The age of the hypertext

In the era of the world wide web a 'text' is no longer locked into being a linear string of words to be read from start to finish. Tools such as web links and embedded multimedia mean that we can use a text as a starting point and jump off to explore particular aspects, greater levels of detail and more or less related topics. This is the multilayered, non-linear 'hypertext' – a concept originally envisioned by sociologist and computer programmer Ted Nelson in the 1960s.

It first emerged in a 1965 article about his lecture ‘Computers, Creativity, and the Nature of the Written Word’. Nelson later built on the promise of computer technology and hypertext to envision a “docuverse” where all data was stored once, without deletions, and all information could be accessed through a link from anywhere else, depending on the user's preference.

This vision is not quite matched by the web, as some information is stored in more than one place, and links are ‘one-way’: we can link to other nodes, but don’t know who else is linked to us. But hypertext has become a crucial concept of the web-based information age, taking texts off the page and making them 'three-dimensional' – reference points in an information grid to search out, access and jump off of.