Hypertext '87 Keynote Address  4/18/05 - Article by Andries Van Dam

When I left The Math Forum, among the parting gifts Gene Klotz gave me was a copy of the special "hypertext issue" of Communications of the ACM. I've held onto it and occasionally browsed it; last week it came of the shelf for idle reading. But of course I could not stay idle about it. The last few pages of the Hypertext '87 Keynote Address by Andries van Dam spurred me to take some notes.

The knee of the curve

When van Dam gets to talking about hypertext in teaching, I really perked up. He thought then that "we are about to go over the knee of the exponential curve," citing HyperCard's popularity and emerging systems like Xerox's NoteCards and Owl's Guide. Of course none of these remain in wide use, especially in teaching, and hypertext remains of primary use in the classroom as a reference rather than as an authoring, working, or collaborative tool. I feel like we're still just short of the knee of the curve.

Individuals are pioneering use in the classroom. Others are disseminating potentially rich tools which achieve "user friendliness" by emulating non-digital systems... and which then don't push the envelope much. Others are using hypertext extensively, but in courses that are at least partly about the medium.

I'm waxing morose, here: educators may have gone over the knee of the exponential curve in our reading and research, but not in our writing or working.

Size Doesn't Matter

He describes running the "Hypertext Editing System" with some impressive statistics: 2250 graphics display application in a 128K partition of a multiprogrammed operating syste on an IBM/360 Model 50 with 512K of memory. (p.889)

progressive disclosure

Van Dam uses the term "progressive disclosure" to describe how he learned to present complex systems to a novice audience very gradually. I think it has another meaning for aware hypertext readers and writers: use links, pages, multiple screens, outlines... use all these tools to hide information that may be too much. Establish levels of consciousness, plateaus of presentation depth.

Teachers know to do this to keep students just at the edge of their 'comfort zone'... deep enough in the unfamiliar to keep them observing and learning, but not so deep that they get lost and tune out, unable to connect what they see to their own experience.

I need to read this more

There's so much in this article. Parts of it are a history of hypertext which I just don't have time to fully link and read into now:

  • Doug Englebart's NLS
  • van Dam's English poetry course with "a very large hypertext with well over a thousand links"
  • progressive disclosure in that course
  • discussion of the Document Presentation System
  • IRIS, the Institute for Research on Information and Scholarship (and Intermedia)

Sigh. Another reading which places thrice as many notes in my "to read" list as it puts into the archive.

We Need Hypermedia Designers

The sixth point is that we need hypermedia designers. ... Now we've got 'linkitis', and people with no graphic design experience or talent are going to throw stuff together and it will look terrible."

This sounds like a call for "information architects". Not just graphic or web designers, but people who know how to structure linked text. ... Can I have the job?

Don't Metaphor Me In

"Don't metaphor me in." Don't give me a little card image and say, "That's all you've got, because that's what I thought you should want for your virtual shoebox."

That seems like the glory and the problem with Tinderbox. Eastgate refuses to metaphor people in. As Doug Miller discussed on his blog, that makes for a steep learning curve, but (hopefully) leads to epiphanies that kick you 'out of the box'. HyperCard used the card metaphor. Blog tools use the journal metaphor. Inspiration uses the concept map or picture metaphor. But if you want to do something in between... say, a blog whose entries are nouns entries in a directory, or a movie with images that act like links on the web, then you don't want to "be metaphored in."

Wallscreen-size displays

Hoker performs the following experiment. Take The Wall Street Journal and move around a little cutout the size of a Mac screen and see how happy you are with The Wall Street Journal...

Yes. At work (a school-like academic summer program) we're very fond of whiteboards. We lay out the courses for a summer on a board, and match instructors to them, and everything is color-coded and numbered in a very rich way. Any current way of presenting that on a computer screen is like Hoker's experiment. Even with a database, a 'sort by discipline' of the unassigned courses doesn't show us that we've overcommitted our staff members to the math (or first period, or afternoon) courses, but a quick glance at the board shows a lopsided amount of writing over there. Some tasks don't fit on a screen, or even a table-top. As IT Coordinator, I'm constantly asking whether something is best done in the computer, or whether it in fact needs more room.


van Dam, Andries. "Hypertext '87: Keynote Address." Communications of the ACM Vol. 31 No. 7 (July 1988): 887-895.