Tags: hyperlinks



An associative trail

Every now and then, I like to revisit Vannevar Bush’s classic article from the July 1945 edition of the Atlantic Monthly called As We May Think in which he describes a theoretical machine called the memex.

A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.

1945! Apart from its analogue rather than digital nature, it’s a remarkably prescient vision. In particular, there’s the idea of “associative trails”:

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities.

Many decades later, Anne Washington ponders what a legal memex might look like:

My legal Memex builds a network of the people and laws available in the public records of politicians and organizations. The infrastructure for this vision relies on open data, free access to law, and instantaneously availability.

As John Sheridan from the UK’s National Archives points out, hypertext is the perfect medium for laws:

Despite the drafter’s best efforts to create a narrative structure that tells a story through the flow of provisions, legislation is intrinsically non-linear content. It positively lends itself to a hypertext based approach. The need for legislation to escape the confines of the printed form predates the all major innovators and innovations in hypertext, from Vannevar Bush’s vision in ” As We May Think“, to Ted Nelson’s coining of the term “hypertext”, through to and Berners-Lee’s breakthrough world wide web. I like to think that Nelson’s concept of transclusion was foreshadowed several decades earlier by the textual amendment (where one Act explicitly alters – inserts, omits or amends – the text of another Act, an approach introduced to UK legislation at the beginning of the 20th century).

That’s from a piece called Deeply Intertwingled Laws. The verb “to intertwingle” was another one of Ted Nelson’s neologisms.

There’s an associative trail from Vannevar Bush to Ted Nelson that takes some other interesting turns…

Picture a new American naval recruit in 1945, getting ready to ship out to the pacific to fight against the Japanese. Just as the ship as leaving the harbour, word comes through that the war is over. And so instead of fighting across the islands of the pacific, this young man finds himself in a hut on the Philippines, reading whatever is to hand. There’s a copy of The Atlantic Monthly, the one with an article called As We May Think. The sailor was Douglas Engelbart, and a few years later when he was deciding how he wanted to spend the rest of his life, that article led him to pursue the goal of augmenting human intellect. He gave the mother of all demos, featuring NLS, a working hypermedia system.

Later, thanks to Bill Atkinson, we’d get another system called Hypercard. It was advertised with the motto Freedom to Associate, in an advertising campaign that directly referenced Vannevar Bush.

And now I’m using the World Wide Web, a hypermedia system that takes in the whole planet, to create an associative trail. In this post, I’m linking (without asking anyone for permission) to six different sources, and in doing so, I’m creating a unique associative trail. And because this post has a URL (that won’t change), you are free to take it and make it part of your own associative trail on your digital memex.


On Jessica’s recommendation, I read a piece on the Guardian website called The eeriness of the English countryside:

Writers and artists have long been fascinated by the idea of an English eerie – ‘the skull beneath the skin of the countryside’. But for a new generation this has nothing to do with hokey supernaturalism – it’s a cultural and political response to contemporary crises and fears

I liked it a lot. One of the reasons I liked it was not just for the text of the writing, but the hypertext of the writing. Throughout the piece there are links off to other articles, books, and blogs. For me, this enriches the piece and it set me off down some rabbit holes of hyperlinks with fascinating follow-ups waiting at the other end.

Back in 2010, Scott Rosenberg wrote a series of three articles over the course of two months called In Defense of Hyperlinks:

  1. Nick Carr, hypertext and delinkification,
  2. Money changes everything, and
  3. In links we trust.

They’re all well worth reading. The whole thing was kicked off with a well-rounded debunking of Nicholas Carr’s claim that hyperlinks harm text. Instead, Rosenberg finds that hyperlinks within a text embiggen the writing …providing they’re done well:

I see links as primarily additive and creative. Even if it took me a little longer to read the text-with-links, even if I had to work a bit harder to get through it, I’d come out the other side with more meat and more juice.

Links, you see, do so much more than just whisk us from one Web page to another. They are not just textual tunnel-hops or narrative chutes-and-ladders. Links, properly used, don’t just pile one “And now this!” upon another. They tell us, “This relates to this, which relates to that.”

The difference between a piece of writing being part of the web and a piece of writing being merely on the web is something I talked about a few years back in a presentation called Paranormal Interactivity at ‘round about the 15 minute mark:

Imagine if you were to take away all the regular text and only left the hyperlinks on Wikipedia, you could still get the gist, right? Every single link there is like a wormhole to another part of this “choose your own adventure” game that we’re playing every day on the web. I love that. I love the way that Wikipedia uses links.

That ability of the humble hyperlink to join concepts together lies at the heart of Tim Berners Lee’s World Wide Web …and Ted Nelson’s Project Xanudu, and Douglas Engelbart’s Dynamic Knowledge Environments, and Vannevar Bush’s idea of the Memex. All of those previous visions of a hyperlinked world were—in many ways—superior to the web. But the web shipped. It shipped with brittle, one-way linking, but it shipped. And now today anyone can create a connection between two ideas by linking to resources that represent those ideas. All you need is an HTML document that contains some A elements with href attributes, and a URL to act as that document’s address.

Like the one you’re accessing now.

Not only can I link to that article on the Guardian’s website, I can also pair it up with other related links, like Warren Ellis’s talk from dConstruct 2014:

Inventing the next twenty years, strategic foresight, fictional futurism and English rural magic: Warren Ellis attempts to convince you that they are all pretty much the same thing, and why it was very important that some people used to stalk around village hedgerows at night wearing iron goggles.

There is definitely the same feeling of “the eeriness of the English countryside” in Warren’s talk. If you haven’t listened to it yet, set aside some time. It is enticing and disquieting in equal measure …like many of the works linked to from the piece on the Guardian.

There’s another link I’d like to make, and it happens to be to another dConstruct speaker.

From that Guardian piece:

Yet state surveillance is no longer testified to in the landscape by giant edifices. Instead it is mostly carried out in by software programs running on computers housed in ordinary-looking government buildings, its sources and effects – like all eerie phenomena – glimpsed but never confronted.

James Bridle has been confronting just that. His recent series The Nor took him on a tour of a parallel, obfuscated English countryside. He returned with three pieces of hypertext:

  1. All Cameras Are Police Cameras,
  2. Living in the Electromagnetic Spectrum, and
  3. Low Latency.

I love being able to do this. I love being able to add strands to this world-wide web of ours. Not only can I say “this idea reminds me of another idea”, but I can point to both ideas. It’s up to you whether you follow those links.

Revving up

I was away in Berlin for a few days, delivering a to the good people at Aperto. I had a good time, made even better by some excellent Spring weather and the opportunity to meet up with Anthony and Colin while I was there.

I came home to find that, in my absence, rev="canonical" usage has gone stratospheric. First off, there are the personal sites like CollyLogic and Bokardo. Then there are the bigger fish:

Excellent! I’d just like to add one piece of advice to anyone implementing or thinking of implementing rev="canonical": if you are visibly linking to the short url of the current page, please remember to use rev="canonical" on that A element as well as on any LINK element you’ve put in the HEAD of your document. Likewise, for the coders out there, if you are thinking of implementing a rev="canonical" parser—and let’s face it, that’s a nice piece of low-hanging fruit to hack together—please remember to also check for rev attributes on A elements as well as on LINK elements. If anything, I would prioritise human-visible claims of canonicity over invisible metacrap.

Actually, there’s a whole bunch of nice metacrapital things you can do with your visible hyperlinks. If you link to an RSS feed in the BODY of your document, use the same rel values that you would use if you linked to the feed from a LINK element in the HEAD. If you link to an MP3 file, use the type attribute to specify the right mime-type (audio/mpeg). The same goes for linking to Word documents, PDFs and any other documents that aren’t served up with a mime-type of text/html. So, for example, here on my site, when I link to the RSS feed from the sidebar, I’m using type and rel attributes: href="/journal/rss" rel="alternate" type="application/rss+xml". I’m also quite partial to the hreflang attribute but I don’t get the chance to use that very often—this post being an exception.

The rev="canonical" convention makes a nice addition to the stable of nice semantic richness that can be added to particular flavours of hyperlinks. But it isn’t without its critics. The main thrust of the argument against this usage is that the rev attribute currently doesn’t appear in the HTML5 spec. I’ve even seen people use the past tense to refer to an as-yet unfinished specification: the rev attribute was taken out of the HTML5 spec.

As is so often the case with HTML5, the entire justification for dropping rev seems to be based on a decision made by one person. To be fair, the decision was based on available data from 2005. In light of recent activity and the sheer number of documents that are now using rev="canonical"—Flickr alone accounts for millions—I would hope that the HTML5 community will have the good sense to re-evaluate that decision. The document outlining the design principles of HTML5 states:

When a practice is already widespread among authors, consider adopting it rather than forbidding it or inventing something new.

The unbelievable speed of adoption of rev="canonical" shows that it fulfils a real need. If the HTML5 community ignore this development, not only would they not be paving a cowpath, they would be refusing to even acknowledge that a well-trodden cowpath even exists.

The argument against rev seems to be that it can be confusing and could result in people using it incorrectly. By that argument, new elements like header and footer should be kept out of any future specification for the same reason. I’ve already come across confusion on the part of authors who thought that these new elements could only be used once per document. Fortunately, the spec explains their meaning.

The whole point of having a spec is to explain the meaning of elements and attributes, be it for authors or user-agents. Without a spec to explain what they mean, elements like P and A don’t make any intuitive sense. It’s no different for attributes like href or rev. To say that rev isn’t a good attribute because it requires you to read the spec is like saying that in order to write English, you need to understand the language. It’s neither a good nor bad thing, it’s just a statement of the bleedin’ obvious.

Now go grab yourself the very handy bookmarklet that Simon has written for auto-discovering short urls.


The deed is done. I had the pre-lunchtime slot at Reboot to speak about a very simple subject: the hyperlink.

It was fun. People seemed to enjoy it and there were some great questions and comments afterwards: it was humbling and gratifying to have Håkon Wium Lie and Jean-Francois Groff respond to my words.

Unlike any previous presentations I’ve done, I had written out everything I wanted to say word for word. I began by describing this as a story, a manifesto, but mostly a love letter. For once, I was going to read a pre-prepared speech. I still had slides but they were very minimal.

I ended up using two laptops. One iBook, controlled from my phone using Salling Clicker, was displaying the slides done in Keynote. I used the other iBook as a teleprompter: I wanted large sized text continually scrolling as I spoke.

I looked into some autocue software for the Mac but rather than fork out the cash for one of them, I wrote my own little app using XHTML, CSS and JavaScript. I bashed out a quick’n’dirty first version pretty quickly. I spent most of the flight to Copenhagen refining the JavaScript to make it reasonably nice. I’ll post the code up somewhere, probably over on the DOM Scripting site in case anyone else needs a browser-based teleprompter.

If you’d like to read a regular, non-scrolling version of my love letter, I’ve posted In Praise of the Hyperlink in the articles section.


I’ve been seeing the inside of a lot of airports lately. Right after getting back from XTech in Amsterdam, I flew up to Manchester to deliver a one day workshop in Ajax.

It was my first visit to the mighty Mancunian metropolis and a very pleasant visit it was, especially given the opportunity to go drinking with Patrick Lauke, James “Brothercake” Edwards, and Chris Mills in a bar that was decked out like a sci-fi version of the Hard Rock Café from parallel grungy dimension.

Tomorrow I will once again be doing the airport shuffle. This time the airport is Stansted and the destination is Copenhagen, the setting for the eighth iteration of the Reboot conference. I’ve never been to Denmark, let alone Reboot, before. I’m really looking forward to it.

I will be speaking but for once it won’t be a code-filled techy presentation. Instead, I plan to deliver the most pretentious talk ever devised: In Praise of the Hyperlink.

I also managed to solve the mystery of the missing email and figured out that the person doing the pre-Reboot podcast was Nicole Simon. We had a little chat over Skype and you can listen to the conversation if you want to get a taste of what I’ll be talking about.

If you’re going to Reboot, I’ll see you there. If not, expect the usual cascade of Flickr pics and liveblogging.