Forgotten Visions of the Web

I’ve been inspired by a great lecture, The Web that Wasn’t by Alex Wright, which traces the history of precursor ideas and thinking that ether lead to the web or where ideas much greater than the Internet is right now.

Here are some of the ideas that were missed out on and I believe are sill possible with internet technology today:

What we missed out on

  • Links with meaning, the example was that references from one document to another might indicate “agreement” or “disagreement” with facts/argument, an idea by Paul Otlet and realised in his ‘Mundanium’ project. In a way we have this in that hyperlinks are placed around text and this text should indicate the meaning of the link to the current idea and perhaps current document. Google encourages this and its good SEO for the document that is linked too and says nothing about the document the link is on. There is also XFN which “is a simple way to represent human relationships using hyperlinks” was a basic start to this but I haven’t seen any uses of it yet.
  • “Social space” of a document, [Otlet] which was a record of the usage of the information, so links between documents that were looked up together or as the result of the other. This would also give you an idea of how one document sat in relation to its pier documents.
  • Visible pathways[Vannevar Bush] thought the information. The user would move thought the documents and possibly leave notes for themselves or others as they went from one document to the next (surfed). In the web browser this would be like a public browser history, a trail through the information that those after could see. A more collaborative system.
  • Two way links [Vannevar Bush] so you can not only see a list of the documents linked to but also documents that where linked from: more of a a two way street. Pingbacks and Trackbacks are similar to these ideas. I think in a closed system this would be very possible, combined with social networks, or research groups, weights could be put on the incoming links based on links to those documents with in the group and globally (if it was public).
  • Process hierarchies[Doug Engelbart] where you have small sub-sets of functionality, i.e. spell-checker, word processor, which could be stitched together to make new types of applications. Something that is only juts beginning to happen online with frameworks. From an information architecture point of view there still remains to be seen a CMS that makes it easy to throw together components and link them together easily. Drupal achieves this to a certain extent with its Content Construction Kit (CCK), but its still quite a rigid system.
  • Transclustion [Ted Nelson] which is part of one document embeded into another an updated dynamical (sort of like iFrames or this video of him talking about his Xanadu system). In his model you can see the referd to document side-by-side the document thats “transculting” it. Two interesting ideas would be in the case of Wikis where you have versions, you would say your are interested in referencing the most recent version or just the version that was current when you made the reference. Also deep linking so that if you referenced a translation of the Bible, i.e. the King James version, which then is a translation from herbew say, would you be able to see all three at once and trance the history of a particular writing?

The forgotten visions

A friend of mine, Bernard, recently emailed me asking for advice on how to organise his research

my research blog is starting to
get unwieldy. lots of posts and tags and i can’t really use the
categories for any semantic groupings (instead of tags) because such
things change over the course of my research. i’ve been doing my best
to link to related posts so that i continue to ‘build’ on my research,
but now i’m finding that it’s a bastard to find linked/related posts
easily. fine, trackbacks are on and they appear in the comments, but i
want to be able to kind of visualise the web of related posts as
determined by trackbacks.

The web has come a long way but it hasn’t seemed to solve the problems that it it started out trying to solve. More to the point the visionary preceding it seemed to think that it should be all about the issues that my friend is having, those of organising and augmenting research in large bodies of information.

With the advent of Web 2.0 technology’s such as: AJaX for responsive interfaces; community networks for collaboration; content sharing via third party sites such as Flickr and YouTube; shiny and reflective looking graphic design. I think we are finally in a position to make some of these forgotten visions for the web come true and fulfil Doug Engelbart vision of Augmented Human Intelligence.

20 thoughts on “Forgotten Visions of the Web”

    1. Gridirons Flow is a brilliant file system UI that:

      • show you the relationships between files (or even contacts in your Mac address book!)
      • Does version tracking and has a nice drag-and-drop stack interface, with previews, for showing you the history and reverting to any version.
      • Time tracking on files individually and collectively so you can do your time sheets easily.
      • Searching layer names within Adobe files as well as tags you can associate with files.

      It really kicks ass and is simple to use. This would be a great UI to emulate for the admin of a CMS like Drupal.


  1. EverybodyLovesSketch, “A gesture-based 3D curve sketching system aimed at a broad audience”.

    A very light weight interface that uses a pen and allows fast 3D sketching so you can get your ideas down fast. Interesting note about the trial they did with high school student at the end, which seemed to be a success!

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