are quite common phenomena. There are good articles explaining the serious limitations of the Web; see "Why the Web Must Die" by Jack Seay, other writings mentioned at Hyperworlds and in "Where the web went wrong" by Joseph Osako, and of course in Ted Nelson's several works, too.

In his speech Nelson (2003) says that "it is a popular myth that "structure" means hierarchy; and it is a popular conception that electronic documents should simulate paper. These two concepts have the additional advantage of being easy to explain to beginners. Accordingly, since the nineteen-forties we have simulated hierarchies to organize computer files, and since the nineteen-sixties we have progressively simulated paper – from "text editing" to "word processing" to "desktop publishing" to the Web (which added one-way links to simulated sheets of paper). Now, merging hierarchy simulation with paper simulation, we have been given Adobe Acrobat (simultaneously simulating hierarchy and paper side by side) and XML (a system for transforming paper simulation into hierarchy and vice versa). I see these as ideological exercises in completing the hierarchy and paper paradigms, bypassing the vital issues. Rather than imitating the shortcomings of the real world, we should be correcting the insufficiencies of hierarchy and the deficiencies of paper. Things being simple-minded and easy to explain does not make them sensible or right. (...) Vital forms of information structure cannot be properly represented by hierarchy – such structures as parallelism, cross-connection, interpenetration and polypresence (one item in many places). (...) Vital document structures and issues are ignored in today's paper-simulating formats – overlay and document parallelism, of which annotation and controversy swirl are key examples; issues of version management, quotability with managed rights, availability of original context of quotations, and structures of arbitrary connection."

Programmers have done quite a lot to solve these and other problems. There are separate tools for collaboration, like MediaWiki. Latest development among different blogging tools is quite interesting. Note also that there is services that track what is going on in blogosphere, one example being BlogPulse. And there are bliki tools that mix features of WikiWiki and blog engines. Vanilla might have been the very first bliki. The collaborative site Everything2 is also worth mentioning here.

But this is not enough in the light of Vannevara Bush's and Ted Nelson's ideas on hypertext.

1. Ideal hypertext (notes on criteria)

So, there are cornerstones of hypertext not set in software yet! Consolidation of ideas and of software is needed, with some innovations, too. And, again I must point at thinking and work done by Xanadu people. They are leading this revolution.

I have gathered the criteria that might be useful in understanding the ideal system for easy exploring connected digital resources and for effective creating hypertext.

Sources are listed in the end of this article. Using the links presented it is possible to find out about the original thoughts backing and explaining these notes of mine.

1.1. Public hypertext, freedom of expression

The hypertext created must be public. Anyone must have the possibility and the feedom of participating, of quoting, of commenting or annotating on the pieces of work, within the sphere of public hypertext. This is most important for the future of critical discussion, and for the openness of the digital realm. Creating public pieces of work and commenting on them bring up the question of author's rights to his/her work and the question of payments on the basis of copyright (or similar). Furthermore, there is the question of versioning. A sound hypertext tool does keep track on different versions. Hypertext software should be public, too. At least part of all software should be considered as literature. The free and the open source software are highly recommended!

1.2. Connections: fine-grained, bidirectional links

The hypertext must allow fine-grained, bidirectional linking. Links must be visible and usable to all. Links can contain information (metadata) on types of links, types of transactions etc. This information should not be saved in linked documents or other items but rather in a third "location between" them; thus the need for a broker or a mediator apparatus. This allows meaningful connections between pieces of work, not just a technique to jump ahead or backwards. Bidirectional fine-grained linking also enables "the parallel hypertext" (Nelson) as one of the most important ways of understanding and visualizing the interconnectedness of everything. And what would be the result of "parallelism" and countless bidirectional links in action? Hard to say! But the above mentioned word 'interconnectedness' expresses the basic idea of "living" in the hypertext. Our own experience will make the rest clear as we become part of the deeper hypertext. Perhaps it is too confusing to talk about links since deeper connections are much more than just a technique to join pieces of work or to move around.

1.3. Sensors, filters and evaluation of ideas

The technology of sensors and filters let one choose and find the relevant infomation and also to follow the changes being made to the documents. The evaluations part of the technology gives a chance to rate or vote on documents or on ideas. The resulting "social software" could be most important in solving problems of today's world or of smaller communities.

Information and other resources are best found if metadata is written by authors and some of it generated automatically. Librarians are experts on this. The better metadata, the greater opportunities to implement sensors, filters and advanced "social software"!

1.4. Intellectual nodes

In various fields of hypertext intellectual nodes arise for a reader to see and comment on, and participate in. A node could be a landmark writing or a site that is directed to something very exciting, perhaps in a 3D world. A node could be a remarkably well elaborated summary of some topic or of several discussion threads. This is a new kind of touch to collective wisdom and information in hypertext. With finding these nodes one can connect him-/herself to the most relevant content in digital space, become part of something truly important, exciting and fun.

1.5. Archiving

It is our duty to have all the hypertext archived and saved, for the future generations, too. Authors of documents should have the right to determine which information resources or which part of material to be published and archived. Public libraries might be involved in this, other solutions are possible depending on the country, organization etc.

2. The revolutionary Xanadu and related projects

It just might happen that Wannervar Bush's and Ted Nelson's old ideas bring up something really new. See Hyperworlds -- Web Replacement Projects by Jack Seay. It "higlights the strengths and weaknesses of some of the software projects that will replace the World Wide Web" (discussion group) -- note also the Xanadu Australia's list, collection of links by David Jones and short list at SourceForge.

Project Xanadu has this in the mission statement:

Since 1960, we have fought for a world of deep electronic documents -- with side-by-side intercomparison and frictionless re-use of copyrighted material.
We have an exact and simple structure. The Xanadu model handles automatic version management and rights management through deep connection. (...).

The Xanadu Australia site also see the possibilities of connected literature (the ideal).

More sources:

Bush (1945). As We May Think.

Nelson (2007). Toward a Deep Electronic Literature: The Generalization of Documents and Media

Nelson & Adamson (2007). BACK TO THE FUTURE: Hypertext the Way It Used To Be

Nelson (2005). Software and Media for a New Democracy

Barnet (2005). The Magical Place of Literary Memory™: Xanadu

Nelson (1999). Xanadu Technologies

The Xanadu Space

Drexler (1995). Hypertext Publishing and the Evolution of Knowledge

Drexler (1986). Engines of Creation - the Coming Era of Nanotechnology

Fenfire project

Miller, Mark S., E. Dean Tribble, Ravi Pandya, and Marc Stiegler (1992). The Open Society and its Media

Stiegler (1989). Hypertext Publishing

Sunless Sea. Xanadu Cyberarcheology Project by Jeff Rush et al.

Transliterature site

Xanadu resources

First version: April 2001
Last update: August 2008
The original of this document at http://www.kaapeli.fi/~smaatta/hypertextandcriticaldiscussion.html