WHAT IS HYPERTEXT?
by Charles Deemer
On a winter day in 1985, I was sitting in front of
my CPM Kaypro 2x computer, staring at the blinking green
cursor, unable to begin writing. I was not a writer who
had experienced "writer's block," and so this was a new
experience for me - and yet it wasn't really writer's block
that kept me from beginning. It was a nagging question that
on the surface was embarrassingly ordinary. How could I be
"stuck" over such a simple problem?
But on this wintry day, as the green cursor blinked
on and on, the ordinary question sounded profound, baffling,
How was I going to number the pages of this new
script I was about to begin?
I was eager to begin and already had my opening
scene clearly in mind. I'd received a commission to write
this play, which was scheduled to open in a year in
Portland's magnificent and historic Pittock Mansion, the
most luxurious setting a play of mine had ever called home.
What an incredible space for which to write a play. What an
incredible opportunity this was for me.
If only I could figure out how to number the pages
of the script . . .
The foundation of my confusion was this: the action
of the play was not going to be linear, one scene happening
after another, but simultaneous, with many scenes occurring
throughout the mansion at the same time. This was what made
the commission so unusual, the dramatic form was modeled
after a strange new kind of play that was selling out in Los
Angeles, a play called "Tamara."
If many scenes occur at once, I was asking myself,
what does it mean to have a "page whatever"? And how was
my director going to read the script - how was I? - if two
or three or - the number, at one point, would turn out to be
eight! - many scenes were happening at once? How is a
non-linear script read within the confining format of
textual pages arranged in numerical order?
Without knowing it (I had never heard the term
before), I was having my first experience with "hypertext."
Out of desperation, I finally settled on a
methodology for numbering the pages of "Chateau de Mort,"
and several years would pass before I learned how
cumbersome, awkward, and labor-intensive my solution was.
I came to learn that "hypertext" was the form in which the
dynamics of nonlinear writing came into focus and under
"Hyper"-text. The prefix means "over" or "above,"
and early in the century was used in physics to describe the
strange new kind of "space" that was being defined by
Einstein's relativity theory - "hyperspace." Einstein's
space is space seen in a new way, a new kind of space -
So with text. Hypertext is text seen in a new way,
a new kind of text.
Hypertext has a surprisingly long history, given its recent entry
into popular computer nomenclature. An early computer scientist with the
unusual name of Vannevar Bush is credited with first speculating in print
about hypertext, although he did not use the term and two decades would
pass before anyone else did. But in the July, 1945, issue of The Atlantic
Monthly magazine, Bush set down the fundamental concepts of what would
become known as hypertext in an article called "As We May Think."
What troubled Bush was the discrepancy between
mankind's mushrooming storehouse of knowledge and his
inadequate tools for accessing that knowledge. "The means
we use for threading through the consequent maze to the
momentarily important item," he wrote, "is the same as it
was used in the days of square-rigged ships."
Bush began by looking at how the mind worked,
observing that it "operates by association. With one item
in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is
suggested by the association of thoughts." An information
retrieval system, he reasoned, should display a similar
profile, being freely able to link associated subjects.
Bush's thinking led him to an invention in the mind
(he was doing something similar to what Einstein called "a
Consider a future device for individual use, which
is a sort of mechanized private file and library.
It needs a name, and to coin one at random, 'memex'
will do. A memex is a device in which an individual
stores all his books, records and communications and
which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with
exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged
intimate supplement to his memory.
What Bush was seeing in his mind's eye was a
contemporary PC, in part, and in part a sophisticated
hypertext software program. The way Bush describes the use
of his memex is a perfect description of the way a
contemporary reader moves through hypertext: ". . . he
builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials
available to him."
I said earlier that hypertext is non-linear but this
may be misleading. Any individual path through hypertext is
linear, of course: the reader is still reading or viewing or
hearing items in sequence, which is to say, one after the
other, linearly. What makes hypertext hypertext is not
non-linearity but choice, the interaction of the reader to
determine which of several or many paths through the
available information is the one taken at a certain moment
In this way, hypertext closely maps "real life."
I act out my daily life on a path built by
moment-by-moment choices - and so does everyone else.
Imagine that you are walking down the aisle in a grocery
store, looking for your favorite box of cereal. You find it
- and next to it another brand that you like is on sale. You
have to decide which to buy and move on.
Readers of hypertext make similar choices. At some
point in the text, a reader is given options. For example,
when I earlier mentioned Bush's Atlantic Monthly essay "As
We May Think," a few of you became curious enough to jot
down the title so you can look it up later.
If I were writing this chapter in hypertext, I could
save you a considerable amount of trouble by linking from
my mention of the essay directly to the essay itself (I'll
address how this is done in a later chapter). Or perhaps I
could give you two choices, by linking to the entire essay
or only to those parts of it that directly relate to the
concept of hypertext, some of which I've quoted above.
(NOTE: this essay originally appeared in a "flatland"
publication. This version has been hypertext coded; the
option to link to the essay was available above.)
Hypertext is about giving the reader options. "What
do you want to read next?" is the question that hypertext
asks again and again.
Different readers, of course, will respond to these
repeated questions in different ways, each defining an
individual path through the material. This is the sense in
which hypertext is called "non-linear," because there is no
one "linear" way to read the text, such as from beginning to
end. Instead there are alternative "webs" that weave
through the material according to the individual decisions
each reader makes in answer to the question, "What do you
want to read next?" Or, in the cast of multimedia where
sound and graphics and video can be part of the sequence of
information, "what do you want to hear or look at next?"
Do you want to read the poem, or hear the poem, or
watch the poet read the poem? There are poetry "electronic
books" on the market that give the reader these very
options. This is hypertext - a special kind of text in
which the reader actively chooses the sequence of material.
Conceptually at least, these applications were
already in the mind of Vannevar Bush as World War II was
coming to an end. But although other computer scientists
were intrigued by Bush's ideas, two decades would pass
before a school dropout named Ted Nelson coined the term
that would stick. Hypertext was officially born in 1965.
The guru of hypertext, like Bush before him, began
his thinking by focusing on a better way to organize a great
deal of information. Through the 1960s, Nelson fiddled with
different ways to allow the same kind of linkage between
bits of information that Bush's imaginary memex was designed
As Nelson was developing his ideas about hypertext,
pretty much alone, CAI - Computer-Aided Instruction - became
popular. This was a teaching methodology in which students
learned by making choices through a network of options.
Despite having stricter rules and author/teacher-controls
that Nelson wanted, CAI suggested the way later readers
would move through hypertext. Nelson became familiar with
the methodology and would learn from it.
Finally, late in the decade, Nelson was invited to
participate in a project at Brown University that would lead
to the development of an elementary hypertext editing
Today Ted Nelson has a home page on the Internet,
which lists a bibliography of his early work in hypertext.
A glance at some highlights is revealing:
1965: "The Hypertext," in the proceedings of
the World Documentation Federation;
1966: "New Media and Creativity Systems," a
graphical brochure; "Hypertext Notes," 10 brief
essays on hypertext forms circulated in manuscript;
1969: "A Hypertext Editing System for the
360," an essay published in a University of Illinois
1972: "As We Will Think," in proceedings of
the Online '72 Conference at Brunel University,
1978: "Electronic Publishing and Electronic
Literature," in Plenum Press collection of essays;
1980: "Replacing the Printed Word," in
proceedings of the World Computer Conference;
"Interactive Systems and the Design of Virtuality,"
in Nov-Dec issue of Creative Computing magazine.
And so on. The guru of hypertext is still at it,
designing hypertext under the umbrella of the Xanadu project
So give Vannevar Bush the "first in print" award and
Ted Nelson the "term coinage and staying power" award in the
history of hypertext.
Today the most realized application of hypertext is
on the World Wide Web on the Internet. The Internet is the term used to describe a world-wide network of computers that are organized under a standard protocol, which allows you to access information located in libraries and at computer workstations around the globe from your home or office PC.
There are a number of ways that information on the
Internet is organized. The fastest growing and most
popular format is called "The World Wide Web," which is a
hypertextual web that links the information available at
many distant sites. Organization is brought to the system
by the individual site's "home page," which serves as a kind
of table of contents to the Internet universe. (We'll get
into this in more detail later.) After you link from a home
page on the computer screen to another screen at a different
site, links again are available to go elsewhere, and so on,
creating a vast web of links between information sites all
through the "cyberspace" of the Internet.
In other words, where formerly you would have access
only to the information at the particular site you were
connected to, the Web provides "horizontal links" to other
sites as well. For example, from a workstation at MIT you
can link to Paris for information, link from Paris to UCLA,
and then quickly return to Paris or MIT again.
Moreover, in practice these links commonly are made
between documents at each site - in other words, you may
create a path of information, for example, from within a
document at MIT to a portion of a document at UCLA to a
portion of a document at the University of Paris. As far as
retrieving information is concerned, the World Wide Web
literally puts the globe at one's fingertips.
Creative writers - the major audience for this book
- are still inventing new ways to use hypertext
In my own work as a playwright, I've written hypertext
playscripts which when produced result in a play in which many scenes
occur at the same time. The audience, like the reader of hypertext,
must decide "what happens next."
For example, the script excerpt below from "Chateau de Mort," the play
I was commissioned to write for the Pittock Mansion, has two "decision
moments" for the audience in less than a minute of action. Putting it
another way, the story "branches" twice in less than a minute:
(Jack, Polo, Heather and Medallion are in an upstairs bedroom.)
HEATHER: Want to go downstairs for a drink?
MEDALION: Why not?
HEATHER: Jack? I'm really sorry about your dad.
JACK: Thanks, hon.
(The women leave to go downstairs.)
Do you want to follow the women
or stay here with the men?
Make your choice below:
(After the women are gone:) | (The women head downstairs,
| running into Brown.)
JACK: Polo, I know that you-- |
| BROWN: Hello.
POLO: Hey, man, for the last time, |
it's not my concern that you got | HEATHER: Have you seen Dr.
a weirdo for an old man. Hear | Brodey?
what I'm saying? So where's the |
stash? | BROWN: I think he's in the
| dining room.
_______________ | HEATHER: Thanks.
Do you want to go:
(new scene) (etc.) (new scene)
The particular links that appear in any document or
on any "home page" (or table of contents) are what
determines the options offered to the reader. It's
important to emphasize that these decisions are made by the
author, the writer of the hypertext. Despite the new power
given readers in creating "what happens next," the writer is
still in control of the material in a very essential way:
s/he creates the universe of language within which
Writing hypertext is really two kinds of writing:
text writing in the normal formal sense (but with a new
emerging logic of narrative and drama) and computer code
writing (of the most elementary kind!).
For example, writing a home page for the Internet
is hypertext writing, which means one not only writes the
language describing what is available and what a reader's
options are but also writes computer codes that activate
whatever electronic links that are being made available from
one document to another (wherever those documents may be).
Hypertext coding is a very necessary part of writing in
hypertext but it shouldn't scare you off. Coding is much
easier than you may imagine, as you'll learn in a later
The author of hypertext, then, is still very much
"the author," even though different readers will create
their own individual paths through the web of material.
The hypertext author makes many universes possible for the
reader - but not every universe. Just how many options
should the reader be given? Each hypertext author must
Hyper-text: text that is more than text, which is
more than one word after another, from beginning to end,
with no variation allowed. Hypertext is like the nation's
system of highways and roads. There are many ways to get
from the west coast to the east coast, depending on whether
or not we are in a hurry, depending on what kind of scenery
we want to look at, depending on what may intrigue us as a
side trip from moment to moment.
Hypertext is a web of possibilities, a web of
reading experiences. Hypertext is like life itself, full of
choices and consequences, full of forks in the road.
Hypertext is the language of exploration and
discovery - and therefore is the perfect language to become
the mother tongue of the Information Age.
For writers and readers alike, hypertext may well
define what it means to be literate in the 21st century.