Craig Bellamy, 'The Web, Hypertext and History': Paper for Virtual Histories, Real Time Challenges Seminar

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© Electronic Journal of Australian and New Zealand History

The Web, Hypertext and History: A Critical Introduction

Craig Bellamy

Department of Visual Communication, RMIT University

[email protected]

Information technology impacts upon ever profession, from accounting, to law, to teaching, to publishing. It is now playing a major role in how historians research and communicate history. Historians are fairly new to computing with the first official organisation, the international body of the Association of History and Computing, only being set up in 1986. The publications of this group reveal that the initial tasks that historians set for computers involved the manipulation of large amounts of data for quantitative research. The ‘cliometrics’, as they were known, statistically mapped large bodies of populations using data from such things as censuses and tax records. They hoped to reconstruct for instance, the way of life in early English villages or to model the fluctuation of British mining company shares. The first computers were particularly well suited for the handling of numbers, or the indexing and retrieval of vast amounts of data. Indeed—beyond the word processor—this mechanical approach to history and computing is still a common view held about the usefulness of computers for many in the profession today.

The introduction of the personal computer (IBM PC) in 1982 brought computing to the masses for the first time. All electronic computers had once been extraordinarily expensive devices hidden away in university science faculties or government departments. Just as Henry Ford brought a new technology to what was once firmly in the hands of an elite, the personal computer is now becoming common in Australian households and workplaces. Since the first electronic computers were introduced in the late 1940s, the personal computer has probably been the most important innovation. Some self-proclaimed visionaries from companies such as Netscape, Intel and Microsoft claim that the Web with its Internet protocol (TCP/IP) is the next greatest innovation. As computing technology, like any commodity in a capitalist economy, is primarily driven by the desire of large multi-nationals to capture increasing market share, ‘predictions’ may become self-fulfilling. A brief history of both hypertext and the World Wide Web will help to further define the technologies that I wish to discuss.

What is Hypertext?

Hypertext is the ability to link various discrete units, paragraphs, or sections of text/image/sound via a linking system that is mediated by a computer. It is popularly known as hypermedia or multimedia and is the basis to the interactive and non-linear features of the World Wide Web and CD-ROM. It encompasses a broad range of software packages and software tools that allow the user to construct either Web-based or CD-ROM projects. Its understandings (conceptually) can equally be applied to the entire Web that is in effect one global hypertext.

The American technologist, Ted Nelson, coined the term hypertext in the early 1960’s. Ted Nelson is an eccentric, who until quite recently, lived in a houseboat in Suasilito on the opposite side of the harbour to San Francisco. He is quite famous to an older generation of computer specialists, but this is more for his failures than for his successes. Since the World Wide Web has become so popular, so too has Nelson and his contribution to hypertext publishing.

Nelson is the founder of the Xanadu hypertext publishing system that is the longest running research and development project in the history of the computer industry. It was started over thirty years ago and only quite recently have parts of the project found limited commercial markets. Xanadu was supposed to be a universal library, a global information index, and a publishing method with an automatic payment of royalties. It is now two humble computer server products that are sold under license through other companies.

Nelson coined the word hypertext in 1965 in a published paper delivered to the American national conference of the Association for Computing Machinery. Nelson proposed a system very similar to today’s Web, being a global network of ‘billions of quickly accessible and inter-linked documents with non-sequential reading and writing’. His ultimate vision was for a system that was capable of storing and representing the creative and scientific production of humanity. In the 1960s even simple word-processing programs required the computing power of large and extraordinarily expensive mainframe computers. The idea of a global computer network was absurd (especially since Nelson’s idea involved everything from imposing global standards, administering royalty payments, franchising publishing retail outlets, and changing the very nature of knowledge production and dissemination). It is perhaps not surprising then that Nelson ultimately failed in his quest and he serves as a reminder that new technologies often bring with then unrealised utopian visions.

What is the World Wide Web?

The World Wide Web finds its origins in a number of disparate developments in both Europe and the U.S. The Web is made up of a loose collection of interconnected commercial and non-commercial computer networks, with servers that are scattered throughout all parts of the world. These servers are linked to one another on a variety of high and low capacity paths.

Most people use personal computers to plug into the web via the telephone system, or are connected through smaller local institutional networks such as Intranets and LANs (Local Area Networks). One of the largest group of Web users continues to be the university community, who until quite recently have been integral in its development through funding, content design and patronage. Individuals in universities mostly have ‘free’ access to the Web (subsidised through university budgets), whilst private users must pay an hourly access rate or a monthly or annual subscription fee.

In the US, the World Wide Web is an outgrowth of a 1960s government project called the ARPANET. This was an initiative of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is a research arm of the United States Department of Defense. The network was conceived during the cold war to enable government authorities to communicate and control weapons remotely in the event of a nuclear attack. Engineers designed the system to overcome the probability of a central computing facility from being destroyed that would render the network inoperable. The network structure had no central point thus any point within the network could operate as the centre point. The messages sent on the network could follow any route and should any part of the system become un-operational, messages could find the next viable route.

The ARPANET project was not exclusively for military use and a number of government research agencies and universities also used parts of the system. By 1972 (perhaps in relation to the Vietnam conflict) many of the universities had become uncomfortable with the military partnership so the network was split into two. One of the networks continued to be known as ARPANET (for research use) but the other was named MILNET (for military use). In 1989 the US Government withdrew financial support from ARPANET and a new commercial successor called the Internet was born. The Internet expanded rapidly and joined many local area networks (LAN) at various institutions across the US and internationally.

The Internet only managed to capture popular imagination and a mass user-base as recently as the past four years because of two important developments. The first development was in Geneva, where Tim-Berners-Lee wrote a simple standard for Internet publishing (TCP/IP) which he called the World Wide Web. And the second was in Urbana-Champaign (Illinois), where Mark Andressen wrote an attractive interface for the Web which he called Mosaic. These developments allowed text, graphics, sound, and video to be viewed through a chaotic arrangement of hardware, operating systems, applications, and network protocols. The average Web users before these developments were mainly a small group of academics and professionals who used a text-only menu-driven system called Gopher. This system functioned in a similar way to a computerised library catalogue.

The World Wide Web is now lurching towards the mainstream following the trajectory set by other mass-market mediums such as broadcast television, radio, and film. Because of this, the web is also increasingly becoming commercialised with companies such as Netscape, Microsoft, and Alta.-Vista eager to carve out their territory. Netscape through their Web-browser technology are able to secure up to 25% of the average personal-computer screen space that direct users to their own products and services or to other companies who pay Netscape a fee. Microsoft and CompuServe have devised commercially closed networks, whilst search engines such as Alta.-vista and Lycos display paid advertisements. As these companies—and indeed nearly all Web companies—are US based, what is ‘generally known’ and how it is generally know it is increasingly in danger of becoming mediated through a US oligarchy.

Why is the Web and Hypertext Important for the Historian?

What computing innovations such as the Internet and hypertext can offer that is fresh for the historian is yet another way in which to communicate the knowledge of our craft. This is evident in the latest generation of history and computing projects that are being used not only as tools to extend our pre-existing skills, but also as a whole new medium to convey new forms of knowledge. It may have seemed strange in the early twentieth century when filmmakers chopped-up celluloid and glued it back together again to tell a story. It likewise may seem strange today when first confronted with an interactive hypertext narrative.

Historians have been working in various media for a number of generations and have developed techniques and critical frameworks for their use and comprehension. The field of history and film is well established with courses being offered in even the most traditional history departments. In the emerging field of hypertext, many techniques of historiographical criticism have not as yet been explored. We must then carefully prune the field of hypertext literary theory to provide us with a paradigm of work to view what is otherwise scarcely available beyond our practical adaptations.

The hypertext theorists eclectically include Jay David Bolter, Paul Delaney, Stuart Moulthrop, George Landow, and Monash University’s Illana Snyder. Their work champions the idea of a ‘non-linear’ and ‘interactive’ medium intertwined with their own somewhat proselytising agendas. Their most prevalent pronouncement seems to be that the book is both a dated and oppressive medium, and that hypertext is the vehicle in which to ‘free the slaves’. The theoretical interpretations of Barthes, Derrida, and Foucault have been selectively adopted to strengthen their position. The theorists collectively envisage a very bleak future for the book and declare that hypertext will permeate the vacuum of its demise.

Considering this hyperbole it is not surprising then that many academics view the Web and hypertext as posing a threat to the printed book. Indeed a group of scholars (in the published proceedings of the Fourth Round Table of the National Scholarly Communications Forum held in Canberra in 1996), blamed new technology such as the web for exacerbating a ‘crisis’ in the publishing industry that has witnessed the closure of numerous university publishing houses. There may be in fact be upheavals in the publishing industry, but these are a result of numerous highly complex societal changes and cannot be blamed on new technology alone. More people are reading today—and from a greater range of books—than they did fifty years ago.

Although hypertext is the first new medium to seriously alter the way in which we can manipulate and display text, hypertext is not a book or does not pose any more serious threats to the book than television, radio, or film. Hypertext is a parallel development to other mediums, not a replacement of other mediums. Hypertext can simply combine text, image, and sound in new ways that the printed book cannot. As humanists we have theoretical accounts to explain the workings of literature, film, and television, but as yet there is no ‘software theory’. The hypertext theorists do provide some excellent inroads into understanding intellectual expression through vehicles such as hypertext, but their political rhetoric and vision beyond a fourteen-inch computer screen is not that helpful.

Hypertext and Narrative

Narrative has been adapted to each successive medium as it has appeared and is an historically developed set of demonstrated concerns, knowledge and practices that preserve the uniqueness of a discipline. Narrative in the form of the academic monologue or story is how the historian communicates the knowledge that is central the craft (selection, analysis, and integration). It is how the historian draws out, organises and communicates knowledge.

Narrative in hypertext is different to a book as it can combine text/image/sound and graphics, which can be aligned in such a way to provide a network of relationships for reading in a variety of orders. A non-linear narrative is achieved through a reader-driven physical interactivity that is usually executed through the clicking of a mouse. This is within the parameters set by the programmer or ‘author’ and is very different to the linearity of reading suggested by the line and page ordering of the printed book.

Knowledge and information are two distinct classifications as knowledge is information that has already been transformed; it has been analysed, interpreted, integrated, articulated, tested in application, and evaluated. Knowledge is what historians are supposed to display when they write books or papers or prepare lectures: if they merely recapitulates rote learnt facts or fragments of information, then they have possibly failed within the code of the profession.

Some of the first CD-ROMs serve as examples of the least effective use of the technology. US History on CD-ROM was released in 1990 and promised 107 books, 1001 pictures, hundreds of tables and maps, plus a detailed coverage of US political, social, military and economic history. A resource such as this could be of great benefit, if not simply to save space, then as a reference guide and teaching resource. In all these categories (except in saving space) this CD-ROM is inadequate.

The material is arranged into ten sections and if we selectively choose, for example, one of the categories titled American People (that is supposed to contain studies of modern social problems) we find that over half the titles displayed are military histories. Titles include A History of Woman Marines, 1946-1977 and eight volumes of Benson J. Lossing’s obscure History of the United States from the Discovery of America to the Present Time (the present time being 1905). Even if these titles sound exciting, it serves little or no purpose to digitise a printed book in the first place. ‘No one is ever going to sit down and read a novel [or book] on a twitchy little screen…ever’. These titles were designed for the book medium and to digitise them makes about as much sense as filming them. A book is designed to contain a dense linear narrative, and with a good index, is much easier to use than scrolling through voluminous text on a computer screen.

There are of course excellent examples of CD-ROM as an information source, and it still seems to be one of the most popular uses of the medium. For instance, with LBC Information Services’ The Complete Legal Research System (1995-), it is possible to search the listings of all the reported cases in all of Australia’s courts since 1825. It contains citations for all of the cases as well as a complete set of the important legal reference encyclopaedia, The Laws of Australia. Any of this information can be accessed instantly through a simple text or menu search. The time saved in finding information is considerable and it allows the legal professional (or historian) more time for the important tasks of synthesis and analysis.

A hypertext narrative, when applied to either CD-ROM or the Web, calls into question the belief that narrative, especially in the written text, must take the form of a linear progression. Although the printed book allows the writer to suggest non-linearity, by such rhetorical devices as ambiguity—or self-referential suggestions to previous or preceding passages—a physical linearity dominates. Pagination, a contents page, chapters, and line by line reading reinforce linearity.

Derrida’s Glas (1976) disrupts the notion of what a book should look like by dividing his pages into two columns; the left offers passages from the philosophical writings of Hegel, while the right is a commentary on the French novelist Jean Genet. Barthes and Foucault broke down linear modes of argument through their notion of intertextuality and discourse but still they worked within the physical book form.

It is through narrative, in both its medium-defined parameters and content-defined illusions, that an author is able to exercise much of their ‘author-ity’ over the user. Generally speaking, the more linear a narrative the more controlling it is, the less linear and loosely connected are the description and analysis of events, the less controlling is the author.

An example of a hypertext production that utilises the authoritative potential of hypertext is Dispossessed, Diggers, and Democrats 1788-1888, an initiative of the Department of History and Politics at The University of Wollongong in New South Wales. It was designed as an instructional tool for international students and other students who are new to the study of Australian history at university level. It was developed as a teaching aid to give students a fundamental factual background in Australian history.

Dispossessed, Diggers and Democrats takes a similar form to the printed book. It not only has an opening index page that is identical to the index of the accompanying reader of photocopied articles, but it also has similar page numbering at the top of the screen. The index is likewise arranged in a sequence indistinguishable from that of a book. After choosing an index item, there is only one path that the user can take with arrows at the bottom of the page indicating either forward or reverse. After the users have read an individual page, they must click on an arrow to continue. In this way, the designers have assured that the users will follow their pre-determined path towards a pre-determined outcome. After the completion of a section there is a final screen in which one must answer the correct questions to continue. The answers relate to the dates of the major events that the CD-ROM covers. If one chooses the incorrect answer from the multiple choices, then the user must reverse through the narrative to find the correct answer and then re-try. This is a form of authority that is unique to the medium.

Whereas this CD-ROM was created to aid students in preparation for tutorials and ‘get across the facts’ it may not be the best medium to achieve this. It makes the user feel that they have little control over computers and even less over the interpretation of history. Hypertext is a medium that can be used to assemble diverse media and provide a conceptual and physical system to arrange and impart knowledge in a different way to the physical linear arrangements of a book. A good textbook could probably have addressed the specific teaching tasks in Dispossessed, Diggers, and Democrats just as effectively.

History is of course an ill-structured domain and if an historian did not attempt to structure the past into some sort of narrative-form, then there would few ways of understanding about the past. The book medium can accommodate linear structures or dense narrative far better than any other medium. However, the amorphous structure of hypertext can promote a different type of historical thinking as opposed to the teacher-focused ‘dissemination of knowledge model’ offered by Dispossessed Diggers and Democrats. A ‘learner-focus’ model or ‘how is learning made possible’ can equally be promoted through the amorphous features of hypertext.

Karen Swan emphasises the ‘criss-crossed’ narrative structure of hypertext and explains how this can provide students with historical information, as well as a structure to understand this information. The student is then encouraged to view the data from a multitude of perspectives, so they can find their own connections and narrative explanations within them.

[History]…entails more than a simple familiarity with important facts and concepts; it involves being able to conceptualise historical events from multiple perspectives and to relate a myriad of seemingly diverse historical data within such perspectives. Historical thinking is an understanding of human situations and the complex web of relationships embedded in them.

Hypertext can promote this type of historical thinking because it can be irregularly arranged and because it can easily support a number of perspectives within a physical web rather than in a linear arrangement of pages. By allowing students the option to make ‘criss-crossed’ connections, they are encouraged to think relationally about the past and are not led to believe that there is a correct or well-defined solution to advancing historical knowledge. The support of a variety of media, including video and oral recordings, promotes a ‘criss-crossed’ perspective in another sense; a juxtaposition of media can provide the multiple viewpoints and understandings that are invaluable in a society in which increasingly no one media is capable of recording nor expressing.


Michael Joyce’s Afternoon is one of the most famous hypertext works and serves to highlight how hypertext can give form to beginnings and endings through story. As storytellers, historians have traditionally shared a close relationship with literature and marry this with our analytical skills Afternoon is a story that allows its readers to liberally choose multiple paths through the text, but it is not totally devoid of narrative linearity. Intelligibility in language does demand some kind of sequence and no one would design a hypertext with variability or randomness at character or word level. A lexia (or unit) arouses the expectations of the following lexia that together demands some sort of coherence and consistency. Afternoon is an intricate web of narratives that yield to the mouse’s interaction with the evocative words or phrases that have been highlighted by Joyce. The resonance of the words and lexias form associations that construct a story.

In hypertext, where a designer has to come to terms with its vast potential, stories offer a good way to anchor meaning. A story provides an enduring and appealing medium for communicating knowledge and offers a familiar information structure that can reduce the overwhelming cognitive load posed through navigating a large hypertext. The story format facilitates the navigation of information and helps the user to remember the information later.

New Museums serve as a good example of how stories can be used to understand a large collection of information. There is a shift in museums away from subject matter specialists, to exhibit designers who may have a background in education or design. Traditionally a curator designed exhibits to provide a comprehensive insight into certain subjects, such as coins or barter, and then all of the museum’s collection was assembled to display this speciality subject area. However, in contemporary museums the exhibit designers are focusing not on comprehensiveness, but on telling a story with the best and most representative artefacts. This might be the story of an historical period or geographical place. By placing the artefacts within the richest context, the audience is not inflicted with a cognitive overload and will be able to absorb the content later. History as with hypertext could be described as being an enormous jumble of ideas that have little or no value without connections. The stronger the threads are through good stories and well-constructed narrative, the stronger the connection between ideas.

Given that stories and narrative provide controls and directives in hypertext it is important to be both self-reflexive and open about its construction. If the user has little knowledge of how a hypertext is made then they must assume a certain passivity. The way to be an active viewer of film or television, or even reader of a book, is to have some idea of how the works were edited or written. Without this, it is difficult to question the authority of the creators. A line in the design philosophy of Flashback (one of Australia’s first history CD-ROM’s produced by Lloyd and Lyndon Sharp for the New South Wales Board of Studies) is quite revealing:

We don’t believe that teachers and students should have to struggle with learning about computers while they learn history. The design team aimed to make the computer invisible, so that teachers and students could get on with the enjoyment of Australian history in an uncomplicated way.

If the computer is made invisible, then you are also making invisible the very instrument that is mediating your understandings about the past. It is almost similar to implying that your study of Australian history should not be complicated by learning how to read. Flashback, like Angledool stories, and Dispossessed Diggers and Democrats, are CD-ROMs that have been authored by individuals with their own particular bias and interpretations. The user must be able to question this ‘author-ity’. By making, for instance, the link structure accessible to the user, the user is able both to visualise and critically access the hypertext. The user can view how large it is, how many links there are and consider the complex arrangements of relationships.


Print is easily the most important medium in terms of the proportion of education delivered this way; it is the easiest to design through a single author, to produce through established publishing mechanisms and to deliver through bookshops and libraries. However, with rapid technological and communication changes, no one medium is singularly capable of supporting a pedagogical approach to history making. Effective academic learning can only take place with the integration of various media.

With hypertext the page can (at least physically) be far more complex than it is when it is simply printed. The basic elements of the page, how they are shared with other texts, and how they contribute meaning to the original text can take on a whole new level of sophistication. A hypertext page can combine video, audio, text, and foster an intertextual web of relationships. Hypertext is a departure from previous mediums and can provide the historian with a whole new set of tools to explore, explain, and understand the past.

Although historians have explored the functionality of hypertext effectively, there is still much work to be done in terms of confronting the historiographical and methodological questions that this new medium poses. Theorist such as Illana Snyder have attempted to explore the pedagogical potential, but tend to suffer from an overabundance of idealism and an antipathy to operational compromise. In their effort find a well-needed space, they often over simplify past events and processes to provide room for their ‘new’ processes. Historians with their humility to the past and scepticism to the sometimes-shallow dictates of ‘progress’ may be able to offer enormous clarity here.

When confronted with the geometrically confusing nature of hypertext, some of us fail to acknowledge our naiveté and fall back upon our understandings of the book. The standard use of the printed medium is something that was developed over centuries and there is little to be gained by appropriating its form on-line. There is no indication that there will ever be a standard usage of hypertext as this is a political question circulating around the tenets of law and order, purpose and control either within officially sanctioned or unofficial networks of disseminating knowledge. It would be far more politically productive for many hypertext theorists and other ‘book burglars’ to resist the homogenising ambitions of the multi-nationals such as Microsoft and Netscape rather than critically subvert their own bread-and-butter.

We as humanists often only feel comfortable in the mapped space of the library where we can move form room to room and shelf to shelf. We have the remarkable ability to create elaborate mental spaces, architectures of information that are supported by the book. Hypertext is a new space, a new frontier that requires new maps and new supports for knowledge. Pointers and maps will be provided through our nomadic roaming and will be predicated on the knowledge and information and the status and power from within the particular academic culture in which we are embedded.

It is perhaps difficult to observe processes that enter so intimately into our own observations. The word processor changed forever the way we deal with large textual structures and editing, and virtually no historian still writes with the slow and overtly mechanical typewriter. The new computer-mediated relationship between author and reader is one in which we must make our audience aware. In hypertext, programming is a form of literacy similar to the meanings we gather from words and images. When learning to use hypertext, a strong sense of what design principles underlie the package can help in a far more significant way than information about which button to press to achieve which result.

Unless students know how to find books in a library, where to look for the meanings of new words, and how to evaluate the ‘author-ity’ of what they read through contextualisation with other authors, they will not be able to read effectively. In a computer-mediated environment, literacy in reading must to some degree include literacy in programming. There have been few historical relationships between the skills of a historian and the skills of a programmer, partly because of the traditional division between the humanities and technical disciplines. As computers become far more mainstream in their professional and domestic application, it is unwise to leave this new form of literacy concentrated in a small section of society. If historians fail to learn and adapt, then we invite the risk of being dis-empowered and marginalised by communication innovations outside of our discipline.

As a rising tide of information laps at our door, books provide an important historical, political and social solution for cognition. The book is not something we must abandon to go through this paradigm shift. All technological change we are told is progress towards the removal of privilege. Technology we are assured is projecting society into a postmodern, post-historical utopia where the only problems are caused by Luddites. These extravagant claims will critically disable older institutions and older forms of authority. We as historians must adapt to, create and challenge new forms of authority, rather than simply deny or defer them.

Technology may be socially constructed, but there are really far too few historians to seriously alter its construction. We must find a balance between adapting the computer to the needs of contemporary historiography, and being bold enough to admit that many changes are beyond us. What is an author, or indeed an historian, if after all, the new media no longer support the legal status or institutional privileges that have traditionally defined the role? We not only need to rethink categories like ‘authorship’ and ‘publication’ but also reputation. Electronic publication implies a new calculus of reputation that no one has as yet really come to terms with.


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    WWW References

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  2. Information Services, The Complete Legal Research System, Sydney, 1995-

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  4. Sharp, Lyndon and Lloyd.,( Flashback, The New South Wales Board of Studies, Sydney, NSW.(distributed by Dataflow Computer Services Pty. Ltd).(1994).

  5. (Authors Unknown) U.S History on CD ROM, Bureau Development, (141 New Road, Parsippany, New Jersey, 07054) New Jersey, 1990.