Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 95 / APRIL 1988 / PAGE 49


Sheldon Leemon

The Hazards Of HyperCard

Macintosh owners have always been unusually devoted to their computers, but lately they've become little more than zombies glued in front of those platinum plastic cases. The reason is a program called HyperCard, which now comes bundled with the Macintosh system. There are a number of reasons that HyperCard is having such a big impact. First, the program is the brainchild of Bill Atkinson, a mythic figure in the Mac community. Actually, Bill ranks somewhat higher than a mythic figure. After all, Prometheus just brought fire to mankind, but Bill has produced both MacPaint AND HyperCard. Secondly, HyperCard is the software incarnation of a new computer buzzword, hypertext.

In the fast-changing world of the computer industry, there's constant speculation on what's going to happen in the future (like six months from now). Buzzwords like desktop video and hypertext serve as mantras for the meditations of industry prognosticators. Developments such as HyperCard give industry analysts the chance to make predictions like "The next significant program for the Mac will be a HyperCard application."

I agree with that prediction, but not because I'm convinced that HyperCard is functionally better than all other methods of computing. The reason I think that most of the significant new Mac software will be HyperCard-based is because Mac users won't be able to tear themselves away from it long enough to create anything else. Many people have described HyperCard as being extremely interactive. Where a normal manual might tell you "push that button and this happens," with the HyperCard manual, you actually push that button, and the results happen instantly, before your eyes. In a society so geared to instant gratification, characterizing this as "interactive" may be putting it a bit mildly. HyperCard is interactive the way that potato chips or pistachios are interactive. You may be in charge when you eat the first one, but by about the fifth or sixth one, that old hand is moving into the bag all by itself.

Leftover Whale Blubber

Another feature of HyperCard that's widely touted is the way in which it allows the user to access information in any order in which he chooses, not according to how some author has arranged it. You might be reading an article on Eskimo life, click on the section about diet, and find yourself reading a cookbook entry entitled "Twelve New Ways to Use Leftover Whale Blubber." While it's nice to be able to pursue side trails, novices may soon lose the main path entirely. I mean, can you imagine what a hypertext magazine might be like? One article and a hundred-fifty-three sidebars!

And do we really want to give hypertext to young school children, who already have plenty of distractions? After all, if a child is studying a lesson in ancient history, we really don't want him to click on the section where the Chinese invent gunpowder and end up in a chemistry lesson on how to create fireworks in the basement. Such a student might be better served by a HypoCard application, one in which every distraction which he chooses to avoid studying leads him right back to the subject he'll be tested on.

The Harder Stuff

While interacting with your computer may not be bad for you in and of itself, it can lead to the harder stuff—like interacting with your TV. We've already seen a primitive form of this, first with simple VCR games, and now with the new Captain Power series of toys, tapes, and TV shows. Captain Power uses interactive computer technology to allow children to shoot at characters on TV, and vice versa, with a toy gun registering hits on both sides. While I'm usually in favor of all new computer technology, Mattel has finally found a way to exceed even my limits of tolerance. The "P word" is a definite no-no at my house.

And things could get even worse. What if these crude beginnings lead to full-fledged HyperTube? Imagine you're watching Gilligan's Island reruns, and you decide you want to know more about the Professor. You move the mouse pointer to his image, click the button, and instantly, you're watching a spin-off series in which he plays the lead role. Or maybe clicking on his picture gives you a comparative history of similar roles, like Fred MacMurray as the Absent-Minded Professor, or Jerry Lewis as the Nutty Professor. Imagine, if you will, the havoc that might be wrought by interactive soap operas. Some viewers might never be heard from again. The Couch Potato would transform into a HyperTuber.

Who knows where all of this might lead? So far, HyperCard has been a rich man's toy, available only to Mac owners who can afford lots of memory and possibly a hard disk. But if this trend continues, we may soon see things like interactive household appliances. Imagine a toaster that selects bread darkness based on your mood or how well you slept the night before. We should all remember that HyperCard and hypertext both start with the word hype. And when it comes to hype, my advice is "just say no."