Carr Thesis 2: Conservative Hypertext

Nick Carr has a thesis on the nature of hypertext. I have an opinion about that thesis.

Here's the second thesis of 20 on media and expression recently proffered by Nick Carr:

Hypertext is a more conservative medium than text.

Given Carr's previous preference for the simplicity of the page, it is safe to assume that he considers something more conservative to be more limiting. That the freedom found in the simplicity of the blank page is less conservative than the complex entanglements in hypertext. That the traditions of hypertext are more straight-laced than the limitations of a blank sheet of paper.

As far as I can tell, hypertext trades one set of affordances (the free-wheeling expanse of the blank page) for another (the free-wheeling expanse of easily-accessible links).1 And while there is certainly not a one-to-one correlation between these affordances, if hypertext is more conservative by this criteria, it isn't by much.

But conservative tends to have more connotations of “tradition” and “preservation”. As a tradition, except for blogging and the web, hypertext writing is rather insular. The bulk of the work in hypertext has not really broken out from a cadre of academicians on one hand, and avant-garde artists on the other. In order to maintain a tradition, these groups have had to turn inward out of necessity. There is not sufficient appeal in the wider culture for it to be otherwise. Outreach is done, but returns are limited. Those who do join the fold are taught the tradition (Bush, Nelson, Berners-Lee) to pass it on to those of the next generation willing to listen.

Verdict

The situation on the ground is more murky than Carr's pithy second thesis would have one believe.

  1. While links certainly can be made on paper vis-a-vis footnotes, endnotes, etc., they are not as immediately accessible as in a hypertext system. Citations especially are much harder to track down on paper than a link. That said, most hypertext systems are limited in what can be put in a lexia. The notion of which is more conservative in terms of freedom-enabling is not clear-cut.