The birth of non-linear narratives
Screen-based text with embedded links to other text has revolutionized how we find and retrieve information. Yet until the mid-twentieth century, conditioned by 500 years of print, non-linear narratives were unimaginable to most.
The rapid advancements in knowledge brought about by World War II were disorientating. Organizing and acting on the deluge of opportunities that suddenly presented themselves was beyond linear narratives and taxonomies. A cognitive leap was required.
Vannevar Bush, Director of the Manhattan Project and the brain behind the atomic bomb, was disillusioned by man's pursuit of power rather than progress. He put his mind to discovering how the world's knowledge could be harnessed instead for the common good. The result was his seminal essay ‘As We May Think’, first published in the Atlantic in 1945. In it, he described the Memex, a device that could store and index every book and record created.
A collective memory machine was not a revolutionary idea; H. G. Wells had expressed similar ideas in his collection of essays ‘World Brain’. Bush's ideas had more in common with those of Argentine novelist Jorge Luis Borges, whose 1941 spy story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ was perhaps the first multilinear narrative. What was radical about the Memex was that it mimicked the human mind, which ‘operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next … in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain.’
As World War II played out its end game, a young radar technician based in the Philippines came across ‘As We May Think’ in an old copy of the Atlantic. His name was Douglas Engelbart. He saw the Memex as an evolved radar, with ranks of operators analysing, processing and linking information. After the war Engelbart became Director of the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute – a position he retained for almost 20 years – and in 1962 he introduced his ‘oNLine System’ (NLS), the first practical implementation of Bush's ideas (see Graphical User Interface).
Around the same time, a Harvard student called Theodor (Ted) Nelson envisioned a ‘docuverse’, an information space where text was liberated from paper. He had imagined the World Wide Web 30 years before its invention. Nelson named his project Xanadu, after Coleridge's opiuminduced poem; perhaps appropriately it remains a pipe dream (see Xanadu). Nelson went on to coin the term ‘hypertext’, and predicted the personal computer revolution. Although Xanadu has never been realized, Nelson's ideas have influenced every hypertext system since.■
‘The brain behind the atomic bomb was disillusioned by man's pursuit of power rather than progress.’
Related Credo Articles
Hypertext is a form of electronic writing that allows writers to link paragraphs or pages of text using computer-mediated connections that, in...
A term coined in the 1960s by Ted Nelson to describe the concept of linking textual information and presenting it in a non-linear fashion so it...
Hypertext is both the concept of interrelating information elements (linking pieces of information) and the name used to describe a collection...