Writing a Hypertext Thesis

I got interested in hypertext by trying to come up with a way to combine my interests in computers, journalism, and writing a thesis, a requirement in order to graduate from New College.

Writing, or trying to write, a hypertext thesis gave me very broad exposure to hypertext — in many different flavors and from both a practical and a theoretical standpoint, even some things (like the I Ching and tarot cards) whose relevance to hypertext required some envelope-pushing.

Writing a hypertext thesis, thinking about writing a hypertext thesis, evaluating several different tools I might have used, proved a very interesting process. I still think hypertext is nothing short of a revolutionary change — as big a change as Gutenberg introduced with movable type. But like most technical innovations on a really major scale, what will make the difference between toy and tool is time. And toys becoming tools — gunpowder? The steam engine? As Voltaire put it, "History never repeats itself — Mankind always does."

After having tried to write a hypertext thesis, I share with you this quotation. It gives me some insight into hypertext and the Web, and also shows how long the progress of technology has been proceeding in a similar vein.

It often happens, with regard to new inventions, that one part of the general public finds them useless and another part considers them to be impossible. When it becomes clear that the possibility and the usefulness can no longer be denied, most agree that the whole thing was fairly easy to discover and that they knew about it all along.
- Abraham Edelcrantz (Abraham Niclas Clewberg), A Treatise on Telegraphs (1796), quoted in Holzmann, Gerard J., and Björn Pehrson, "The First Data Networks," Scientific American, v. 270, no. 1 (January 1994): 124-129.

I think Edelcrantz's comment is very insightful, especially given the date. It applies equally to printing, the personal computer, and hypertext, and for all I (or Jay David Bolter, or Neal Stephenson, or Julian Jaynes) know, to language and writing themselves.

If you like science fiction full of ideas about language, consciousness, and sundry Deep Thoughts, I recommend Neal Stephenson's novels The Big U (which, contrary to what Stephenson says, did not just disappear — I read it not long after it came out) and Snow Crash . If you find the notion of telegraph systems being designed and operated in the 18th and 19th centuries maddening, read Holzmann and Pehrson's article above. And if you find the idea facinating, find a copy of Keith Roberts' wonderful story cycle-cum-novel Pavane — "The Signaller" involves a fictional English equivalent to the Danish and French examples Holzmann and Pehrson discuss, and makes me think that Roberts had done his historical homework.

And if you wonder why I jumped from talking about hypertext to science fiction, to an out and out fantasy story cycle set in post-Elizabethan "Reconquista" England, just put it down to my digressive style. Or don't. But as Ted Nelson, the guy who coined the term "hypertext" put it, "Everything is deeply intertwingled."