Many date the beginning of electronic hypertext to Vannevar Bush’s 1945 essay As We May Think in the Atlantic Monthly. In addition to wide access to documents using a hypothetical “memex” machine, he proposes the idea of “trails,” or sequences of documents for which the sequences themselves are the newly created work. The creation of these trails can lead to “a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.”
He describes “associative indexing” as
a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing. When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard…when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail, they can be reviewed in turn, rapidly or slowly, by deflecting a lever like that used for turning the pages of a book.
He does refer to the creation of side trails to form tree-like structures, but using these trails usually means following a particular path for a particular purpose.
It didn’t really turn out this way on the web, where each document typically links to multiple other documents. There is some irony in the linear, sequential nature of his trails when you consider how many of history’s hypertext cheerleaders gloried in the alternative to linear, sequential presentations offered by hypertext systems. A linear presentation is usually the best way to learn something; a tutorial with topics carefully ordered by its author will teach you better than an encyclopedic reference in which some explanations assume an understanding of other parts of the work and no guidance is provided for a beginner’s approach to the material.
paidcontent.org, which covers the online content industry, provided a sequence of links to previous stories on the Microsoft/RealNetworks relationship that forms a sequential narrative of the story. I’m sure this wasn’t the intent of the authors of the individual pieces, but the eight pieces that begin in 2003 (shown by paidcontent.org in reverse chronological order) tell a story that is greater than the sum of its pieces in much the way Vannevar Bush envisioned. It reminded me that while this aspect of Bush’s vision didn’t come to pass, it is simple enough to do on the web.