What is the shape of hypertext?
Hypertext resists the single linear narrative.
Thoughts, also, resist the single linear narrative. They exist as something more like a hyperdimensional cloud of associations.
When we talk together, we flatten our N-dimensional thoughts into 1D linear narratives, in order to fit them through the 1D bottleneck of words. When we draw or sketch, we flatten our N-dimensional thoughts into 2D images in order to fit them through the 2D bottleneck of sight.
The words and images mediate our thoughts (literally, media). They shape the way we think, flattening and amplifying different aspects of thought. So how might hypertext shape our thinking?
Today the book is already… an outdated mediation between two different filing systems. For everything that matters is to be found in the card box of the researcher who wrote it, and the scholar studying it assimilates it into his own card index.
- Walter Benjamin
Remember Walter Benjamin and his thought legos? Benjamin is famous for a kind of free-associative unbundled narrative style called literary montage.
Literary montage was Benjamin’s attempt to get beyond the single perspective of the linear narrative, to see from many angles at once. Instead of narrative, montage uses juxtaposition, contrast, connections, to generate epiphany by provoking closure…
An impressionistic collage of short blocks of text, images, and quotes.
Refuses a single perspective.
Fuzzy lateral connections.
Sounds like hypertext.
Benjamin’s essay On the Concept of History reads like a tweetstorm. You can imagine him taking index cards out of a box, shuffling them, re-arranging them, finding multiple linear structures. He’s playing with the limits of narrative through hypertextual free-association.
Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.
(On The Concept of History, IX)
It’s almost like Benjamin is trying to take on the perspective of The Angel of History through the dialectical all-at-once technique of literary montage.
I create accidental montage while taking notes. Montage is almost an intermediate representation between thought and narrative. Looking at this through the lens of capture, organize, synthesize, we could say montage naturally emerges from the organize phase of creativity.
Kuleshov edited a short film in which a shot of the expressionless face of Ivan Mosjoukine was alternated with various other shots (a bowl of soup, a girl in a coffin, a woman on a divan). The film was shown to an audience who believed that the expression on Mosjoukine's face was different each time he appeared, depending on whether he was "looking at".
Closure! Kuleshov’s insight—pieces can be combined in more than one way to generate multiple meanings, through provoking closure.
Could we combine ideas together in more than one way to generate new ideas, through provoking closure?
Imagine a toy airplane carved from a block of wood. That’s narrative.
Now imagine a box of legos. Some assembly required. You can build an airplane, or build a boat, or build… That’s montage.
There are plenty of tools for carving a toy from a block of wood. Word processors, CMSs, anything focused on publishing, anything with a “rich text editor”. Subconscious is not that.
Subconscious is a box of thought legos. It helps you assemble those legos in multiple ways, to provoke new meanings.
In an important sense there are no subjects at all; there is only all knowledge, since the cross-connections among the myriad topics of this world simply cannot be divided up neatly. Hypertext at last offers the possibility of representing and exploring it all without carving it up destructively.
- Ted Nelson
I'm building a new tool for thought. I have a general sense of the direction I’m traveling, but I will be as surprised as you are at what I discover along the way. I'm posting these little emails as trail markers, every week or so. I share updates, ideas, design patterns, and snippets of books and papers.