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Chapter One Hypertext and the Memex


In 1945, a time of repair and reformation as the Second World War was coming to a close, there came about an article pertaining to mankind’s most recent and significant scientific inventions and their consequence for future developments in technology. Vannevar Bush, was the author of this article and his predictions as to where technological advancements could eventually lead to, has become one of the most significant documents of our time. Amongst his predictions on forensic science and photographic art, Bush forecast an invention known as “the Memex”.

“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. It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading…If the user wishes to consult a certain book, he taps its code on the keyboard, and the title page of the book promptly appears before him...” (Bush, 1945, section 7)

With careful documentation on the design and constitution of “the Memex”, Bush describes a piece of technology which today sits quietly in a corner of practically every home in the western world, the Personal Computer. In the midst of this prediction Bush describes a system by which all texts stored within “the Memex” will be linked inextricably to one another, by an assortment of code spaces which may be referred to in a user manual. He states that when researching any given subject the user can tie pertinent documents together, thus creating a trail between texts. Once several links have been activated and the corresponding texts are displayed, “It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together to form a new book” (Bush, 1945, section 7). The user may even adjoin his own comments to the trail which he feels are relatable to his line of investigation, meshing his own thoughts with those of hundreds of other researchers and theoreticians.

Millions of people daily utilise the system first documented by Vannevar Bush nearly sixty years ago, hopping from one interconnected site to another without any thought to the process by which these texts relate technologically. This system by which practically all sources of information that exist on the World Wide Web are allied is called, hypertext, a term coined by Theodor H. Nelson in his article Literary Machines, 0/2 (1990).

“By ‘hypertext’ I mean non-sequential writing – text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen. As popularly conceived, this series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways” (Nelson, 1990, online).

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intro : what : works : writing