September 4th, 2008 Richard
I just went through the National Foundation’s web site/mixed-media presentation NSF and the Birth of the Internet. The site is one of the most compelling History-of-the-Web sites I’ve seen, though (for obvious reasons) it focuses mainly on NSF’s role (which was big). I highly recommend the site.
One of the things about the development of the Internet and Web that was not addressed much on this site, was the role of hypertext in the World Wide Web. Of course, many of us have come to use the terms World Wide Web and Internet as synonymous, but, as far as the history of the internet, of course, they are not. The Internet came into being (as described very well on the NSF site) in 1969, when a four location network was set up in the southwest U.S.; while the World Wide Web, as represented by the first web page, began in 1991. Another interesting thing about the Web (as compared to the Internet) is that it was basically invented by one person, Tim Berners-Lee, at a high-energy Physics lab in Switzerland.
<Richard Flash Back>
When I was a graduate student in Experimental Psychology at Texas Christian University, in the late 1980s, I was fortunate enough to work with a faculty in the education department, Sherrie Reynolds, on a project where she was developing different ways of displaying text using software from Apple called HyperCard. This was some of the first research, using hypermedia displays in education. The basic unit in HyperCard was a single screen (like a web page). You could create a lot of different pages, of course; but, the cool, and revolutionary thing was the way that the pages could be organized. You could create a link anywhere on any page, and link it to any other page, and you could create as many links as you wanted.
</Richard Flash Back>
This organizational scheme was very interesting to me, and a lot of other people, because most models of memory assume that the brain works in this same manner, where any piece of information can be connected to any other piece of information, an organizational structure that is difficult to mimic technologically. The early research on hypertext in education was disappointing, mainly because it turns out that; just because the brain stores information one way, it doesn’t mean that the brain likes to receive it in the same way. (Sort of like, just because you chew your food to digest it, it doesn’t mean you want to eat food that’s already been chewed.) In fact, a special term was coined to describe the unfortunate situation where a student encountered a learning environment where information was connected in many complex ways with no apparent path or structure, “lost in hyperspace”.
But hypertext turned out to be magic when combined with the internet, where any page, or part of a page, can now be connected to any other page, or part of a page, on any computer, anywhere (provided it’s on the internet, of course). So, in a nutshell this was the great idea that Tim Berners-Lee had – put hypertext on top of the internet – and it changed the world.