The associative powers of hypertext, like any other feature of language, have a rich history. The editor of Feed explores how evolving verbal forms--in our century, the previous one, and the next--respond to the requirements of content

The Dickensian Memex; or,
the 19th-century roots of hypertext

Steven Johnson

The hypertext link is the first significant new form of punctuation to emerge in centuries, but it is only a hint of things to come. Hypertext suggests a whole new grammar of possibilities, a new way of writing and telling stories. But to make that new frontier accessible, we need more than one type of link. Microsoft and Netscape may be content with the simple, one-dimensional links of the Web's current incarnation, but for the rest of us, it's like trying to write a novel where the words are separated only by semicolons.

Fortunately, the world of hypertext has a long history of low- level innovation. As a general interface convention, the link should usually be understood as a synthetic device, a tool that brings multifarious elements together into an orderly unit. In this respect, the most compelling cultural analogy for hypertext turns out to be not the splintered universe of channel surfing, but rather the damp, fog-shrouded streets of Victorian London, and the mysterious resemblances of Charles Dickens.

"Links of association"--actually a favorite phrase of Dickens-- play a major role in the narrative of Great Expectations. The link usually takes the form of a passing resemblance, half-glimpsed and then forgotten. Throughout his oeuvre, characters perceive some stray likeness in the faces of strangers, something felt but impossible to place. These moments are scattered through the novels like hauntings; this ethereal quality brings them close to the subjective haze of modernism and the stream of consciousness. Consider Pip's ruminations on his mysterious playmate and love-interest Estella: "What was it that was borne in upon my mind when she stood still and looked attentively at me?... What was it? ...As my eyes followed her white hand, again the same dim suggestion that I could not possibly grasp, crossed me. My involuntary start occasioned her to lay her hand upon my arm. Instantly the ghost passed once more and was gone. What was it?"

These partial epiphanies serve as the driving force behind the suspense of Dickens' novels. Resolving the half-resemblance, connecting the links, putting a name to the face--these actions invariably give the novel the sense of an ending. They restore a certain orderliness in the face of tremendous disorder (mirroring in one way the "synthetic" connections of hypertext prose). The associative links unite Dickens' two major thematic obsessions: orphans and inheritances. In the Dickensian novel, the plight of being orphaned at an early age has the same sine qua non quality that marital infidelity had in the French novel: You simply can't imagine the form surviving without it. The more complicated later novels (Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, Great Expectations) are teeming with abandoned children, surrogate parents, anonymous benefactors. The Victorians have a reputation for family-values conservatism, but their most gifted novelist dissected and recombined the family unit with an inventiveness that would have impressed the Marquis de Sade.

For all the experimentation, of course, Dickens's novels eventually wind their way back to some kind of nuclear family. And with this "rightful" restoring of the family unit comes another restoration, this one financial. Like most 19th-century British novelists, Dickens incessantly structured his narratives around troubled inheritances. There are enough contested wills, anonymous benefactors, and entangled estates to keep all the lawyers in Chancery busy for another century. Reuniting the dispersed family and discovering links of filiation are bound up in the rightful disposition of some long-contested estate. What better way to tantalize the reader--haplessly trying to connect those long-separated family lines--than by offering up a suggestive but unfulfilled resemblance, a hint of filiation?

What makes these links striking--to the 20th-century reader, at least--is that they straddle radically different social groups (the family at the end of Great Expectations include an escaped convict, a servant, and a young woman of means; in Bleak House, an aristocratic baroness, an opium-addict law stenographer, and an orphan girl brought up by a haute bourgeois uncle). There is a strong vein of sentimentality in these reconciliations, of course, but also something heroic. Dickens attempted to see a social whole, building a form large enough to connect the lives of street urchins, captains of industry, schoolteachers, circus folk, ladies in waiting, convicts, shut-ins, dustheap emperors, aging nobility, and rising young gentlemen. No novelist since has cast such a wide net, or even dared to try. That is partially because the forces unleashed by the industrial revolution had an enormously dissociative power. Dickens inherited the burden of a society in which roles were no longer clearly defined, where the codes of primogeniture and noblesse oblige had given way to a bewildering new regime. He built explanatory narratives within the genre of the novel, but the divisions were too severe for ordinary storytelling to broach. To see the relationship between a street orphan and a baroness, you needed a little magic.

Dickens understood that a culture so divided against itself could only seek resolution in fairy tales. The "links of association" were the building blocks of that fantasy. Their high-tech descendants serve an equivalent purpose today. Where Dickens's narrative links stitched together a torn social fabric, hypertext links attempt the same with information. Today's imaginative crisis comes from having too much information at our fingertips. The modern interface is a kind of corrective to this multiplying energy, an attempt to subdue all that teeming complexity. On the Web, it is the link that finally supplies that sense of coherence. Today's orphans and itinerants are the isolated packets of data strewn across the infosphere. The question is whether it will take another Dickens to bring them all back home again. Like so much of the digital world, linking originates in the creative aftermath of World War II as a response to the research explosion of the war years. With so much new data, how would scientists make sense of it all? Vannevar Bush, in his 1945 essay "As We May Think,"1 conceived the problem as one of discontinuity: Our knowledge-creating tools had advanced faster than the knowledge-processing ones. Plenty of information was being generated; we just didn't know where to find it. Fifty years before Netscape Navigator, Bush drew on a nautical metaphor, hinting at the provocative idea of information space: "The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships." As a corrective to this plight, Bush proposed an information speedboat, half microfiche machine and half computer, storing vast amounts of written and graphic information and allowing the user to connect items at will. He called it the Memex.

Bush's proposed solution should probably go down in history as the birth of hypertext. Only he chose to imagine the "links of association" connecting all that data as "trails," not links. At one point, he even refers to experienced Memex users as "trail blazers"--a term that would have fit well with the "new frontier" rhetoric of recent cyber-boosterism. At first glance, trails resemble the modern link; they serve as a kind of connective tissue, an information artery, that threads together documents with some shared semantic quality. Trails, in other words, are a way of organizing information that doesn't follow the strict, inflexible dictates of the Dewey decimal system or other hierarchical conventions. Documents can be connected for more elusive, transient reasons, and each text can have many trails leading to it. Our traditional ways of organizing things--library books, say, or physical elements--are built around fixed, stable identities: Each document belongs to a specific category, just as each element has a single block on the periodic table. Bush's system was closer to those half-resemblances of Dickens's novels: tantalizing, but not fully formed. This was a profound shift in the way we grapple with information. The previous century had been dominated by the encyclopedic mentality--famously parodied in Flaubert's Bouvard and Pecuchet--in which the primary goal of information management was to find the proper slot for each data package. Bush turned that paradigm on its head. What made a nugget of information valuable, he suggested, was not the overarching class or species that it belonged to, but rather the connections it had to other data. The Memex wouldn't see the world as a librarian does, as an endless series of items to be filed away on the proper shelf. It would see the world the way a poet does: a world teeming with associations, minglings, continuities.

What Bush described was essentially a literary view of the world, one probably best realized in Bloom's rambling internal monologue in Ulysses and the associative free-for-all of most Surrealist writing. But subsequent advances in neuroscience suggest that Bush's connective model may be a mechanical analog of the way the brain works: an intricate assemblage of neurons, connected by trails of electrical energy, generating information out of connections, not fixed identity. It's not like the brain reserves a specific space for the idea of "dog" and another for "cat." The ideas emerge out of thousands of separate neurons firing, in combinations that reorganize themselves with each subtle shift in meaning. The connections between those neurons create the thought; the individual neurons are just building blocks.

Bush's promise of "information-at-your-fingertips" works better on paper than it does in real life. (The gap is probably forgivable, considering that the Memex itself was the ultimate in vaporware.) But if part of Bush's vision anticipates the present-day Web, another part greatly exceeds it. Despite the fury of innovation and the massive R&D expenditures of the past decades, one of the Memex's essential features remains off limits to most contemporary Web browsers. Consider this description:

The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow... He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.

Anyone who has spent any time roaming across the Internet will immediately recognize the difference here. Bush's Memex owner literally builds that "trail of interest" as he explores the information space on his desk. Surfers, as a rule, follow links assembled in advance, depending on the charity of others for their associative links; the "trail blazer" rolls his own. Most importantly, the trails have genuine duration. They remain part of the Memex's documentary record; the connection between the bow and the principles of elasticity aren't simply strung together momentarily, only to be discarded hours later. The connection remains permanently etched onto the Memex's file system. Five years after this initial research, a return to the material on elastics might send our Memexer off to the bow-and-arrows article, or deliver up his long-forgotten notes. That accumulated record of past trails means that the device grows smarter--or at least more associative--the more you use it.

The Memex was designed to organize information in the most intuitive way possible, based not on file cabinets or superhighways but on our usual habits of thinking--following leads, making connections, building trails of thought. Bush wanted the Memex to respond to the user's worldview; the trails would wind their way through documents in varied, idiosyncratic ways, threading through the information space at the user's discretion. No two trails would be exactly alike. The Web has realized much of Bush's vision, but the core insight--the need for a trail-building device--remains unfulfilled. The Web should be a way of seeing new relationships, connecting things that might have otherwise been kept separate. Clicking on other people's links may be less passive than channel-surfing, but until users can create their own threads of associations, there will be few honest-to-god trail blazers on the net.

1. Bush, Vannevar. "As We May Think." Atlantic Monthly 176.1 (July 1945): 101-108.

Related links:

  • The Dickens Page, Nagoya University, Japan

  • The Dickens Project, UC Santa Cruz

  • Dickens's Novels

  • The Victorian Novel (notes from Naomi Jacobs, Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia)

  • Vannevar Bush symposium, MIT electrical engineering & computer science departments, 1995

  • Bush in The Electronic Labyrinth, U. of Virginia

  • Bush, Science, the Endless Frontier

  • Bush, "As We May Think," alternate copy

  • George P. Landow, "Vannevar Bush and the Memex" from Hypertext (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992)

  • "Remembering the Memex," Feed Document (annotated excerpts from Bush's original essay)

  • The World Wide Web: the origins and beyond

  • STEVEN JOHNSON is editor-in-chief of Feed, co-founder of the Technorealist movement, and author of Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate (1997: NY and SF, Harper), from which this article was adapted. The discussion of Dickens and hypertext originated as part of a Columbia doctoral dissertation.