What is the Web?

Historical Background

Why look at the past?

Vannevar Bush: Memex

Vannevar Bush seated at a desk. This portrait is credited to 'OEM Defense', the Office for Emergency Management (part of the United States Federal Government) during World War II; it was probably taken some time between 1940 and 1944.
Vannevar Bush, sometime between 1940 & 1945 (source)

Memex (1945)

The origins of the origins of the web

Laid out in his 1945 article "As We May Think"

Almost any paragraph can be directly tied one-to-one to the modern internet and computing

The Content Deluge, but 1945

Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose.

If the aggregate time spent in writing scholarly works and in reading them could be evaluated, the ratio between these amounts of time might well be startling.

Those who conscientiously attempt to keep abreast of current thought, even in restricted fields, by close and continuous reading might well shy away from an examination calculated to show how much of the previous month's efforts could be produced on call.

Mendel's concept of the laws of genetics was lost to the world for a generation because his publication did not reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it; and this sort of catastrophe is undoubtedly being repeated all about us, as truly significant attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential.

The Problem of Selection

The core issue that Bush identifies with current information retrieval methods

Simple selection: "I need a document with the title 'As We May Think'"

Complex Selection

Imagine a retail purchase, and what would be needed to track that

  1. Cashier by number
  2. Customer by number
  3. Product by number
  4. Price by product

What are the functions you could run over that data?

Limitations of Index

Indexes work well with structured data

What happens with unstructured documents, which have so many possible ways to categorize?

What are some other ways to organize?

Wikipedia Holes as a Feature

The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow.… He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex.

First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together.

Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item.

[Then], he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants.

He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.

The Legacy of Memex

  1. Non-linear organization of documents
  2. Avoidance of indices for organization
  3. Ability to mark up existing documents
  4. Linking documents together for quick reference

Ted Nelson: Xanadu & Hypertext

Hand-drawn styled art by Ted Nelson of multi-colored boxes linked together by black lines with the caption 'Everything is Deeply Intertwingled.'
Art by Ted Nelson showing one the main words he uses to talk about information (source)


Conceptually historic, but called "the longest-running vaporware project" in 1995 in a kind of mean, but honest feature

Started in late 60's, a version was released in 2014

What's important about Xanadu is that it reflects Ted Nelson's obsession with organizing data in a way that reflects the way he processes information.

Limitations of Memex

Memex concept relied, even after talking about limitations of indices, relied on index point

Trying to answer that question: what are some other ways to organize

“A File System for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate” (1965)

Proposed a new filesystem at the Association for Computing Machinery, available online

More importantly, put the word "hypertext" into consciousness

Two Big Themes

The file system should be attractive to non-programmers

When something "should" link, it just does

Project Specifications

Zippered Lists

A diagram comparing linked lists to a link table. In linked lists, numbered boxes representing entities in two different columns are connected by dotted lines from the 1st box in the first column to the 3rd box in the second column and from the 3rd box in the first column to the 4th box in the second column. These are represented as a table as '1:3' and 3:4'.
Illustrative example of entities in two lists being linked.

Suggests but side-tables one-to-many lists

Multiple Connected Zippered Lists

A more complex diagram of multiple zippered lists, showing connections between entries in lists labeled 'Outline,' 'Sub-Outline,' 'Summary', 'Main Draft,' 'Commentaries,' and 'Sources.'
Example of how multiple zippered lists can interact together to create multiple relationships

Approaching a "Web"

An even more complex diagram, expanding the previous concept of multiple zippered lists to not just one document but to include the sources and professional information
Expanding the concept of multiple connected zippered lists to a sets of lists that are outside just the initial paper being written

Big takeaway: A Philosophy Towards Hypertext

As "philosophy" I want to speak of two major things. First, complex file structures (like the ELF) make possible the creation of complex and significant new media, the hypertext and hyperfilm.

What is Hypertext?

Let me introduce the word "hypertext"***** to mean a body of written or pictorial material interconnected in such a complex way that it could not conveniently be presented or represented on paper.

It may contain summaries, or maps of its contents and their interrelations; it may contain annotations, additions and footnotes from scholars who have examined it.

Let me suggest that such an object and system, properly designed and administered, could have great potential for education, increasing the student’s range of choices, his sense of freedom, his motivation, and his intellectual grasp.******

Such a system could grow indefinitely, gradually including more and more of the world’s written knowledge.

Hypercard (1987)

Brings the concept and practice of hypertext to the (sort of) average person

Mac-only, which the base model started at $2,500 in 1987 dollars, so over $6000 today

Roughly in line with PC costs at the time - IBM PS/2 launched at $2250 the same year

What is Hypercard?

HyperCard is difficult to explain; it is not a paint program, but you can paint with it; it is not a draw program but you can draw in it; it is not a word processor but you can type in it; it is not an animation program but you can construct animations with it; it is not a database, but you can use it to construct a database; it is not a presentation program, but you can develop a presentation with it; it is not a calculator but you can get it to make calculations and be a calculator; it is not a simulator, but you can simulate physical entities such as electronic circuits!

From the Museums Victoria article on Hypercard

Skeuomorphism & Hypertext

Overall concept was a set of digital "cards" that would link to each other by clicks

Language and current trends led to a distinctive look

Also had a relatively human-readable coding language in Hypertalk

Example Card

A screenshot of Hypercard showing a card discussing hypertext. The main body copy is on the left in a skeuomorphic spiral-bound notebook. In the body copy, there is a very large button, and in-text links to other cards. There are two maps helping the user navigate the linked cards on the right. There are also buttons with icons in the lower-right to navigate to 'Front Cover' and 'History List.'
An example of a card in Hypercard, from Jakob Nielsen's book on Hypertext

Hypertext to the Masses

As late as August 2002, there were probably 10,000 HyperCard developers.

Three years after its initial episode on the software, the Computer Chronicles TV show did a followup show on HyperCard's development.

They found HyperCard software designed to run a television studio. MIT had produced an interactive video magazine via the program. A seventh grader was writing a timeline of Russian history on HyperCard, and children as young as kindergarten played with the application.

From an Ars Technica retrospective on Hypercard

The Critical Flaw of Hypercard

I have realized over time that I missed the mark with HyperCard.

I grew up in a box-centric culture at Apple. If I'd grown up in a network-centric culture, like Sun, HyperCard might have been the first Web browser.

Quote from Bill Atkinson in a 2002 Wired article

Tim Berners-Lee & The World Wide Web (1989)

Trying to organize documentation at CERN and the Large Hadron Collider stable across shifting personnel

Same issues & conclusions as Ted Nelson — the information was constantly changing, so the system had to be non-hierarchical and without restraints on types of information.

Notes and links, not indexed lists, as opposed to BBS or email chains.

The Most Important Image in the History of the Internet

A diagram explaining the relationships of files on the web. At the center is 'A Proposal Mesh' which unifies a large number of different documentations at CERN. The mesh receives linked information included in a gneralized 'hypertext.'
The original diagram of how the files of the web would interact from an archive of Berners-Lee's original paper

Compare this to the complex version of Nelson's zippered lists

Requirements of the Web

Hot Spots

Imagine, then, the references in this document, all being associated with the network address of the thing to which they referred, so that while reading this document you could skip to them with a click of the mouse.

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