Notes on Rayward, Boyd W.."Visions of Xanadu: Paul Otlet (1868-1944) and Hypertext"

Rayward, Boyd W.."Visions of Xanadu: Paul Otlet (1868-1944) and Hypertext". Journal of the American Society of Information Science, May 1994.

from the Abstract: "By assessing how the intellectual paradigm of nineteenth century positivism shaped Otlet's thinking, this study suggests how, despite its apparent contemporaneity, what he proposed was in fact conceptually different from the hypertext systems that have been developed or speculated today."

Otlet "…anticipated many features of Bush's memex, Nelson's Xanadu, and hypertext." In the narrative of personal and collective information systems, some of which are "precursors" to today's internet, these three seem to be the most commonly referred to. After Rayward's study, Otlet belongs in the narrative, as this article posits. Who else belongs in the narrative that is not oft-cited? (Douglas Englebart is a name not mentioned in Rayward, but he is much cited, so he doesn't apply)

The section Vannevar Bush and Macrotext Systems of Hypertext talks about the "trails" of information sources envisioned by Bush. (Microtext/Macrotext definition as glossed by Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar at the Electronic Labyrinth, taken from Rada). However, Bush's vision of a personalized workstation maintained only by its owner(the information gateway is controlled exclusively) is invaded by enthusiasts(and merely writers about) hypertext systems in the late 80s and early 90s: Rada(1991), Conklin(1987), Eaves(1991), Ellis(1991), Nyce and Kahn(1991), Rada and Lunin(1991), Rubens(1989), Nelson(1987,83), and Tsai(1988). Will it be worthwhile to take long looks at all of these works? probably not, since in hindsight they say similar things. It is the old story of "collective" intelligence, which is not exactly what Bush refers to.

hypertext=links and nodes (develop this idea more)

Particularly interesting to my study was the section Microtext systems which gave some typical characteristics of hypertext/media. Most interesting was this quote of Rayward citing Conklin(1987):

"Conklin(1987) has pointed out that modularization of text involved in the creation of hypertext nodes correspond in some sense to the way in which we think of ideas, facts, and evidence and the way in which we break text into paragraphs. He comments on the way in which an idea in node form can become reified as a kind of manipulable object. He also related nodes to semantic links: 'Hypertext nodes can be thought of as representing single concepts or ideas, internode links as representing semantic interdependencies among these, and the process of building a hypertext network as a kind of informal knowledge engineering'(pg.36)."

the information space established by hypertext systems breaks down the structure of typical documents blah blah…not really since the physical properties/limitations of the computer screen does not allow for the equivalent of using notecards as thought modules as commentators are apt to enthuse.

It was in Otlet's Monographic Principle(all useful data can be broken down into facts, interpretation of facts, statistics, and sources) that we see true precursors to Bush's idea of the 'trail', both of these depend on information to be broken down into "chunks" or modules.

"Here was a simple technology to be exploited by those who had the imagination to see the potential implicit in it. Cards permitted the "analytical" recording of single, separate pieces of information, be they bibliographical or substantive, and so effectively the creation of what in Hypertext are nodes or chunks of text. Larger chunks of information could be recorded on separate sheets. Otlet called this the "Monographic Principle" (Otlet, 1918). "

" '…Pages here are leaves or cards according to the format adopted.'(Otlet, 1918, p. 149). After all, at one level a book was simply a 'single continuous line which has initially been cut to the length of a page and then cut again to the size of a justified line.' " — like a word processing document.

"These databases had become necessary, he believed, for two reasons. First they responded to the need to provide a new kind of reference or consultation function that had arisen as a result of contemporary pressures of publishing. "Once one read; today one refers to, checks through, skims. Vita brevis, ars longa! There is too much to read ; the times are wrong; the trend is no longer slavishly to follow the author through the maze of a personal plan which he has outlined for himself and which in vain he attempts to impose on those who read him" (Otlet, 1903, p. 79). "It is necessary to be able to read a scholarly book by scanning it and easily eliminating from attention whatever is of no interest" (Otlet, 1989, p. 99). "The form of the book is distinct from its substance" (p. 94). The problem was how to release the substance from the particular bibliographic and literary forms in which it was expressed. In other words the structure of conventional documents was too constraining and their content had to be, as it were, liberated by decomposing and recomposing them according to the monographic principle. This is the problem, to use Carlson's words quoted above, of rhetoric and knowledge structures, of meaning and form. " Several questions arise here, first: how would one react to this separation of medium and content from the perspective of a Marshal McLuhan. Second, are we only referring to text here? Third, does this argue for a translatability through mediums? Fourth, not a question, but that the opinion of "data overload" is also put forth in Bush's essay, in almost the same terms.

Otlet's "Universal Books" would be a default in the memex of scholars, however, a problem arises in how the user would move through the loads of information in this, potentially huge volume. Here is the problem when we see a system that is not organized using personal (associative) indexing. If we move away from basic alpha-numeric indexing forms which are context-ignorant, the trade-off is an inconsistent index.

"Otlet placed great importance both for educational purposes and for clarifying and stimulating thought on the use of schemas, diagrams, charts and tables. They helped identify and visualize concepts and concept relationships. Otlet's colleague with whom he worked closely over the years and with whom he shared this interest, the Scottish town planner and sociologist, Sir Patrick Geddes, called them "thinking machines" (Boardman, 1978; Rayward, 1975). " — TOPIC/KNOWLEDGE MAPPING. Look into Sir Patrick Geddes(Wikipedia entry : "social processes and spatial forms are related")

"The monographic principle applied to standardized cards and sheets represented one of the two major components of modern hypertext systems - nodes."

" 'The dissection" and "redistribution" of the content of all sorts of documents, "chapters, articles and illustrations extracted from books, journals and newspapers, off-prints, ephemera, photographs, etc.,' were major functions of the Office of Documentation (Otlet, 1920)." — remix culture

" 'The book,' he concluded, 'is only a means to an end. Other means exist and as gradually they become more effective than the book, they are substituted for it." — movies for storytelling?

Otlet's scholar's workstation: "First, conventional work places needed Improvements so that documents could be accessed and sorted more easily. There might be, for example, separate surfaces for different projects currently underway so that, as one task was interrupted when another was taken up, there need not be constant displacing and rearranging of materials. He suggested that this could be achieved by constructing a desk, following an eighteenth century model, in the form of a wheel the spokes of which would be hinged and would constitute freely movable writing surfaces. Moreover the desk should be surrounded by a great mobile filing cabinet which would always be open, at eye-level height, and within hand's reach. Mounted on a straight or circular rail, its movement controlled electrically, this is a striking physical surrogate for the files and databases now available in electronic systems.

Desks also needed to be fitted with "machines and auxiliary instruments of intellectual work." There should be machines to transform speech into writing and vice versa. It should also be possible, he believed, as an application of television, to allow texts to be made available for remote reading. There should be a device that would allow individuals to know of texts publicly displayed in various locations for this purpose. An extension of this idea was the suggestion that books on the shelves of a library or the contents of files in filing cabinets ought to be able to be inspected remotely as well." — translatability etc. compare and contrast workstation to Bush's memex. Do they compare, is it useful to compare them?

"The machine itself would operate one or more screens — as many as were necessary — rather like electronic windows, to allow the simultaneous consultation of as many documents as might be desirable." — info landscape: requires equivalent deskspace in cyberworld: dual monitors are a start. See Al Gore's Desk).

"In contemporary systems of information retrieval, the user — an abstraction not easy to interpret — is placed, at least by rhetorical convention, at the centre of the systems. Some guiding notion of the user and his of her information needs and behaviour has provided a fundamental point of reference for system development. This is so no matter how unfriendly and inadequate the systems may be in fact, no matter how egregiously system designers may have ignored the needs and capabilities of those for whom the systems were ostensibly created."

"The text or document, is considered to be fluid, borderless, unbounded. It does not keep the form given to it by its author. In effect the modularisation of the hypertext document is not only a form of virtual decomposition of the document or documents on which the system is based, it is an act of repudiation of the authors' intentions in, and responsibility for, producing the documents in the first place…In this way we may see hypertext as emblematic of the "deconstructionist" world of textuality and intertextuality of recent literary theory…As Landow (1992) observes, "In reducing the autonomy of the text, hypertext reduces the autonomy of the author." It reconceives "the figure and function of authorship" (p. 73). " — yes, but not functionally.

Sure, Otlet is criticized for his positivist view that all information can be classified. However, is this not what one implies when writing a speech or organizing one's own data? I think of, where the user tags links, in ways that are logical for him. Does positivism imply a overarching organization? I guess so.

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