The Webs That Weren't

It’s strange how frequently investigations into the future of the book take us into the past and how readily apparent our contemporary ‘innovations’ in storytelling were to visionaries from previous generations.


 While commercial book publishing slowly adopted an increasingly digital production method and its readership resisted electronic media, an entirely parallel publishing platform was being built around a burgeoning network of globally connected computers. In 1990, Tim Berners-Lee conceived and created the world wide web as a distribution and reading platform based around hypertext, a term he defined as ‘a way to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will’. The web of today is a fact of life—a de facto utility. But investigation into its past reveals that the web as we know was one of many visions for a networked publishing platform. The term ‘hypertext’ dates back to Ted Nelson’s work from the 1960s. Originally conceived as a system of documentation achievable only in electronic media, Nelson’s hypertext imagines documents and information in a three dimensional space with references and marginalia represented by ‘deep links’, a permanent two-way connection between ideas. This alternative proposal for a hypertext platform Nelson called Xanadu differs markedly from the world wide web, which he dismisses as another thoughtless replication of print media alongside word processors and reading formats such as PDF. Despite such criticism, the web remains as the publishing platform that worked, even if it that incorporates only some of hypertext’s freedom of movement between texts and ideas. For the moment, Xanadu exists only in prototype.

Although Nelson was the first to coin the now familiar moniker ‘hypertext’, he was hardly the first to envision of a deeply interconnected network of documents and information. In the 1930’s, Belgian author Paul Otlet envisioned something very close to the web of today: calling information to screens connected via telephone lines and works transmitted not just through text and images, but sound and moving images as well. Otlet dubbed his ideas ‘the radiated library’ and ‘the televised book’.

The further back in time we go, the more speculative the ideas become, but one of my favourites comes from CA Cutler who pictured information ‘transmitted by wires’ to a curious device he dubbed a ‘key-board’. Cutler was short on ideas for how this might be practically achieved, but give him a break. He was writing this in 1883.

Although the web as a publishing platform achieves incredible flexibility and fluidity for writers and a new way to read and engage with texts and ideas, it’s good to keep in mind its inherent limitations and remind ourselves that we always stand on the shoulders of giants.