One of the highlights of this year’s Hypertext conference (which I missed) was Andrew Dillon‘s opening keynote. He is a great speaker—the Irish accent doesn’t hurt—and it would have been great to see it. Perhaps a recording will materialize eventually. In the meantime, there is the written version that reviews the state of Hypertext research 65 years after some of its tenets were articulated by Vannevar Bush in the famous “As We May Think” article in the Atlantic.
Dillon observed that over these past 65 years, we’ve made some progress toward Bush’s vision, but all the hypertext rhetoric notwithstanding, we still read pretty much the same way as before. He reluctantly admitted that a considerable amount of reading is happening through the mediation of a computer these days, but pointed out that designers of online reading tools often strive to imitate the paper versions. He concludes that
Part of what we have learned over the last two decades is that genre forms are highly embedded in the cognition of communities. It is plausible to consider the emergence of new digital genres but we are witnessing to a greater degree is the shaping of communicative practices across media to the demands of our own architecture, with its preference for patterns and order.
Thus, although associative linking has its place, printed text has its own logic that we have designed to support our cognitive processes. There are, of course, echoes of the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate here; I think the Nature side of the argument has a stronger case.
Dillon also raised an interesting issue for the Hypertext research community, one related to evaluation. While hypertext has been touted as a natural technology for supporting learning, much of the evaluation of hypertext effectiveness has focused on navigation. Reflecting on the history of the discipline, he pointed out that
…the argument seemed to be that research would be better spent solving the problem of being lost in hyperspace than in addressing instructional impact.
Vannevar Bush imagined a technological solution to empower reading, writing, and learning. In this review, Dillon points out that while we have some mastery of the reading and writing aspects of hypertext, we’ve still got a lot to learn about learning.