Thursday, October 11, 2007

What happened to the dream of hypermedia?

Cast your mind back, to the days before the internet even, when anything was possible. Hypermedia (by whatever name) was going to link all information to all other information. Don't understand a phrase? Just click and look it up. A reference to a scene in a movie? Just click and see the clip. But with all the interactive sites, and widgets and plugins and flash players and everything, I have had this experience maybe half a dozen times. A way to get close is the best Wikipedia has to offer. Clicking about their universe can be very enlightening in these cases. Its often much worse than this, with broken links, or a page with hardly any links at all, or stoppages due to digital media protection. I was thinking of this in the car while listening to an NPR story on rockabilly. NPR does a good job with this. They offer (after a brief delay) plain-text transcriptions of the story, a podcast of the whole show as aired, and a bunch of links to listen to related stories and some of the music referred to in it. But how often am I disappointed? Weekend shows are often distributed by others, with restrictions including a total inability to download them. Much of the music in the story is unavailable for listening at all. And its not really hyper. Music is not linkable from inside the audio story. I think similar thoughts when using my PVR. On the off chance I accidentally see an ad, and want to pursue it, I have to transcribe it, sucking it in with my eyeballs and keying it somewhere else, probably on another machine entirely. This is true even for an ad for another show, where I have to search on the PVR, then type in the name of the other show. The systems are still glorified VCRs, with little or no awareness of the content (except the CCI-byte... hmm, again, no hurdles to getting DRM in place...) And why should this be? I am really not sure. Its trivially easy to come up with ways to monetize these sorts of interactions. Want me to watch the show? Auto-pop the search field with the ad info. Want me to buy your music? Let me listen to it stream, and link to an online store (or amazon if I must buy the CD). All in all, much more believable as a revenue stream than most internet technologies I see floating about.


Anonymous said...

I too am eager for a fully-integrated "hypermedia" world; but we've got to remember, humanity has only had a full-on relationship with this WWW game for fewer than twenty years. Even the basic concept of a computer network is just a bit older.

Older technologies as diverse as telephones, civic engineering, and plumbing took generations and even centuries to develop into the marvels we have today.

So worry not. As the current network infrastructure (built around phone lines and cable lines) gradually yields to more comprehensive wireless systems (such as satellite-linkups), rapidly transmitting massive amounts of data will become effortless. As the late twentieth century hyperTEXT foundation of the internet yields to twenty first century forms of hymerMEDIA, the WWW will begin to look more and more like TV and cinema and less and less like print media. And as wi-max replaces wi-fi, the internet will become more and more populist.

We tekkies often forget that nearly 25% of the US, let alone the rest of the largely poor and uneducated world, doesn't use the web. Compare this to near (if not outright) total ubiquity of television.

As wi-max and user-friendly technologies open the WWW to the masses and when the world begins to put a premium on hooking everyone in to the 'net, then we'll see a real explosion in user-demand and creative talent.

We must think of ourselves, then, in Renaissance terms. What we have now is the mere DaVinci-sketch of a helicopter that won't be materially created for hundreds of years. Currently, we have a good start: a world-wide network infrastructure that will develop into what you describe and what we all dream about: a truly integrated, on-demand hypermedia network organized around rich a/v and graphical interface.

Until then, fellow Renaissancier, we can only look out on horses and dream of steam engines.

Steven Hoober said...

Excellent points all. Much of what I have been saying about interaction methods, indicators, etc. Just much better distilled.

Aside from the fact I like to gripe about things, I think there is one facet of the internet world that worries me about all this: that there are all these underlying technologies which seem like they will be difficult to uproot. Drawing media in sketchbooks can be changed on whim, and old iron gas pipes are being relined with plastic without /too/ much fuss.

But as far as computer technology, it reminds me of this conversation I was having the other day about how a major problem with internationalization is that the asian languages require DBCS or Unicode. But since there is so much information and so many systems set up for ISO 8859-1, I don't see universal Unicode... ever. We'll be stuck with those mistakes forever.

That said, I do have high hopes for the internet evolving to be something uniformly useful, instead of these little product islands of marketed products.

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes. The rigors of hardware and programming. Certainly a consideration. I like your point "that we'll be stuck with those mistakes forever." Haunting and true. The ghosts in the machine.

I wonder, though, did the rotary telephone as it was hinder the development of the iPhone? I suspect computer hardware and software will adjust similarly. But I've been accused of being a cockeyed romantic with respect to human ingenuity. Indeed, it seems just as likely that we're one power outage and/or hard/software addiction away from Dark Ages 2.0

Of course, that doesn't consider the eons of prehistory. We could stumble our way back into that pretty easily too I suppose!

On another note, this is a lovely blog. Smart and under-trafficked just as a smart blog should be. The riffraff just passes you by.

For my part, I'm glad I stumbled in and will return often via my blogroll. Cheers!

Quimby Melton said...

Here's my proper Blogger account too.

Steven Hoober said...

Oh, don't get me started on the legacy PSTN issues. Dialing is a pet peeve of mine.

Imagine, if you will, how successful the internet would be if it was like the teletype system. Which is to say, like the phone system, with no DNS. Every site has an IP as its user-facing part. Eventually, search might help, but would we even have gotten here, or would the few nerd using it just have paper directories by our desks?

Aside from the addressing scheme, the dial set up a precedent is switching that burdens the user too much. Mobiles tend to get around that by the addition of the Send key. The phone can look at the number and not (usually) give you an error for eliminating the area code, or not dialing a one or zero before the number.

Even on the legacy PSTN, why would I /ever/ get that message? Any system that can send a message with a fix can just try the fix and see what happens. But the network is stuck in a model, and who knows what it will take to unseat it.

WiMax might get there, but will still be saddled with quick decisions made at the moment for budgets and timelines. Anyone else annoyed I cannot have a circuit-switched (voice) session open at the same time as an EDGE, GPRS or EVDO data session? As a designer, I am hella-annoyed by it.

If the current pace of change continues in telephony, sure, we might get a really good network eventually, and can disregard the old ones, as they are torn down (good riddance, AMPS!). But there's a lot of wire in the ground, a lot of embedded circuits in everything we use, and a lot of data in disks ...and much of it will be for a long time.

I was worried for a minute the whole melton clan was techno bloggers and had come to pick on me. I don't get multiple comments from anything I post.

Quimby Melton said...

I feel you, man. Changing the infrastructure is certainly a generations-long project. Also, I second the comments thing. It's lonely in cyberspace.

And yes, the Melton clan is legion. We work 'round the clock posting comments on tech blogs.

Steven Hoober said...

Barbara Ballard sent me this over IM (why not in the comments, I don't know) as an example of "everything can be hyperlinked."

Double click on any word you want (except in Safari, where it just doesn't work). When it has a definition, its pretty neat.