by Julius WiedemannNov 10, 2020
The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze has built solid theories about the understanding of possibilities generated by difference. These possibilities are more likely to happen when there is an open space for exploration, or a modular way of thinking, contrary to the model of a moulded world, with the expectation of a rigid (and sometimes needed) outcome. Hyperlinking is all about connecting something that might generate the possibility of reaching out to something yet to be known or recognised. The nomad, in his theory, walks an endless path, in constant search for something, and on the way, they are always creating something new.
In his first paper for an idea named World Wide Web: Proposal for a HyperText Project, on November 12, 1990, Tim Berners-Lee stated in the abstract that “HyperText is a way to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will. Potentially, HyperText provides a single user interface to many large classes of stored information such as reports, notes, databases, computer documentation and on-line systems help. We propose the implementation of a simple scheme to incorporate several different servers of machine-stored information already available at CERN, including an analysis of the requirements for information access needs by experiments.” The experiments turned out to be what we now take completely for granted and expect to be linked from one place to the other as a common rule. The fact is that hyperlinks imbue both localisation and displacement of potentialities. Localisation because it is inserted in a context and within text that is marked clearly, signalling that there is something more to be found. Displacement because the hyperlink can take you somewhere else, to another page, offering new context, and a new beginning. In an e-book for instance, hyperlinks extend the stories endlessly and offer the construction of almost infinite new possibilities.
The function of books has gone through radical change in the last 30 years. From being advice and ultimate resource, they have become a portal to endless sources of information, and a gateway to more knowledge. It happened so in my view for two reasons: one is that it is today impossible to have a certain amount of information in a book which could cover a subject with enough depth. There’s just too much information about anything we can think of out there. The second reason is because our minds work with the idea of hyperlinks. Of course, it’s easier when a publication is digital, and connected to the internet, where a website outside the publication is at your fingertips. But ultimately, it is our form of thinking, connecting dots. We used to use markers in printed books, but now we can jump from a word or expression to our mobile phones and discover more. Maybe just the meaning of a word, or the history of a political movement. But the next pool of information is just right there, one click away. HyperText enables that.
We think now in hyperlinks. We build explanations assuming that the user, or a reader is supposed to access something extra which is not there yet. The concept of footnotes in books has now been democratised to an extent that every single word in a publication, and every single image anywhere is a repository of potential new knowledge, just a tap away. From QR codes to barcodes to images to songs, we organise ourselves around the fact that there is always new knowledge to acquire. And we seem to love it.
Serendipity is also something that has to be factored into a freer navigation. It disentangles biased suggestions from the free-will of the user, offering improbable findings. As platforms become less about the data, and more about how data guides behaviour, serendipity is the ingredient to add randomness to the life and spark creative connections. Links have always become more sophisticated, and the best systems are the ones that allow you to go back to the beginning of your history, like the home button in the browser, so that you can track back where you have started. What hyperlinks offer at the end is the narrative of discovery in itself. It is one of the three key concepts developed by Tim Berners-Lee for the World Wide Web that still play a fundamental role in how we use all digital media.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.