In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche, who had been suffering from chronic migraines and deteriorating eyesight, purchased a typewriter. Shortly after, a friend of the philosopher noted in a letter that ever since Nietzsche had bought the typewriter, his style had become even more telegraphic. Nietzsche replied by stating that our choice of writing implement affects our thoughts. What about the tools we use to read?
In the late 1930s, the American engineer and philosopher Vannevar Bush conceived the idea of the memex, a mechanical extension of the human memory. The hypothetical apparatus would store all the knowledge accumulated by an individual more efficiently than a personal library. The memex was to be no larger than an average desk. Its mechanics were to enable access to the desired content. But most importantly, the memex avoided the use of simple indexing solutions, such as those found in library card catalogs sorted alphabetically or by subject matter. These were to be replaced by an “intricate web of trails” that would imitate our natural ability to form free associations.
The user of a memex would be able to form connections between archived ideas and facts, linking pieces of knowledge with pathways. Aside from information itself, the memex would feature a network of paths based on associations, helping the user quickly navigate the labyrinth of knowledge at their disposal. “It’s just like surfing waves”, one might say. “The process of tying two items together is the important thing,” Bush wrote. His idea for a desk equipped with a microfilm reader, innumerable levers and buttons, a camera the size of a walnut, and a punched-card machine seems terribly dated over half a century later. What has survived, however, is his vision of a system linking many tiny elements of knowledge and culture, as well as the conviction that such a system would be necessary.
In 1968, Roland Barthes published an essay titled “The Death of the Author”, in which he described the text as a multi-dimensional space, a tissue of quotes navigated by the reader. The meaning of the text is created by the reader, who “compiles” the text every time it is read. In the same period, American engineer and visionary Doug Engelbart presented the first functioning computer system employing a framework of links connecting text files. Ted Nelson, who had been working on a similar project at the time, named the system hypertext.
In the late eighties and early nineties, Tim Berners-Lee, a physicist working at the CERN laboratories, invented a formal language used to describe hypertext documents (HyperText Markup Language), a protocol with which to transfer such documents between computers (HyperText Transfer Protocol), and a browser called WorldWideWeb. Berners-Lee’s inventions, run on computers connected to a rapidly-growing internet, gave rise to the World Wide Web. Today, hardly any action could be more common for internet users than clicking on a link.
Linear narration has thus been replaced by the database model, which offers us text that is not a complete and closed object. Reading has become a process in which the reader participates not just at the level of interpretation, but by making decisions, manifested by the click of a mouse. What was once the sophisticated domain of literary critics attempting to banish the author from the text has now become a universal way of reading. As the American psychologist Sherry Turkle once said, “computers bring postmodernism down to earth.” Or, as another digital media expert, Lev Manovich, would say, the strategy of the avant-garde has been built into the structure of applications.
Online culture is a culture of links, a culture whose elements are visibly connected. Previously implicit networks of connections have become public, and the link – a record of a connection – is a new form of culture (the meaning of which is best proven by the fact that some people are attempting to apply copyright laws to hyperlinks). Of course, the prevalence of hypertext has not led to the demise of artistic literary experiments. But for the younger generation, for whom lessons in writing begin at the computer keyboard, and for whom reading is inextricably linked with the computer mouse, the mosaic character of text is no longer an exceptional phenomenon. It is becoming the foundation for participating in culture.
Have these changes given us greater control over the message? Yes and no. The navigation of fragments of text via links is itself becoming a tangled mess. What’s more, the connections radiating out of every fragment, leading deeper into the mass that is culture, provoke in us a tendency to feverishly explore these connections, making it difficult to concentrate on the content at hand. We are increasingly suffering from a reader’s variety of attention deficit disorder. Think about all the other sites you’ve peeked at while reading this very article. Instead of trails, we have unorganised rhizomes spreading out in every direction. At the end of the day, our minds also resemble thick jungles rather than neatly-pruned French gardens.
translated by Arthur Barys