50 years ago today the word “hypertext” was introduced

So for me it was an important rollout, a rollout of my ideas. And I took it very seriously. And because of my partially theatrical background, I was very conscious of giving a good show.

.. I saw it as my major career rollout, daring and intense. I wasn’t so much scared as excited and keyed up. I was going to tell the world, from a literary and philosophical point of view, where interactive documents would go. I was about to tell a technical group that their whole world would be redefined.

.. What kind of reaction did you get from others?

 No one, absolutely no one that I met, could imagine interactive computer screens. Whereas I could see them with my eyes closed, practically touch them and make them respond. It was very sensual.
.. My great-grandfather, for example, who was a very smart man, a science teacher—he couldn’t understand what I was talking about. No one could imagine what an interactive screen would be. No one I talked to could imagine what an interactive screen would be, whereas I saw and felt them sensually in my mind and at my fingertips. Yet to me this was an extension of literature as we had always known it.
.. My great-grandfather, for example, who was a very smart man, a science teacher—he couldn’t understand what I was talking about. No one could imagine what an interactive screen would be. No one I talked to could imagine what an interactive screen would be, whereas I saw and felt them sensually in my mind and at my fingertips. Yet to me this was an extension of literature as we had always known it.
.. I never got leverage. Neither did a lot of other people; Jobs grabbed a brass ring and knew what to do with it.
.. Unfortunately I overemphasized the jump link, jumping from page to page, which is all the Web does. (Along with the regrettable emphasis on fonts and layout, foisted on the public by Simonyi and Warnock.) [Charles Simonyi, who oversaw Microsoft’s development of Word, and John Warnock, the co-founder of Adobe Systems.]
.. And software—interactive software—is events on a screen that affect the heart and mind of the user, and interact,and have consequences. So understanding the theatrics (some say rhetoric, some say cascading) of interaction is the real issue, not just making the wheels go around.
.. I came to see that the issues I was facing for electronic documents were not algorithms but data structure.
.. I submitted five papers to conferences that would meet in 1965; all were accepted! But the biggie was to the ACM National Conference.
.. I’d been reading a lot of journal articles, so I knew how ACM people thought: they were interested in files and operating systems and the like.
.. I spent a great deal of time and work on it. And, as I recall, my great-grandfather died while I was working on it, and that was a great sorrow to me, but I had to keep on it.

.. And while I respected them very much, I also thought that I was opening a new chapter into a new part of the world.

.. I was by no means modest. Although I wasn’t telling anybody about it, I thought hypertext would lead to a millennial system of changes, and so it has, but much less influenced by my own work—my designs and ideas—than I’d hoped.

.. The written paper is in academic style. It bears almost no relation to the oral presentation I gave, which was intended to be rousing. I was used to off-the-cuff public speaking, but I scripted this one tightly.

.. I know I have a tape recording of the talk, and I know I have the original artwork and slides, so if anyone wanted to put it all together and restore it to an audiovisual presentation, it could be done.

.. Did you get in touch with Doug Engelbart?

Yes. The next year, 1966, I flew out to see him with William Jovanovich, head of Harcourt, Brace Publishers, where I worked at the time. He showed us the mouse, and I was instantly converted.
.. You could say it was the high-water mark of my career, just as Engelbart’s 1968 demo was the high-water mark of his.
.. I hardly understood academic politics. Underneath the handshakes and overt appreciation, everyone is backstabbing for the same money.

.. I got a call from the Central Intelligence Agency—at least the guy said he was from the Central Intelligence Agency—and he intimated that they might back me, and I said, “sure.” That conversation went on for several years, but no backing appeared. I actually did go to McLean to meet there once, so it had been an authentic call.

.. The surprise at the meeting was that I was attacked by several Artificial Intelligence guys in the room. It was years before I understood that there was a dog-and-cat relation between AI and hypertext—AI guys thought we were stealing their rightful territory. (I was actually followed at one conference by a famous AI guy who began, “Hypertext is evil.”)

.. Not only did the AI guys hate hypertext, but it turns out that everybody has a different notion of what hypertext should be. For example, HyperCard on the early Macintosh. I couldn’t understand it then; I still don’t understand it now. A very strange system. But that just shows the kaleidoscopic variety of thoughts that these concepts engender.

.. My motto is, you can’t think new thoughts in old words.

.. In what sense did you think “hypertext” was hyper?

 “Hyper” in the sense of extended and generalized, as in “hypercube” and “hyperspace.” My father-in-law was a psychologist, and he was disturbed at the word because he thought “hyper” meant pathological and agitated.

.. I didn’t choose the name “Xanadu,” I don’t think, until ’66 or ’67, when I was at Harcourt, Brace Publishers.

.. The fundamental notions haven’t changed—parallel pages with visible connection.

.. whereas I consider it essential to see pages side by side, as in the Talmud, as in medieval manuscripts, as in any number of documents over the centuries. This is an essential part of the electronic document which we don’t have yet.

.. My team—I don’t take any credit for it, but the guys I was leading—came up with a brilliant system of addressing, based on what is now called tumblers.

.. in the last of those two years, Tim Berners-Lee created the Web. So we might well have been the hypertext system of the world if we had stuck with the original 1979 design.


Better Than Reality: A Fundamental Internet Principle

Ways to Be Better Than Reality

  • be non-linear: don’t force users to live through a stream of time that they can’t control
  • customize service: computers can do different things for different people
  • be asynchronous: a customized link to check the status of an order allows a customer to resume a “conversation” many hours later without spending any time on reestablishing context
  • support anonymity: if people don’t have to reveal who they are, they may be more willing to do certain things
  • link liberally: links are the foundation of the Web and can make anything into an extension of your own service
  • support search and multiple views: different people have different preferences, and there is no need to be limited to a single way of doing things on the Web
  • be small and cheap: because of the efficiency of computers it is possible to deal in much smaller units than before
  • be free: it costs very little to offer free samples over the Web, so a book publisher could offer a free chapter and a consultant could offer free advice on some frequently asked questions (while charging for the full product or service, of course)
  • ignore geography: support users who access your site from home, the office, the car, while away on business trips or vacations, and from anywhere in the world

Ulysses and the Lie of Technological Progress

Joyce picked June 16 as the time of the novel partly to commemorate his first date with his future wife

.. it’s easy to render James Joyce a staid and honorable figure of cultural uprightness. But nothing could be less the case. Ulysses bathes in low-culture vulgarity

.. We chose Twitter, still a relatively esoteric “microblogging” platform in 2007, because it offered a perfect format for our interpretation. For one part, the invitation to post messages, in public, unfiltered, whatever thought or idea came out of one’s head perfectly paralleled Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness writing.

.. We registered 54 Twitter accounts in the names of Ulysses characters—from@BuckMulligan to @WifeOfSheehyMP, and converted the passages we’d selected and time-coded into 140-character tweets, adding @-mention cross-references where appropriate.

.. Twitter had published an application programming interface (API) for its service. Using the API, I wrote some software to automate the posting, such that everything would be timed correctly.

.. Adrienne LaFrance explained how a Pulitzer-nominated, 34-part investigative journalism series vanished entirely from the web. One reason: it was built on a technology platform, Flash

.. Works produced for HyperCard, Apple’s once-popular programming tool, have long since ceased to be viewable on modern computers.

..  One of the features that allowed Ulysses to become canon—hardly the only one, but one nevertheless—was its ability to be read by human eyeballs in 2016 as much as in 1986, 1956, or 1926.

.. The Twitter public timeline had been retired

.. The ultimate lesson of Ulyssesis that everything that seems permanent decays and returns to earth. But in so doing, it doesn’t vanish. It facilitates new growth, both native and invasive.

.. Bloomsday is the most contemporary of holidays, because it puts the lie to the conceit of contemporary life: that we move ever-forward through progress, amassing knowledge and innovation and adeptness. How quickly forgotten is the fundamental lesson of modernism—that entropy rules

.. It celebrates the ultimate technological advancement no matter the period: not discovery or innovation, but the warm, drunk rumble of the conversation between progress and decay.