I went to a random book store this weekend for no reason. One of those times where you're not sure why you pulled over. Maybe just because I'd never been there before. An hour later I had a $1 Grab Bag of Sci-Fi. I'm a pretty avid reader, as avid readers go. I've got a queue right now that is about 10 deep and includes everything from The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Last Stephen J. Gould book) to Armageddon (Left Behind series).
I'm a pretty big Science Fiction fan. Not crap like the latest Star Wars paperback or TekWar, more like Heinlein, Asimov and any Ender books.
I really like anthologies, things like The Science Fiction Century, and any Hugo Award winners.
Anyway, in one of these random paperbacks was a section that wasn't fiction, but rather called 'Speculative Fact.' One essay in particular stood out: How David's Sling Met HyperCard by Marc Stiegler. It opens with this prophetic paragraph:
The media doesn't fully realize this yet, but Bellevue, Washington of the late '80's my be to computer software what Silicon Valley is to computer hardware. For a software engineer it's an exciting place to live because there's something new every day; it's also scary because you can get so obsolete so fast. At times it feels like a white-water rafting expedition - one of the recent series of rapids swirls around the evolution of the concept of hyper text into hypermedia.
Marc wrote a novel called David's Sling in 1988. It was to be a complex book with lots of subplots, and basically he didn't like how his complex web of asychronous events had to be presented in the linear turn-to-the-next-page format 'imposed' by books. A software engineer already, he knew of Ted Nelson's coining of the word 'hypertext' in the 60's. He then came upon HyperCard at an Apple convention and created the world's first hypermedia novel. He describe the ultimate information machine as having a 80386 with 4mb of RAM and a 300mb harddrive. :)
When I ask myself, 'When did I come upon HyperText for the first time,' I remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books of my youth. I've got a pile of them, and I hope my kids enjoy them as much as I did. I remember getting frustrated when I 'blew the stack' as I only had 10 fingers to act as bookmarks as I jumped around the book from ending to ending and plot to plot.
When I first saw Mosaic I was impressed, but not blown away. I mean, my mind was hypertext, why shouldn't information in the physical world be the same way. Certainly hypertext and hypermedia are and have always been an idea that was only held back by technology.
Fifteen years after David's Sling, I read this essay with the same feeling I'd have if it were fifty years past. What has been our progress? With all that we have on the web as examples of HyperText, it's all held together by bailing wire and MLs (HTML, XML, children of SGML, etc).
The real finger in the dike that is keeping the whole system from collapsing in a heap of useless information is truly Google. The concept of a permalink, which SHOULD hold it all together, is weakened when the average life of a web page is less than 100 days.
"I think of it like the library burning in Alexandria. We've had all these hundreds of years of stuff available by interlibrary loan, but now things just a few years old are disappearing right under our noses really quickly."
Google insulates us from much of this through quick indexing, but it doesn't change the fact that information is being lost. When a student publishes a useful paper or interesting research it's only there until some IT fellow at the college decides to yank a power cord, change a directory structure.
I shudder to think what would have happened to my fragile younger-self's psyche if I tried to turn to page 48 in my Choose Your Own Adventure book only to get a 404 'Page Not Found' error at the climax of the plot.
I look forward to WinFS as a way to organize my life's information. I can Google the planet in < 1 second, but while I've been writing this entry, the little Windows XP Search Dog has been looking for *2port.sys. It's been 9 minutes and it's search 350 gigs with ~75 gigs left. Maybe a permalink has been broken or a folder moved. :)
What will organize the world's information? Morality and 'civilized society' are held together by only the will of the people. Chaos and anarchy is just under one's skin. Can sheer will replace the PermaLink? Certainly www.archive.org can try, but can't succeed by itself.
As an interesting footnote: While David's Sling is still available in paperback on Amazon 15 years later, there isn't a copy of his HyperCard Stack to be found, nor a copy of HyperCard to run on the Mac Quadra in the garage. It's a shame that his vision was ahead of it's time, but when the time came, the 'permalink' (and the platform, not to mention the data format) had rotted.
If he re-printed his novel as HTML and assigned it a permalink, would it last longer than 15 years...?