Too Dimensional: Literary and Technical Images of Potentiality in the History of Hypertext

Belinda Barnet and Darren Tofts

There is a vision offered in these pages, simple, unified and sweeping: it is a unified concept of interconnected ideas and data, and of how these ideas and data may be stored and published.

(Ted Nelson 1992: preface)

Historiography is always guided by specific metaphors; it is "infected" by what it touches as the past (Demeulenaere 2003). Much has been written about the history of hypertext over the last twenty years,1 and this chapter is not an attempt to write another linear, causally linked history. What we will be investigating is how some of the early hypertext designs have become inherited vision within hypertext literature —in particular, Vannevar Bush's Memex, Ted Nelson's Xanadu, and Douglas Engelbart's oN-Line System. Historical and literary works routinely trace the evolution of hypertext through these three inventors and their designs, and certain essays (for example Bush's As We May Think) are regularly cited. The early hypertext fiction works, particularly those on the web, also engage with these key works.

In relation to Vannevar Bush's Memex, Paisley and Butler have noted that "scientists and technologists are guided by 'images of potentiality' — the untested theories, unanswered questions and unbuilt devices that they view as their agenda for five years, ten years, and longer" (cited in Smith 1991: 262). We will contend that hypertext theory and fiction writers are similarly guided by images of potentiality within the field. With respect to hypertext, they constitute a vision of the ultimate archive, an archive which preserves the "true" or "natural" connections which hold between items. This system would be non-linear, encyclopedic, cross-referential, or as James Joyce puts it, "too dimensional" (Joyce 1975: 154). The vision has never been perfectly realized. What, then, can we say about a dream which is never fulfilled — but nonetheless recurs?

In the first section we will investigate the different hypertext systems designed by Bush, Engelbart, and Nelson, highlighting the differences between them. We will be specifically interested here in how Bush's vision influenced Nelson and Engelbart. Although the great body of literature suggests that they were "directly influenced" by Bush's vision (Whitehead 2000; Keep, McLaughlin, and Parmar 2001), both Nelson and Engelbart claim that the vector was not so precise. In the second section we will investigate how some of the early archives of web-based literary works engaged with this creation myth, and critique their assumptions to do with hypertext as an emergent medium.

Vannevar Bush and Memex

There is another revolution under way, and it is far more important and significant than [the industrial revolution]. It might be called the mental revolution.

(Bush 1959: l65)

Documents on information retrieval systems are not known for their shelf-life. What, then, is it about the ideas behind Vannevar Bush's writings which have so influenced today's research agenda in digital media? Linda C. Smith undertook a comprehensive citation context analysis of literary and scientific articles produced after the 1945 publication of Bush's article in the Atlantic Monthly, "As We May Think." In this article, Bush looked toward the post-war world and predicted an exponential increase in human knowledge. How are we to keep track of it all? He urged men of science to turn their efforts to making the great body of human knowledge more accessible to individuals, and proposed a machine to organize the mess: the Memory Extender or "Memex." Smith found that there is a conviction, without dissent, that modern hypertext is traceable to this article (Smith 1991: 265). In each decade since the Memex design was published, commentators have not only lauded it as vision, but also asserted that "technology [has] finally caught up with this vision" (Smith 1991: 278). Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart are the most vocal supporters of Bush as founding father of hypertext, and Engelbart wrote to Bush in 1962 to tell him that the article had influenced him "quite basically" (Engelbart 1962: 235).

We will look at this visionary machine, a precursor to hypertext, presently. Amid all the excitement, however, it is important to remember that Memex was never built; it exists entirely on paper. Because the design was first published in the summer of 1945, at the end of a war effort and with the birth of computers, theorists have often associated it with the post-war information boom. In fact, Bush had been writing about it since the early 1930s, and the Memex essay went through several different versions.

As Nyce and Kahn observe, in all versions of the essay (1933, 1939, 1945, 1967), Bush begins his thesis by explaining the dire problem we face in confronting the great mass of the human record, criticizing the way information was then organized. The main problem as he saw it was "the matter of selection"; the way we categorize, store, and retrieve information. Bush is quite clear about what is wrong with traditional indexing systems: they are artificial. Information should not be organized alphabetically or numerically, it should be organized by association — this is how the mind works.

Our ineptitude at getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically… [the] human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain.

(Bush 1939, 1945, 1967)

These sentences were important enough that they appeared verbatim in all versions of the Memex essay. Details of how the machine operated changed, but this emphasis on "natural" versus "artificial" indexing stayed the same. Bush wanted a machine to support the building of trails of association through vast stores of information, based on his understanding of how the human mind and memory work. His model of associative memory was derived from work being done by his colleagues at MIT, Claude Shannon, Warren McCulloch, and Walter Pitts — work that would result in the McCulloch—Pitts neuron (Hayles 1999: 65). This model of neuronal networks was later articulated more thoroughly in terms of computer switching. Bush explicitly worked with such analogies — in fact, "he not only thought with and in these terms, he built technological projects with them" (Nyce and Kahn 1991: 62).

Of all his projects, Bush felt the greatest sense of urgency about Memex. The collective record is expanding, information is getting more complex, and we are not equipped to manage the mess. One of the most widely quoted sentences from his 1945 essay expresses this sense of urgency:

The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.

(Bush 1945)

In an interview with one of the authors, Douglas Engelbart was asked what motivated him to create the world's first hypertext system in the mid-1960s (a system we will explore in the next section). He replied:

I thought, "it's a complex world, getting more complex and the problems are getting more urgent … so let's just see what we can do to improve mankind's collective ability to deal with complexity and urgency."

(Interview with Barnet, 1999)

There is a vision behind hypertext. As Ted Nelson put it in the introduction to this essay, the vision is simple, unified, and sweeping; it is also urgent. It is a vision of the ultimate archive: an archive that is more powerful and more efficient than any that has come before, an archive where things that are logically linked together are logically retrieved together.2 The early hypertext systems differed radically in their mechanism, scope, and workings: but this vision, and this sense of urgency, remained the same. Bush felt his project was of the utmost importance to the future of human civilization; it would boost "the entire process by which man profits by his inheritance of acquired knowledge" (1945: 99).

Memex was originally proposed as a desk at which the user could sit, equipped with two slanting translucent screens upon which material would be projected for convenient reading. There was a keyboard to the right of these screens, and a set of buttons and levers which could be used to search information. If the user wished to consult a certain article, "he [tapped] its code on the keyboard, and the title page of the book promptly appear[ed]" (Bush 1945: 103). The images were stored on microfilm inside the desk, which was an exciting new technology in Bush's time. To add information to the microfilm file, a photographic copying plate was also provided on the desk, but most of the Memex contents would be "purchased on microfilm ready for insertion" (Bush 1945: 102). The user could classify material as it came in front of him using a stylus, and register links between different pieces of information using this stylus.

The 1945 Memex design also introduced the concept of "trails," which was a method of connecting information by linking two units together, anticipating hyper-text paths. Making a chain of these links was called "trailblazing," and was based on a mechanical provision "whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another" (Bush 1945: 107), just as though these items were being "gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book" (Bush 1945: 104). Although Memex links were made between a pair of microfilm frames, they did not have the same "granularity" as modern hypertext links, which are much more accurate and can be directed to a single word, phrase, or image. Nevertheless, Memex was the first machine to propose associative trails as an organizational principle. "This is the essential feature of the Memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing" (Bush 1945: 103). Bush went so far as to suggest that in the future, there would be professional trailblazers who took pleasure in creating useful paths through the common record using their Memex.

Memex became an image of potentiality for Bush himself near the end of his life. In the later essays, he writes in a different tone entirely: Memex was a vision he would bequeath to the future, a gift to the human race (1959, 1970). He was nearing the end of his life, and the loss of his own knowledge as a great thinker. If the Memex were built, could it carry his own thoughts to a new generation?

Can a son inherit the memex of his father, refined and polished over the years, and go on from there? In this way can we avoid some of the loss which comes when oxygen is no longer furnished to the brain of the great thinker, when all the patterns of neurons so painstakingly refined become merely a mass of protein and nucleic acid? Can the race thus develop leaders, of such power and intellect, that the world can be saved from its follies? This is an objective of far greater importance than the conquest of disease.

(Bush 1959: 183)

Figure 15.1  Illustration of Memex from Life Magazine, 1945.

Bush died on June 30, 1974. All we have left of Memex are the articles he wrote in his lifetime, and some sketches of the machine created by Life magazine. By the time Bush died, the technology behind Memex was already obsolete; digital computing had taken hold, and the spinning rolls of microfilm and analog operations of Memex seemed quaint. Memex remained profoundly uninfluenced by the paradigm of digital computing, and this may explain why it was never built to Bush's design. But the vision of Memex would remain, and it would influence a new generation of inventors, starting with a young electrical engineer named Douglas Engelbart. The computer, screen, and mouse would become Engelbart's parallel to Memex's storage desk, displays, and stylus; hyperlinks would become his parallel to Bush's trails. With these technologies, Engelbart would update the Memex design and bring it into an entirely different era and discourse: digital computing.

Doug Engelbart and NLS/Augment

We need to think about how to boost our collective IQ, and how important it would be to society because all of the technologies are just going to make our world accelerate faster and faster and get more and more complex and we're not equipped to cope with that complexity. So that's the big challenge.

(Interview 1999)

Some ideas are like viruses. If they are in the air at the right time, they will "infect exactly those people who are most susceptible to putting their lives in the idea's service" (Rheingold 1985: 176). Engelbart still remembers reading about Memex. It was a hot day in 1945, and he was twenty years old. Like most young engineers of his time, he was doing military work, and had been posted out to the Philippines as a radar technician. He picked up a reprint of "As We May Think" in Life magazine, and wandered into a Red Cross library to read it. What connected for him most strongly was the idea that humans might be able to work with information interactively, and how that might expand our collective capabilities. Although he promptly forgot about the article, the ideas in it infected him.

Five years later, as he was driving home from work, Engelbart had a series of "flashes" of himself sitting at a Memex-like machine. He committed his career to making this vision a reality:

1.  FLASH-1: The difficulty of mankind's problems was increasing at a greater rate than our ability to cope.

2.  FLASH-2: Boosting mankind's ability to cope with complex, urgent problems would be an attractive candidate as an arena in which a young person might "make the most difference."

3.  FLASH-3: Ahah — graphic vision surges forth of me sitting at a large CRT [Cathode Ray Tube] console, working in ways that are rapidly evolving in front of my eyes (Engelbart 1988: 189).

The idea of attaching a console to a computer is important. At the time, computers didn't have screens; Engelbart literally transferred this idea from the radars he was servicing in the Philippines to computers as he had learned about them in engineering school. He already had an image of what such a union might look like: Memex. But Memex was the product of a different era: analog computing. Was Engelbart dreaming of something new, or was he harking back to a technology that had already been discarded?

The answer to both questions is "Yes." Innovation sometimes depends on revisiting previous ideas and employing them in new contexts.

(Bardini 2000: 62)

All great dreams invite revisions, as Stuart Moulthrop puts it (1991: 48). There were some obvious commonalities between Bush's and Engelbart's vision, however. Both Bush and Engelbart proposed a fundamentally technical solution to the problem of human knowledge. They also believed there is a natural structure to this knowledge; a networked structure we should seek to preserve. All our ideas have basic interconnections, and this is what enables the creation of new concepts as well as recall. Bush and Engelbart wanted an information system to support the natural or "true" connections which hold between items. Bush conceptualized this structure in terms of association. Engelbart considered it derivative of language — this is where his philosophy differs from Bush.

Bush's philosophy revolved around the "association" of ideas on the model of how the individual mind is supposed to work. [Engelbart's] revolved around the intersubjective "connection" of words in the system of natural languages.

(Bardini 2000: 40)

Engelbart's revision of the dream would prove to be too radical for the engineering community, however. The idea that a screen might be attached to a computer, and that humans might interact with information displayed on this screen, was seen as ridiculous. "It was too far out [for the engineering community]. It was wacky even in the seventies, after we had it working — real hypermedia working" (interview 1999). As with most visionaries who introduce new ways of working before their time, there was resistance to building such a machine. It would be over ten years before Engelbart received sufficient funding to set up a lab at the Stanford Research Institute, in 1962.

Engelbart called his lab the Augmentation Research Center (ARC), and began work immediately. He started with a series of experiments focused on the way people select and connect ideas together across a computer screen. A section of the lab was given over to "screen selection device" experiments, and different technologies were tested for speed and flexibility (interview 1999). Light pens, which were based on the Memex stylus, knee or head-mounted selection devices, joysticks, and the "x-y pointing device" (later dubbed the "mouse") were all trialed. For selecting and connecting units of information, Engelbart's mouse consistently beat other devices in these controlled tests. The lab also built their own computer displays, and by 1968, they had what would have seemed a strange setup: a multi-user computer display system, with a keyboard and mouse for each terminal. On this new setup, Engelbart developed the world's first hypertext system.

The system was called NLS, for oN-Line System. It arguably had more hypertext functionality than the modern internet. In NLS, information could be reordered, linked, nested, juxtaposed, revised, deleted, or chained window by window. The screen could be divided into a number of windows, which could display either text or image, and the user had multiple possible views of the same information. Most importantly, the system had fine "granularity": unlike Memex or the modern internet, users could link to almost anything, and these links would never break.

[Unlike with the web], in NLS we had it that every object in the document was intrinsically addressable, right from the word go. It didn't matter what date a document's development was, you could give somebody a link right into anything, so you could actually have things that point right to a character or a word or something. All that addressability in the links could also be used to pick the objects you're going to operate on when you're editing. So that just flowed.

(Interview, 1999)

This is in contrast to the World Wide Web, where the finest level of intrinsic addressability is the URL (universal resource locator). Unlike the NLS addressing system, which attached itself to the object, a URL is simply a location on a server. When the object moves, the link is broken. You can never be sure an old link will work on the web. NLS was far more permanent, and the links did not break so easily (Ted Nelson's system, which we will explore presently, also aspired to this permanency).

By 1968, NLS had matured into a massive system, the first digital hypertext system. It had implemented the Memex vision of "trails" through information, and invented the mouse and the hyperlink along the way. But there was little interest in the project from outside the military; people had heard of NLS but never seen it in action. It was time to take it out of the Petri dish and set it to work in front of the engineering community. Engelbart took an immense risk and applied for a special session at the ACM/IEEE-CS Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco in December 1968. "The nice people at ARPA and NASA, who were funding us, effectively had to say 'Don't tell me!', because if this had flopped, we would have gotten in trouble" (Engelbart 1988: 203). This is an understatement. The engineering community were skeptical enough as it was: if the presentation has flopped, it would have destroyed Engelbart's career.

Like the Memex design, the NLS demo has subsequently entered into legend. The presentation proceeded without a hitch, and obtained a standing ovation. It was the first public demonstration of hypertext, the mouse, and screen-based computing. It is remembered as computing history's "foundational tribal tale" (Bardini 2000: 139), "the mother of all demonstrations" (Wardrip-Fruin 2003: 231), the "demo that got everyone fired up about interactive computing" (Nielsen 1995: 37), and a "landmark … in the annals of interactive computing" (Ceruzzi 1998: 260). De Landa and Rheingold claim the demo actually created the paradigm of human—computer interactivity: "the idea that the computer could become a medium to amplify man's intellect became a tangible reality for the people in Engelbart's audience" (De Landa 1994: 221); he was a "test pilot for a new kind of vehicle that doesn't fly over geographical territory but through what was heretofore an abstraction that computer scientists called 'information space' " (Rheingold 1985: ch. 9).

Although history has proven Engelbart's vision to be prophetic, the NLS/Augment story languished after 1976. Engelbart is neither rich nor powerful, a conclusion that seems strikingly unfair given his contributions to modern computing. The windows, interactive menus, and pointing device (WIMP) interface he invented have migrated to Apple and to Microsoft, and become the centerpiece of a proprietary, multi-billion-dollar operating system. As it turned out, the market wasn't interested in boosting our collective capacity: it was interested in mass-producing software.

It was "a long trail" before Engelbart actually went back to look at Bush's article —somewhere around 1961 (interview 1999). At this point he realized what had happened. He wrote a letter to Bush in 1962 to thank him for As We May Think. In it he reflected that

I was startled to realize how much I had aligned my sights along the vector you [Bush] had described. I wouldn't be surprised at all if the reading of this article sixteen and a half years ago hadn't had a real influence upon the course of my thoughts and actions.

(Engelbart 1962: 236)

Bush never replied.

Ideas and their Interconnections: Xanadu

[The web] is a universal, world-wide, anarchic publishing system. It completely vindicated my 35 years of saying that a universal, world-wide anarchic publishing system was possible. It just does it all wrong, that's all.

(Nelson, 1999, interview)

It was a vision in a dream. A computer filing system which would store and deliver the great body of human literature, in all its historical versions and with all its messy interconnections, acknowledging authorship, ownership, quotation, and linkage. Like the web, but much better: no links would ever be broken, no documents would ever be lost, copyright and authorship would be scrupulously preserved. Imagine a hypertext system where all quotations within an article would stay connected to their source documents, and readers could click through to the original context of a citation. New changes could be made by authors without breaking any links, and anyone could connect comments to any page. Unlike on the web, hypertext links would be two-way or "bivisible"; they could be seen and followed from both the source page and the destination page, and they could overlap in vast numbers. Everything would be deeply interconnected, which is the way it was always meant to be. This vision belongs to hypertext pioneer Theodore Holm Nelson, who dubbed the project Xanadu in 1967.

The story of Xanadu is perhaps the greatest image of potentiality in the evolution of hypertext. Nelson invented a new vocabulary to describe his vision, much of which has become integrated into contemporary hypermedia theory and practice — for instance, the words "hypertext" and "hypermedia." As he put it in our interview, "I think I've put more words in the dictionary than Lewis Carroll. Every significant change in an idea means a new term" (1999). Nelson recruited or inspired some of the most visionary programmers and developers in the history of computing, many of whom went on to develop the first hypertext products. His writings and presentations concerning the "digital repository scheme for worldwide electronic publishing" have been plundered by theorists and practitioners the world over. Media opinion, however, is divided over Nelson: "[b]oon or boondoggle, nobody is quite sure," as The Economist puts it (cited in Nelson 1992: preface).

We will be exploring Xanadu and the ideas behind it in more depth presently. For now, we wish to emphasize this mythical dimension to Xanadu; as a concept, it has been under development for over forty years, and has become the stuff of legend within the hypertext community. This is largely due to the inspired writings of its creator and the lack of a real-world prototype. Unlike Bush's Memex, there have been numerous attempts to create the design exactly as Nelson described it, yet it has never been completed. To Nelson's dismay, and perhaps unfairly, it has been hailed as "the longest-running vaporware project in the history of computing" (Wolf 1995: 1).3

Nelson has always felt a great sense of urgency about this project. He believes the way we currently store and manage human knowledge is based on artificial categories and boundaries, and that the problem is escalating. Human knowledge, and particularly literature, has a networked structure to it which is deeply at odds with conventional forms of indexing.

Basically, I have the philosophical view that everything is deeply interconnected. Or as I like to say, intertwingled. And there are no boundaries or fields except those we create artificially, and we are deeply misled by conventional boundaries and descriptions.

(Interview 1999)

If we wish to build a computer system to store and deliver human knowledge, then it should be "CORRESPOND TO THE TRUE INTERCONNECTION OF IDEAS" (Nelson, capitals in original, 1987: 143). It should allow us to follow the true or natural connections which hold between items. Nelson's idea of this "natural" structure is more anarchic than Bush (which was based on associative memory) or Engelbart (which was based on language), but all three concur that an information system should preserve and foster a networked, interconnected structure to information.

Nelson first published the term "hypertext" in his 1965 paper, "A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing and the Indeterminate," where he describes a type of computer-supported writing system that would allow for branching, linking, and responding text. It would be composed of either "written or pictorial material" and its defining feature is that the information would be "interconnected in such a complex way that it could not be conveniently presented or represented on paper" (Nelson 1965: 96). Contrary to modern use of the word "hypertext" to refer to networked text (e.g., Delaney and Landow 1994: 7; Stefik 1997: 21), at the time Nelson meant branching, linking, and responding images as well as text. As Andries van Dam put it in an interview with the author:

Nelson always meant hypermedia when he said hypertext, it's one of the things that people get wrong about Nelson. He meant "text" in the sense of corpus, not text in the sense of characters. I know this for a fact because we've talked about it many times.

(van Dam 1999)

The word "hypertext" was meant to convey the deeply interconnected nature of this corpus. "Hyper" means exceeding, over, beyond, above — more than what presents itself to the eye. The link, as Nelson saw it, would take the user from one place to another, and that place would contain the excess, the overflow, the past or future of the previous idea. Unlike writing on paper, the link would consequently allow for a natural sequence of ideas, like thought itself. Links as Nelson saw them were deeply tied to sequence: ideas are only meaningful in relation to where they have been. Engelbart gives equal credit to Nelson for discovering the link: they were both working on similar ideas at the same time, but Engelbart claims he had the facilities and funding to build a machine that explored those ideas.

Nelson's concept of hypertext influenced several important engineers. The first is Andries van Dam, Professor of Computing Science at Brown University, who built the first hypertext system beginners could use in 1967, the Hypertext Editing System (HES). When van Dam bumped into Nelson at the 1967 Spring Joint Computer Conference, Nelson, wild-eyed and eloquent, started talking about hypertext. At the time, Nelson had no "work in the sense that computer scientists talk about work, i.e., software, algorithms, things that are concrete" remembers van Dam (interview, 1999). What Nelson did have was an infectious belief that computers would one day be used to organize and structure text for personal and scholarly use, and this vision inspired van Dam.

Nelson's vision seduced me … After meeting quite by accident at this computer conference, and talking about what we each were doing, we somehow got onto the topic [of hypertext]. Then he talked me into working on a hypertext system and that sounded cool.

(van Dam 1999)

Nelson's vision also influenced Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web. Berners-Lee appropriated Nelson's term to describe his markup language (HTML, or Hypertext Markup Language). But as Nelson puts it, "HTML is like one-tenth of what I could do. I like and respect Tim Berners-Lee [but] he fulfilled his objective. He didn't fulfil mine" (interview, 1999). Although we don't have the space here to go into the evolution of HTML, it should be noted that Berners-Lee shared Nelson's "deep connectionist" philosophy, and his desire to organize information based on the natural structure of thought:

A computer typically keeps things in rigid hierarchies … whereas the human mind has the ability to link random bits of data. When I smell coffee, strong and stale, I find myself in a small room over a corner coffeehouse in Oxford. My brain makes a link, and instantly transports me there.

(Berners-Lee 1999: 3)

However, while Berners-Lee was met with passivity and Engelbart with skepticism, Nelson received entirely disparaging responses from the computing community. Xanadu has always been "a cult, fringe kind of thing" (van Dam, interview 1999). But Nelson slogs on, and he is not alone: the Xanadu vision lives on in the minds (and evolving code shells) of hundreds of computer professionals around the world. The extended Xanadu community is even wider, and has spawned several organizations devoted to the pursuit of a solution to the problem of contemporary information storage and publishing. Xanadu is an "epic of recovery" (Moulthrop 1991: 695) for the digital era, and it has entered into the imagination of a generation of developers. Unlike Bush's Memex, people keep trying to build the thing as it was first designed. This fact alone is evidence of its impact: technical white papers are not known for their shelf-life, but Xanadu's have thrived for over 40 years.

The Thin Blue Line: Images of Potentiality in Literary Hypertext

At lunchtime on June 17, 1998, a group of Joyceans assembled in a room of the stately Argiletum Palace in Rome. Delegates of the sixteenth International James Joyce Symposium, they were there to attend a preliminary presentation of Michael Groden's James Joyce's Ulysses in Hypermedia. In development since 1994, this mammoth undertaking sought to link a number of decisive editions of Ulysses to create a kind of matrix of the text and its many variations, from the Shakespeare & Company first edition of 1922 to Hans Walter Gabler's controversial computer-assisted "corrected edition" of 1984. Utilizing the rich potential of multimedia, Groden's idea was to incorporate maps, exegeses, episode summaries, and annotations, as well as critical essays on Joyce and hypertext.

Demonstrating how we could listen to sound files of authentic Dublin inflection or a rendition of Love's Old Sweet Song, see photographs and video of key locations or related Bloomsday ephemera (such as Plumtree's Potted Meat), Groden's sample electronic page resembled what at the time was a standard hypertext: a page of writing with selected words underlined in blue. During the proceedings a question came from the floor, from none other than Fritz Senn, the Godfather of Joyce studies and somewhat ambivalent advocate of a hypermedia Ulysses. Senn made the suggestion that with Ulysses, surely every word should be a hot spot, to use the idiom of the day. Everyone in the room, like me I'm quite sure, saw in their mind's eye a field of text in which every word was underlined by a thin blue line.

Here was a vision of a holistic networked Ulysses, and implicitly a total hypertext in which no dimension of the text was not hypertextual — there was no outside-hypertext. The perception of an apparently endless process of linking through, between, and within this dense palimpsestual Ulysses crystallized the new aesthetics of interactive, arduous reading associated with hypertext (the term "ergodic" had only recently been coined). It was an avatar of the fabulous "total book" of Jorge Luis Borges, a codex that contained all books, real and imaginary. It also brought to mind Joyce's own precursory anticipation of the commitment and effort required of this hypertextual practice of reading in Finnegans Wake (1939), a book written for an "ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia" (Joyce 1975: 120). This "solicitation" of hypertext had been the subject of growing critical interest in the Joyce world (Armand 1995). So many of the key events in the history of hypertext, as we have seen so far in this discussion, involve dreams and visions, and Finnegans Wake, it must be remembered, is a dream. And it is a dream that has cast a long shadow of anticipation and expectation. A number of scholars have drawn attention to the already hypertextual nature of Ulysses and the Wake (Theall 1992, 1997; Tofts 1997). Ulysses manifests all the key qualities that very quickly became tropes in hypertext fiction, tropes that had their genesis in the work of Bush, Engelbart, and Nelson: discontinuous, non-sequential, non-linear, reflexive, encyclopedic, cross-referential, etc. (Tofts 2001).

But these writers have also demonstrated how Joyce's language uncannily anticipated many of the more famous pronouncements or terms of Ted Nelson in his theorizing of the hypertextual (Nelson's "docuverse" or "ongoing system of interconnecting documents" [Nelson 1992: 2/8–2/9] is anachronistically echoed in the "too dimensional," "most spacious immensity" of Joyce's verbal universe [Joyce 1975: 154, 150]; the former's "structangle" foreshadowed in the latter's "proteiform graph" and "polyhedron of scripture" [p. 114, p. 107 resp.]). The issue of memory, the archive, and their relationship to technology, so central to the visions of Vannevar Bush, Douglas Englebart, and Ted Nelson, have also been extensively discussed in relation to Joyce. While there is no need for a Memex anymore and Xanadu may well now be a forlorn dream or ideal, Joyce realized something of their promise in Finnegans Wake, a text described by Jacques Derrida as a "hypermnesiac machine" capable "in a single instant or a single vocable, gather up of cultures, languages, mythologies, religions, philosophies, sciences, history of mind and of literatures" (Derrida 1984: 147).

More than a discrete moment in the ongoing publication history of Ulysses, this event, indeed this image of an endless thin blue line, represented something much more expansive and significant. For it too was a dream, the vision of a potential hypermedia Ulysses that has yet to be realized. Groden has been unable to complete the project owing to legal issues of copyright enforced by the James Joyce Estate (Groden). Moreover, this event was an allegory of the convergence of print and electronic culture, an encounter with the impact of an emerging medium on our received ideas to do with print literacy and cultural production and, most importantly, vice versa. Beyond the scholarly value of a networked matrix of the most significant editions of Ulysses, Groden's project and its critical reception in the mid-1990s heightened the contextual manner in which hypertext fiction was being produced, archived, and written about at this time. That is, while Ulysses was regarded as exactly the kind of printed book that invites an electronic, hypermedia treatment, electronic hypertext fiction was in no way regarded in isolation from an inherited vision of what, in potentia, hypertext was; or more accurately, how hypertext behaved. In this sense it is more useful (as Espen Aarseth has done [1997]) to think of hypertextuality as a "theoretical approach to understanding the way certain kinds of texts work" (Tofts 2001: 83). The concepts of Bush, Engelbart, and Nelson had initiated a critical theory of textual behavior or textual poetics, but one in advance of any actual enactments of it in the form of electronic hypertext fiction. Without perhaps recognizing it, in Joyce we had a literary enactment of its potential, of what it might be like in print. In the hypertext fiction written for the World Wide Web, in HyperCard and Storyspace, we would have another, though in a networked environment presumably more suited to its poetics.4

Hypertext's Long Shadow

As an emerging literary practice or alternative poetics, hypertext fiction was already characterized as a process of becoming, of ongoingness, of imminence. Its "sense of unending" (to invert Frank Kermode's phrase the "sense of an ending") was famously captured in Jane Yellowlees Douglas's famous question (plea), "How do I stop this thing?" Hypertext, in advance of whatever seminal works or incunabula appeared in the name of electronic hypertext fiction (such as the other Joyce's Afternoon), had succumbed to the supplementary desire of all dreams and visions, the fetish. When Jay David Bolter published one of the first extensive critical studies of hypertext in 1991, he chose to provide the option of a version of the book written in Storyspace, the emerging software of choice for budding hyper-authors. The idea was to allow the reader to immerse themselves in the very logic he was describing in the printed book, so it could be read in a non-linear way. But to experience hypertext and to conceptually understand it as such are two different things. Bolter's provision of an "electronic shadow" of Writing Space on "diskette" foregrounds, unwittingly or otherwise, the hypertext fetish of implementing discontinuity for its own sake, since this is how hypertext is expected or supposed to behave (Bolter 1991: x). In that electronic shadow is the trace of the "virtuality" Ted Nelson described in Literary Machines, "the creation of the conceptual and psychological environment, the seeming of the system" (Nelson 1992: 1/3).

Experimentation in hypertext fiction in the 1990s, then, was very much happening in the shadow of inherited visions of hypertext, an unfulfilled, recurring dream of becoming. The first online archives of hypertext fiction and resources for aspiring writers, dating from the early 1990s, can be reviewed as rhetorical strategies of managing this process of becoming, of the convergence of residual and emergent practices of writing. The Electronic Labyrinth (1993–2001) and Hyperizons (1995–7) are two notable examples in this respect.

Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, and Robin Parmar's Electronic Labyrinth is an extensive online resource incorporating description, annotation, critical discussion, historical context, and information on authoring resources for aspiring hypertext fiction writers. It was one of the first Baedekers for the new world of interactive fiction, containing extensive links to literary precursors and contemporary practitioners of electronic hypertext fiction. As with any foray into a strange new land, it is important to acknowledge pioneers. Keep, McLaughlin, and Parmar want us to be in no doubt who the hypertext trailblazers are. Like latter-day travelers journeying to the center of the earth, we find this marker signaling those who came before us:

No discussion of reading and writing electronic texts would be complete without mentioning the contributions of Vannevar Bush, Douglas Engelbart, and Ted Nelson.

(Keep, McLaughlin, and Parmar 2001)

But identifying precursors and visionaries is only part of what The Electronic Labyrinth is concerned with. Its clearly stated mission is to evaluate "hypertext and its potential for use by literary artists." Hence the extensive section on "Software Environments," an annotated resource for evaluating "the available hypertext authoring systems, with the aim of providing recommendations to potential authors." Despite the emphasis on novelty, on innovative new "authoring systems" with their strange, foreign names (HyperShell, HyperCard, Orpheus, LinkWay), the concept of hypertext is defined and contextualized in relation to "the literary tradition of non-linear approaches to narrative." Its focus on hypertext fiction was an instance of this broader imperative to map the transition from book to hyperbook, to re-evaluate "the concept of the book in the age of electronic text" (Keep, McLaughlin, and Parmar 2001).

One of the most critically engaging sections of the site deals with "Re-thinking The Book." The passage from book to hyperbook is cast as an epic steeped in the literary tradition of the West that goes back as far as the year 367 and the delivery of the Festal Epistle of St Athanasius. The Holy Trinity of Bush, Engelbart, and Nelson are given their due, no more, no less, in this extensive hagiography of hypertext. This historical framework enunciates a most telling inherited vision of hypertext as a concept in advance of a practice — "Our definition does not limit itself to electronic text; hypertext is not inherently tied to technology, content, or medium. It is an organizational form which may just as readily be delivered on paper as electronically. Thus, Sterne's Tristram Shandy is no less a hypertext than Joyce's Afternoon" (Keep, McLaughlin, and Parmar 2001).

A similar polemic weaves the pages of Michael Shumate's Hyperizons hypertext fiction site. "Hypertext fiction (aka hyperfiction, interactive fiction, nonlinear fiction) is a new art form," Shumate informs us, that "while not necessarily made possible by the computer was certainly made feasible by it" (Shumate 1997). More shadows from a dream. Shumate, too, is interested in the broader cultural logic of the shift from page to screen. For Shumate there are two key nodes here — "General Fiction Converted From Print" and "Precursors of Hypertext Fiction." As with Bolter, and many others for that matter, one of the first operations of the new medium was to re-work its immediate predecessor — McLuhan's first law of media once again rings true.

But Shumate goes so far as to make a claim for "Original Hypertext Fiction," which exceeds Keep, McLaughlin, and Parmar's concept of "literary works created specifically for computerized hypertext." Citing examples such as Robert Coover's Hypertext Hotel, Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl, and Stuart Moulthrop's Dreamtime, Shumate presents what, at the time, was arguably the most comprehensive list of "original" hypertext works, written by individual and multiple authors.

In the "Precursors of Hypertext Fiction" section, though, Shumate discloses that his apparent Oedipal search for original, contemporary examples of hypertext fiction is tempered by the feeling that we have seen something like this before. Even before we are transported across the thin blue line to his archive of precursory works, we feel an intimation of imminence, of becoming, that Shumate himself has sensed in the machinations of the computer:

This section lists print works that have been pointed out as precursors of hypertext. Since there will likely be more of these all the time, I'm not going to list everything anybody mentions, but only those titles that I've either read personally or that have been mentioned numerous times. As I develop this, I'll also try to give publication information of whatever version is in print. I'll also indicate places where I've seen the argument made for a work as a precursor of hypertext fiction.

(Shumate 1997)

Less a search than a process of textual archaeology, Shumate's perception of a potentially endless discovery of antecedents reveals the extent to which the inherited vision of hypertext was ingrained in the new media sensibility of the 1990s. As of 1997 (when he seems to have abandoned the site to hypertext history) Shumate's list of original hypertext works was greater than his list of precursors. Perhaps he is still reading a backlog of precursors.

Hyperizons bears the conspicuous presence of the thin blue line. But, as with The Electronic Labyrinth, there is far more plain text than hypertext, certainly relative to a potential James Joyce's Ulysses in Hypermedia. And the latter, like Xanadu, or even more distantly Memex, remain sublime potential literatures, in the great tradition of Oulippo. They are images of a potential form of textuality glimpsed by Bush, Engelbart, and Nelson, a grammar for being elsewhere,5 techno-artifacts that take us into the labyrinth and the experience of a web more "complex, changing and indeterminate" than even Daedalus ever dared dream.


1  For a general introduction to hypertext history, see the first chapter of George Landow's book, Hypertext 3.0 (2006), and the first chapter of Jakob Nielsen's book, Multimedia and Hypertext (1995). Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Mon-tfort's book, The New Media Reader (2003), is a collection of important articles from this period, including classic pieces by Ted Nelson, Vannevar Bush, and Doug Engelbart. For more detailed research, see Nyce and Kahn's From Memex to Hypertext (1991); this book is an excellent introduction to Vannevar Bush's work. Thierry Bardini's book on Doug Engelbart, Bootstrapping (2000), is also useful, along with Engelbart's own account in Adele Goldberg's 1988 book, A History of Personal Workstations (this book also contains important historical pa-pers on the early internet, ARPANET). Readers who are interested in the history of hypertext should also find Andries van Dam's Hypertext '87 Keynote address, which contains an account of his own systems, HES and FRESS (1988).

2  To paraphrase Andries van Dam in an interview with the author. Van Dam's team created an important hypertext system called the Hypertext Editing System (HES) in 1967. We do not have time to explore HES in detail here — interested readers should start with van Dam (1988). "You could say hypertext is a very crude analog to what must happen for the storage of facts and information in the brain, where things that are logically linked are logically retrieved together" (1999, interview with Barnet).

3  Wolf's 1995 Wired article is a classic piece on Xanadu, but contains numerous errors of fact. Readers who are interested in the history of hypertext should also study Nelson's response, parts of which were published in Wired in 1995. <http://coe.ksu.edu/mcgrath/HMedia/NelsonLtr.htm>.

4  The history and prehistory of hypertext fiction is still being written. However, in relation to electronic forms there are some critically acknowledged examples. Early pre-web experiments with HyperCard stacks include Amanda Goodenough's Inigo Gets Out (1987), Hum-phrey Clark's The Perfect Couple (1990) and Sarah Smith's King of Space (1991). The introduction of Storyspace authoring software in 1987 fostered an emerging practice of interactive fiction on diskette. Some of the more famous titles include Michael Joyce's Afternoon, a Story (1990), Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden (1991) and Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl (1995). Voyager, Hyperbole, and Broder-bund published works in a variety of distributable forms, including laserdisc and CD ROM (the Miller Brothers' Myst [1994] is arguably the most celebrated). Works distributed via the World Wide Web allowed for a more accessible form of engagement, among them Robert Coover's Hypertext Hotel (1991), Francesca da Rimini's The Contested Zone (1993), David Blair's Waxweb (1994—ongoing), Sean Cohen's and Stuart Moulthrop's The Color of Television (1996), and Mark Amerika's Grammatron (1997). See The Electronic Labyrinth and Hyperi-zons for more detailed chronologies.

5  The phrase is adapted from H. Porter Abbott, "A Grammar for Being Elsewhere," Journal of Modern Literature 6.1, 1977.

References and Further Reading

Aarseth, Espen (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Armand, Louis (1995). "Phoenix Ex Machina: Joyce's Solicitation of Hypertext," 1.1. <http://hjs.ff.cuni.cz/archives/v1/framed/lar-mand/jms1.html>.

Bardini, Thierry (2000). Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Bolter, Jay David (1991). Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Berners-Lee, Tim (1999). Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by its Inventor. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Bush, Vannevar (1939). "Mechanization and Record." Vannevar Bush Papers, Library of Congress [Box 50, General correspondence file, Eric Hodgins].

Bush, Vannevar (1945). "As We May Think." The Atlantic Monthly 176.1: 641–9.

Bush, Vannevar (1959). "Memex II." In J. M. Nyce and P. Kahn (Eds.). From Memex to Hypertext: Vannevar Bush and the Mind's Machine. London: Academic Press, 1991, pp. 165–84.

Bush, Vannevar (1967). "Science Pauses." In Science is Not Enough. New York: William Morrow, pp. 14–33.

Bush, Vannevar (1970). Pieces of the Action. New York: William Morrow.

Ceruzzi, Paul E. (1998). A History of Modern Computing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

De Landa, Manuel (1994). War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. New York: Zone Books.

Delaney, P., and G. P. Landow (Eds.) (1994). Hypertext and Literary Studies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Demeulenaere, Alex (2003). "An Uncanny Thinker: Michel De Certeau." Image and Narrative: a Journal of the Visual Narrative 5. <http://www.imageandnarrative.be/uncanny/alexdemeulenaere.htm>.

Derrida, Jacques (1984). "Two Words for Joyce." In Derek Attridge and Daniel Ferrer (Eds.). Post-structuralist Joyce: Essays from the French. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 145–59.

Engelbart, Douglas (1962). "Letter to Vannevar Bush and Program on Human Effectiveness." In J. M. Nyce and P. Kahn (Eds.). From Memex to Hypertext: Vannevar Bush and the Mind's Machine. London: Academic Press, p. 236.

Engelbart, Douglas (1988). "The Augmented Knowledge Workshop" (AKW). In Adele Goldberg (Ed.). A History of Personal Workstations. New York: ACM Press, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, pp. 185–249.

Engelbart, Douglas (1999). Interview with Belinda Barnet.

Groden, Michael, "James Joyce's Ulysses in Hyper-media Project." <http://www.clemson.edu/caah/cedp/Tech%20Colloquium%202001/Groden%20Files/hypermedia.html>.

Hayles, Katherine (1999). How We Became Posthu-man: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Joyce, James (1975). Finnegans Wake. London: Faber.

Joyce, Michael (1990). "Afternoon, a Story." Hypertext document for Macintosh computers. Cambridge, MA: Eastgate Systems.

Keep, Christopher, Tim McLaughlin, and Robin Parmar (n.d.). The Electronic Labyrinth. <http://www3.iath.virginia.edu/elab/>. Accessed March 2007.

Landow, George (2006). Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Moulthrop, Stuart (1991). "You Say You Want a Revolution? Hypertext and the Laws of Media." Postmodern Culture 1:3. <http://muse.jhu.edu/-journals/postmodern_culture/v001/1.3moul-throp.html>.

Nelson, Ted (1965). "A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing and the Indeterminate." Proceedings of the ACM 20th National Conference. New York: ACM Press, pp. 84–100.

Nelson, Ted (1980). "Replacing the Printed Word: a Complete Literary System." In S. H. Lavington (Ed.). Information Processing 80. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company, IFIP, pp. 1013–23.

Nelson, Ted (1987). Computer Lib/Dream Machines. Red-mond, WA: Microsoft Press.

Nelson, Ted (1991). "As We Will Think." In J. M. Nyce and P. Kahn (Eds.). From Memex to Hypertext: Vannevar Bush and the Mind's Machine. London: Academic Press, pp. 245–60.

Nelson, Ted (1992). Literary Machines. Sausalito, CA: Mindful Press.

Nelson, Ted (1999). Interview with Belinda Barnet.

Nielsen, Jakob (1995). Multimedia and Hypertext: The Internet and Beyond. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Nyce, J. M. and P. Kahn (1991). From Memex to Hypertext: Vannevar Bush and the Mind's Machine. London: Academic Press.

Rheingold, Howard (1985). Tools for Thought: the History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Shumate, Michael. "Hyperizons." <http://www.duke.edu/-mshumate/hyperfic.html>. Smith, Linda C (1991). "Memex as an Image of Potentiality Revisited." In J. M. Nyce and P. Kahn (Eds.). From Memex to Hypertext: Vannevar Bush and the Mind's Machine. London: Academic Press, pp. 261–86.

Stefik, Mark (1997). Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths and Metaphors. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Theall, Donald (1992). "Beyond the orality/literacy dichotomy: James Joyce and the pre-history of cyberspace." Postmodern Culture 2.3 (May). <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/post-modern_culture/v002/2.3theall.html>.

Theall, Donald (1995). Beyond the Word: Reconstructing Sense in the Joyce era of technology, culture, and communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Tofts, Darren (1997). Memory Trade: A prehistory of cyberculture. Sydney: Interface.

Tofts, Darren (2001). "a retrospective sort of arrangement": Ulysses and the poetics of hypertextuality. Litteraria Pragensia 11: 22.

van Dam, Andries (1999). Interview with Belinda Barnet.

van Dam, Andries (1988). "Hypertext '87 Keynote Address." Communications of the ACM 31: 887–95.

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah (2003). "Introduction to Engelbart's Knowledge Workshop." In Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, and Nick Montfort (Eds.). The New Media Reader. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, and Nick Montfort (Eds.) (2003). The New Media Reader. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Whitehead, Jim (2000). "As We Do Write: Hyper-terms for Hypertext." ACM SIGWEB Newsletter 9: 8–18.

Wolf, Gary (1995). "The Curse of Xanadu." Wired 3.6, June.