The Web That Wasn’t

Loose notes from SXSW 2008 session
The Web That Wasn’t with Alex Wright Information Architect, The New York Times.

For most of us who work on the Internet, the Web is all we have ever really known. It’s almost impossible to imagine a world without browsers, URLs and HTTP. But in the years leading up to Tim Berners-Lee’s world-changing invention, a few visionary information scientists were exploring alternative hypertext systems that often bore little resemblance to the Web as we know it today. In this presentation, author and information architect Alex Wright will explore the heritage of these almost-forgotten systems in search of promising ideas left by the historical wayside. The presentation will focus on the pioneering work of Paul Otlet, Vannevar Bush, and Doug Engelbart, forebears of the 1960s and 1970s like Ted Nelson, Andries van Dam, and the Xerox PARC team, and more recent forays like Brown’s Intermedia system. We’ll trace the heritage of these systems and the solutions they suggest to present day Web quandaries, in hopes of finding clues to the future in our recent technological past.

The web is successful because of its simplicity – a lowest common denominator platform.

1883 – Charles Cutter – tried to imagine what a library might look like in 100 years. Envisioned a keyboard attached to a wire, that might be able to pull up a book stored somewhere else.

H.G. Wells “The World Braining” . Glimpses of something like TV was just starting to emerge. Thought the whole thing would become an encyclopedia.

Teilhard de Jardin – “A sort of ‘etherised’ human consciousness, a single, organized unbroken membrane over the earth that will pave the way for a revolution.”

1934 – Paul Otlet – Deep thinking about information and collecting information. Felt like librarians were too focused on books rather than on the information inside. The book is just one “layer” of information. Built an institution called the Mundaneum – a utopian idea of world peace through global information sharing. Had people go through tens of thousands of books to extract information, putting it all on index cards. Creator of Universal Decimal Classification to organized it all. Wanted to add a TV screen and a telephone to transmit audio and visual components. This is amazing. The Nazis marched in 1938 and gutted it, threw away everything. The whole legacy was forgotten. But decades later, Otlet’s office was found, more or less untouched and a restoration process began.

UDC even had an auxiliary tables to mark relationships between topics (first relational database?) But the whole thing ran on paper, except for the fact that the system would accept queries via telegraph (staff would receive and answer).

Information has facets (wine can be classified by region, varietal, cost, etc.) and later classification systems started to approach this.

Vote links – make the hyperlink code some information, not just address.

Vannevar Bush – Science adviser to FDR. Author of “As we may think” – proposed a device called a “Memex.” Documents stored on microfilm but could pull up documents on side by side screens, and users could “link” them and comment on their relationship. First concept of hypertext? And of user-defined relationships/contributions. “Wholly new forms of encylopedias will appear, rady-made with a mesh of assoiciative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the Memex and there amplified.” But he never actually tried to build it. Really wanted the “trails” to be visible. Thought this was a critical aspect (now we have Trackbacks … which don’t work very well and have all kinds of spam problems, etc.) del.icio.us also gives us a sense of trails through the web (though not quite in Bush’s vision).

Eugene Garfield – Found of Science Citation Index. Forefather of PageRank. Really envisioned something very similar to what Google gives us today (PageRank).

Doug Engelbart – inventor of the mouse, but that’s the least of his accomplishments. Stanford Research .Creator of online systems. Described his vision in “Augmenting human intelligence.” Saw the system as a set of tools for people to work together to collaborate on documents, share information..

Ted Nelson – coined the term “hypertext” (1965). Author of “Literary Machines, Dream Machines.” Creator of Xanadu. Felt like computers should be a lot more than just calculating machines. “Everything deeply intertwingled.” Nelson is very disappointed in what the web has (has not) become – a long way from his vision.

Andries van Dam – Early collaborator with Nelson. Created teh first working hypertext systems, with a light pen and a foot pedal (point and kick interface).

IRIS systems had applications embedded in the GUI.

Xerox/Parc – concept of cards that could link out to other cards (similar to hypercard?) They also coined the term “browser.”

And Apple Hypercard itself, of course.

Which brings us up to Tim Berners Lee. The next machine on which he invented the web is on display at the Louvre in Paris.

– Marrying top-down classification with bottom-up “social space”
– Two-way linking
– Visible pathways
– Gradations of links

Facebook actually accomplishes a lot of this.

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