Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 80 / JANUARY 1987 / PAGE 85

Computers and Society

David D Thornburg, Associate Editor

The Computerized World

While there will always be some who will continue to resist technology to their dying day, many writers have finally realized that the computer is a powerful ally, not a demon to be cursed. The mystique surrounding the novelist sitting at the old Underwood like Angela Lansbury in "Murder, She Wrote" is being replaced by a practical reality: word processors.
    As a professional writer, I know that I would have chosen another profession by now if it weren't for my access to a word processor. I like to prepare easy-to-read documents and to leave evidence of my more glaring errors in the trash bin where they belong.

A New Writing Medium
If we trace the development of writing implements from prehistoric times, most of the advances have been devoted to the improvement of the finished product, not to any fundamental change in the writing process itself. Even traditional word processors produce documents of the sort one would create with pen and paper or with a typewriter. The advantage of a word processor is that it allows the author greater flexibility in the arrangement, rearrangement, and correction of text. These features aside, the product is the same as it has been for hundreds of years-a paper document.
    While this application for computers is quite appropriate, the computer has the capacity to do much more-to become a new writing medium. Rather than being just another tool for generating traditional paper documents, the computer can help facilitate the writer's creative process and can allow the creation of nonlinear documents that have no printed counterpart.
    Rather than thinking of a document as a linear body of text, you can think of it as having many levels and views. Depending on the needs of the writer, different levels can be used to express different kinds of ideas. The reader can derive a new power as well-a document can be read in completely different sequences from the one in which it was written.
    While my crystal ball is as cloudy as anyone's, I think that the next breakthrough in writing will come when we break free entirely from paper-based documents. Books can be published on disk as easily as on paper. This new medium of publication will let us create documents that can't be printed in the normal sense of the word. If a document can be expressed in a linear form, it probably should be put on paper just because this medium is still easier to handle.

The next breakthrough in writing will come through the use of a concept called hypertext. Imagine that you are at your computer and you've just loaded a historical novel about westward expansion. As you read, you come across the name of Charles Fremont. You decide you'd like to know more about Fremont, so you move the cursor to his name and press a key. You are immediately transported into another document that provides a brief description of this man. It may mention some of his activities, names of his principal associates, and so on. As you read about Fremont your eye is drawn to the name Kit Carson. You repeat the process and find yourself in a wonderful digression on this colorful character of the Old West.
    Once you've rummaged for a while, you return to the original text and continue reading.
    This hypothetical journey through a hypertext document reveals its basic structure: Any word in the document can point to other documents. In a well-designed system, these new documents are also written in hypertext so the process can go on indefinitely.
    The reader of a hypertext document can move along in a linear manner at one level but can go deeper for descriptions of key words or concepts in the original.
    In some sense we try to accomplish the same thing in traditional writing through the use of footnotes. Unfortunately, footnotes are viewed as clutter, and nested footnotes are nearly impossible to read.
    The seeds for hypertext were firmly planted 40 years ago in an Atlantic Monthly article entitled "As We May Think," by Vannevar Bush. The computer as we know it had yet to be invented, but in this landmark article (reprinted in CD/ROM: The New Papyrus, Microsoft Press) Bush specified the design of hypertext word processors that have yet to be implemented.
    Douglas Englebart had read Bush's article and, in 1962, proposed implementing his ideas on a computer. The word "hypertext" was coined by Ted Nelson, author of the underground computer classic, Computer Lib.

What Are We Waiting For?
There is no technological limitation to the creation of a hypertext processor; I have written one that runs on my 128K Apple IIe. The real challenge is one of the mind. We are so accustomed to thinking of a document as a linear string of text that it will take a lot of exposure and experimentation before we can break our bonds with paper.
    As Marshall McLuhan once said, "The medium is the message." Hypertext is a new medium, and it will allow the expression of messages that cannot be dreamed of in a pencil and paper world-as soon as we are ready to read them.