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Hypertext is a way to organize information in a digital format that makes use of traditional text structures (words, sentences, pages, articles or chapters, books, and libraries) as enhanced by the multiple linkages (words to words, words to sentences, sentences to sentences, sentences to pages, pages to pages, pages to chapters, and so on) possible in cyberspace. When hypertexts further employ graphics, images, audio, and video, they become hypermedia. By both enhancing and subverting traditional assumptions about the linear reading of a text (i.e., word after word, sentence after sentence, page after page) hypertexts also both expand ethical reflection and create ethical issues related to access, the implications of linking choices, and more.

Structures and Opportunities

The architecture of information in the digital context consists of three basic elements: nodes, links, and anchors. In hypertext, information is distributed in building units called nodes. Nodes store a large amount of information, anything from a printed page to an entire book. Nodes can include text, graphics, images, and sounds (hypermedia). They are connected by links; a link between two nodes allows the reader to switch from one to another.

Anchors allow readers or users to determine whether a link exists and if so, to access it.. The reader can switch from one informational unit to another by clicking an anchor zone. Anchor zones are identifiable by some kind of emphasis; they may be a different color than other text, cause changes in the shape of the cursor, appear as icons, and so on, and usually give an indication of the link destination.

With these three basic construction elements, among others, designers can build simple and reduced hypertextual organizations, as well as large, complex ones. Well-designed hypertextual organizations are of great help in translating information to the computer screen. If providers of digital support were limited to using traditional methods of information dissemination, such as print matter, the efficiency and value of that support would be severely reduced.

Providing information through hypertext creates different ways of reading. Readers have more paths open to them because nodes offer a variety of links. Sequential or traditional reading does not allow such multiplicity. Thus hypertextual reading is termed navigation.

Historical Development

Vannevar Bush presented a precursor to modern hypertext technology in "As We May Think" (1945). Using the technology available at that time, Bush proposed the Memex, a device that could present independent documents in much the same way that memory works, jumping from one to another. In 1965 Theodor (Ted)
H. Nelson coined the term hypertext and discussed the Docuverse, a universe composed of a range of documents, including international literary works. He argued that one should be able to navigate through all the documents and their interrelated fragments and parts. The very same year J. C. R. Licklider published Libraries of the Future.

These ideas and concepts could not be realized until devices to implement them were created. Douglas Engelbart, for example, not only proposed theoretical concepts but played a key role in inventing devices which are now integral parts of the modern computer, including the mouse, computer windows, and other graphic interfaces.

Hypertext is the result of technological achievements in hardware and software as well as the creativity of authors who experimented with different structures. Hypertext requires communication networks, computers, authoring tools, and browsers that allow readers to see the hypertext on the computer screen and interact with it. Hypertext also requires continued exploration of the possibilities in this new information framework.

Developers, designers, and inventors have achieved major technological advances in this nascent field. Among them are Tim Berners-Lee's invention of the World Wide Web (www, the largest and best-known hypertextual construct) and HyperText Markup Language (HTML); Peter Brown's development of the first software guide for hypertext production in personal computers, accessible to computer users of all levels of expertise; and Bill Atkinson's design of the HyperCard for Macintosh, which uses the programming language HyperTalk.

Achievements and Ethics

Information on the www is like an unbound book. Any author can add to the work by using a link. Readers navigate through this information and each binds the material into an individual book composed of different authors' pages. Boundaries that define the notions of intellectual property are difficult to maintain and traditional methods of protecting copyrights are becoming obsolete. New legal and cultural tools are needed to deal with such changes.

The Wiki Wiki Web is an example of a hypertext construct based on the unrestricted access of users. Each user contributes to the collective work and decides where to create links. There are no webmasters or any central control. Each reader is an author and has the power to eliminate or change the contributions of others. Individual responsibility and self-control and a sense of collaboration on a collective work are guiding forces in these activities, one of which is the continuous creation of the online Wikipedia. Robert McHenry (2004), however, has challenged the quality of this "faith-based encyclopedia."

Hypertext technology allows virtually unrestricted linking of information nodes. Links to information that is clearly related to the subject matter of a particular text are certainly acceptable. But when the destination of a link is not visible, or when readers are diverted to a destination despite their intent to go elsewhere, ethical issues arise.

Likewise decisions to link to certain materials or web sites and not to others, while understandable and arguably defensible, could result in the marginalization of groups with less scientific or social prestige and power. The need to discriminate among the vast amount of information available on the Internet could lead to cherry-picking sources of information and experts in fields, thus virtually excluding access to other sources and experts. This situation raises the potential for what has been called a balkanization of the global village by Marshall Van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson.

Transcending the barriers of traditional text is certainly an achievement with positive implications that are still being explored. However the potential misuse of hypertext technology or the unforeseen negative results of its use are causes for concern and thoughtful examination.


SEE ALSO Computer Ethics;Cyberculture; Free Software;Internet;Networks;Science, Technology, and Literature.


Landow, George P. (1997). Hypertext 2.0. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. A revised version of Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (1992).

Licklider, J. C. R. (1965). Libraries of the Future. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Van Alstyne, Marshall, and Erik Brynjolfsson. (1996). "Could the Internet Balkanize Science?" Science 274(5272): 1479–1480.


Bush, Vannevar. (1945). "As We May Think." Originally published in the Atlantic Monthly (July 1945), the text is available on a number of Internet sites, including http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~jod/texts/vannevar.bush.html.

McHenry, Robert. (2004). "The Faith-Based Encyclopedia." Available at Tech Central Station, http://www.techcentralstation.com/111504A.html.

Nelson, Theodor Holm. The best single source for information on Ted Nelson and his ideas, with links to other pages, is an article on the Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ted_Nelson.


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Hypertext is normally defined as accessing information in a non-linear fashion. Predating the emergence of computers by a few years, it was first suggested in 1945 by inventor, scientist, and teacher Vannevar Bush (18901974).

Bush was science adviser to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during World War IIan era full of scientific advances, including nuclear capabilities. But he is best remembered for his idea to create an interactive, cross-referenced system of scientific research, and is considered by some as the grandfather of hypertext. Bush developed plans to build a system, called Memory Extender (Memex), because he was worried about the sudden increase of scientific information, which made it difficult for specialists to follow developments in their disciplines. Bush explored different ways to allow people to find information faster and easier.

Memex was supposed to be a machine that would hold thousands of volumes in a very small space and would allow users to retrieve any requested information just by touching a few buttons. Although the Memex was never implemented, computer scientists like Douglas Engelbart and Theodor (Ted) Nelson were inspired by Bush's ideas and became pioneers in the development of interactive systems.

The hypertext field remained dormant until Engelbart started work in 1962 on one of the first major projects related to office automation and text processing. This project was conducted at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and was demonstrated in 1968 at a special session of the Fall Joint Computer Conference. This first public presentation of many of the basic ideas in interactive computing was risky, but it changed the way people thought about computers.

Many miles from the conference site, Engelbart and a co-worker controlled a stream of computer graphics and text and video images that were displayed on a large screen. This system, called Augment, was years ahead of its time because it introduced the mouse and video display editing. It allowed mixing text and graphics, and implemented windows. It also demonstrated video conferencing and hypermedia. Engelbart introduced what is now known as an interactive multimedia workstation.

Nelson coined the word "hypertext" in 1965 while working on a computer system, Xanadu, that was to serve as storage for everything that anybody had ever written. Plans allowed access to those documents from anywhere in the world. Because it demanded a certain degree of computing power, storage, graphics, user interface, and networking sophistication, hypertext did not gain widespread public attention until Apple Computer, Inc. introduced HyperCard in 1987.

Hypertext was important because it presented two fundamental changes in the storage and retrieval of data. The first was the capability to move rapidly from one part of a document to another by means of an associative link. The sequential pattern of reading so familiar from the print world was replaced by a truly interactive format. The second change was the capability of sharing information across different machines and systems. Hypertext built upon the advances made in networking to provide transparent access to data regardless of where it was located. In short, hypertext is about connectivity within and across databases.

see also Apple Computer, Inc.; Hypermedia and Multimedia; World Wide Web.

Ida M. Flynn


Beekman, George, and Eugene Rathswohl. Computer Confluence, 2nd ed. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1999.

Nielsen, Jakob. Hypertext and Hypermedia. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, Inc., 1990.

Shneiderman, Ben, and Greg Kearsley. Hypertext Hands-On! Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1989.


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hypertext A generic term covering a number of techniques used to create and view multidimensional documents, which may be entered at many points and which may be browsed in any order by interactively choosing words or key phrases as search parameters for the next text image to be viewed (see hot link). Generally a wimp style interface is used and tools are provided to help structure the text, create indexes of the text of a document, and to cross-reference between documents. The technique is related to full-text database systems. Hypertext systems provide facilities for windowing viewed text, selecting next view by mouse/keyboard marking of text fragments, searching the text database or indexes, and displaying the new text. See also hypermedia.


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HYPERTEXT. A term in COMPUTING for text made up of short units (typically a paragraph, or 24-line screen) between which the reader may jump using links assigned in advance: see WORLDWIDE WEB. Unlike a book, in which the pages are in sequence, hypertext allows any of a number of pages to follow the one being read, in any order one wishes. A hypertext system, such as Apple Hypercard, contains a great many frames, each of which normally contains a single screenful of information. In each frame are several buttons or arrows which the reader can activate, and which call up another frame, on the same principle as a cross-reference in text on paper. Hypertext derives from an idea put forward in 1945 by the US computer designer Vannevar Bush, and the term was coined by the US entrepreneur Ted Nelson. Educational and other systems which include pictures and sound, are known as hypermedia.


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hy·per·text / ˈhīpərˌtekst/ • n. Comput. a software system that links topics on the screen to related information and graphics, which are typically accessed by a point-and-click method. ∎  a document presented on a computer in this way.