“The Web That Wasn’t” and “Augmenting Human Intellect”

Link to Prezi: http://prezi.com/w4tpxx7lsh2a/dh-presentation-919/

Presentation: “The Web That Wasn’t” and “Augmenting Human Intellect”

In the chapter “The Web that Wasn’t,” from his book Glut, Alex Wright presents an alternative history of the theoretical and technical antecedents of the Internet and World Wide Web. Although Wright discusses some men who are traditionally included in the history of the Net (and a few who are not), his focus is on those elements of their visions that have not been realized in the Web today.

Through this focus, Wright stresses that the Web should not be framed as the outcome of an inevitable, technical progression, but as only one of many possible outcomes. The chapter highlights a number of tensions between the Web that Wasn’t and the Web that Was/Is: truly two-way authorship as opposed to one-way consumption, associative trails (or stigmergy) as opposed to hierarchy, open and user-driven development as opposed to closed programmers’ clubs, and computers as general or humanities devices as opposed to computers as computational devices.

Wright also emphasizes the importance of imagining potentialities, both that of visionaries imagining technologies before any of their visions were technically feasible as well as that of people in the present imagining a different reality for networked communications.

Wright’s first stop on his alterna-history of the Internet is the author/cataloger/unclassifiable information professional Paul Otlet. Otlet’s unflagging positivism and optimism led him to develop what Wright calls the first and only fully-realized faceted cataloging system, the Universal Decimal Classification. In Otlet’s vision, all of human knowledge could be organized and cross-referenced, an assertion that led to the birth of the Mundaneum in 1910. This impressive edifice—a functioning reference service that used an index of 12 million cards—was dismantled in 1934 and forgotten until the 1990s, but Otlet’s most important legacy was his 1934 Traité de Documentation. In this text, Otlet imagines a machine that sounds a lot like modern desktops. Otlet’s “Universal Book” was a device that would allow users to search through, read, edit, annotate, and create associations or links between millions of texts, within the texts themselves. This information retrieval system would be informed both by a universal classification system and by the insights of readers and writers, updating a network of links to create a self-organizing and re-configurable system.

Wright then turns to Vannevar Bush, whose seminal essay “As We May Think” echoes Otlet’s Traité de Documentation. In this text, Bush conceives of the Memex, a workstation not unlike the Universal Book, which would provide access to documents on microfilm, with provisions for reading, writing, editing, annotating, and making what Bush calls “associative trails.” Unlike Otlet, Bush was anti-hierarchy and anti-cataloguing, but they both called for systems that could be simultaneously read and changed by (prod)users. But Bush’s most important work, according to Wright, was neither this essay nor his semi-functioning inventions, but instead his later revelations about the future of computing and the Internet. In Bush’s subsequent writing, the associative trails he discusses have more natural qualities: they “bifurcate and cross, they become erased in disuse, and emphasized by success.” These computational desire paths have a few intellectual heirs–Eugene Garfield’s citation rankings, Sergey Brim and Larry Page’s page rankings, link paths, etc.–but Wright argues that the Web has failed to truly realize Bush’s vision. Furthermore, the Web falls short of Bush’s aspiration for a “participatory scholarly research environment.” I don’t quite agree with Wright that the Web is “ultimately unidirectional,” although that seems to be the prevailing model for content.

Next Wright discusses the work of Douglas Engelbart, who is one of the few men mentioned in this chapter whose physical inventions are as impressive as his conceptual creations. Engelbart’s 1962 essay, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” lays out a research paradigm and his team’s deceptively simple goal: determine which factors “limit effectiveness of information-handling,” and develop new techniques, procedures, and systems that will help to augment human capability to meet the problems of society. Engelbart’s conceptual framework, which draws heavily from Bush’s essay, clearly lays out both an imaginative space–“Joe” leads you through the potential elements of the system’s symbol creation, antecedent-consequent links and structure, search trails, collaborative work–as well as a practical research paradigm that he called the bootstrapping strategy. In 1968, Engelbart’s team gave what is now called the “Mother of All Demos,” in which he demonstrated not only stunning breakthroughs in interface hardware (a mouse!) but also made good on many of his conceptual promises, including hyperlinks.

Wright’s final figure in the history of the Web that Wasn’t is Ted Nelson, who, like most of these figures, is more important for his intellectual rather than his practical legacy. In 1960, Nelson began the Xanadu Project to create a network with a simple interface and enhanced linking affordances. Nelson’s treatises on computing–Computer Lib and Literary Machines–are anti-hierarchy and seek to “liberate” the computer from being a computational device, controlled by geeks in closed rooms. Although Xanadu was and may never been completed, Wright cites Nelson’s three types of hypertext–ordinary hypertext (much like a modren URL), stretchtext (in which documents can accessed through or inserted into other documents, a function which I can’t even imagine), and collateral hypertext (which facilitates collaborative sharing, editing, and reviewing and sounds something like wiki markup language to me)–as both influential and tragically unrealized in the web today.

Although Wright does acknowledge that the web is hugely democratizing, he argues that the most promising conceptual inventions of these contributors has been left by the wayside. In particular, the web primarily permits top-down creation; lacks truly dynamic hyperlinks of the type dreamed up by Otlet, Bush, and Nelson; and is controlled by webmasters and corporations whose concern are computation and commercialization rather than humanities and research. On the other hand, however, there appear to be new forms which challenge Wright’s views, among them social media, blogging, wikis, and new hyperlink and search capabilities. Where is the space today for imagining these alternatives?

Explanation of Prezi: I wanted to present Wright’s chapter–a human-centric history–as a scrapbook of sorts, but one that echoed the linked structure that is so central in the chapter. The overall design of the links was inspired by the screenshots I found of the latest iteration of the Xanadu Project. The men highlighted in Wright’s chapter are presented in a (sort of) timeline to the left of Wright’s text, with links between what Wright presents as related ideas. My introduction of the text is to the right. I tried to make my prezi non-linear but not nauseating.

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