János Sugár

The Age of Unified Data Structure (Preface)


Our collection of texts addresses one of the central concepts of media theory: hypermedia. We hope that the publication of three seminal texts on this expansive field spanning from literature to interface research will arouse the interest of many in the subject and its numerous areas.

Scientific research was a serious battlefield during WWII and remained so until the end of the Cold War. Vannevar Bush was the one who directed the ‘army’ of American scientists and his efforts made him an important figure in the victory, albeit unknown to many. The war virtually forced scientists to cooperate, maintain constant communication and efficient cooperation. Based on the moral platform of a common goal, Bush formulated the need for a similar cooperation during peace time. It can be said that the military researchers who worked together and communicated intensely despite being physically far from one another can be regarded as the ones who first modelled the information society. It is understandable, therefore, that the medium for the network was developed to facilitate the efficient collaboration of (military) researchers. At that point bush saw the computer only as an enormous calculator; digitalisation, which is common practice today, was unimaginable at the time, so he was able to model communication with the machine (the interface) only with great difficulty. Nevertheless, he identified the essence at the level of his age, namely that the computer will be the means with which efficient cooperation can be realised in practice – it will function like the medium of a symbiosis.

Thirty years passed from the appearance of the thirty-tonne ENIAC, completed in 1946, and the personal computer, which had a similar performance, and it was twent years after Bush’ ideas that Ted Nelson first used the concept of Hypertext. For Nelson the Age of Unified Data Structure was reality and he soon launched the Xanadu project. His plan was so daring that it virtually hovered on the verge of being technically implementable. (There was no personal computer at the time, for example.) The name Xanadu comes from Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan and “denotes the magical place of literary memory”, where everything is preserved. This choice of name also reflects the original and profoundly literary roots of the hypertext. Perhaps the hypertext is the first serious civilizational dream that came true thanks to the rapidly advancing computer technology. Paradoxically, while Nelson, being ahead of the times he was living in and waiting for the right technological background to be available, was labouring to implement Xanadu, his dream – reaching areas beyond the text – was realised by the technology capable of simultaneously displaying image and sound and by interactivity. The creators of the World Wide Web drew inspiration for the development of their global database from Nelson’s ideas.

The logic of this train of thought would require the insertion of a text linked to multimedia or the Web, but this area is so large, and it is at this point where the reader can (hopefully easily) leave – for a second – the medium of textuality and collect direct experiences on the Web.

The first chapter of Landow’s famous book gives a kind of summary the theme of the hypertext and, recognising it as the laboratory of the postmodern, puts it in the context of contemporary media theory, philosophy and literary research. The first chapter included in this volume was published by Landow on the Web in the form of a hypertext, which is what regrettably cannot be presented here due to the linear nature of this collection.

The description of Ted Nelson’s Xanadu and the biography of Douglas Engelbart are included here as a supplement. Engelbart is a visionary researcher, who is still active. Despite the fact that he developed such fundamental applications as the window openable on the screen, word processing and the computer mouse, now used by the masses, he is barely known outside professional circles. His two inventions are so simple and essential that some people might well assume that they have always existed.