Offload #3: The Invention of Hypertext

Discovering GNU/Linux for the first time in 2008 was rather exhilarating. Granted it was Ubuntu, baby’s first distro, but it actually felt…empowering to do the things I couldn’t have done on Windows XP to the point I was going to keep using Ubuntu even when I got a newer computer in 2011 for college that had more than 256 mebibytes of memory. Come 2020, I still don’t regret the switch. Not like I had a choice when Windows XP on that hand-me-down soiled itself and died…

Six years later, I ended up at Nixers, a tech community focused around the Linux and BSD families and UNIX derivatives. There I learned a thing or two about how to manage my system, how to automate things, how to write scripts, how to write a quick program in x86 assembly, and so much more.

Even despite that, it feels like a lot of tech folk still buy into the UNIX Flavor-Aid that they will make things a lot harder on themselves to bite their thumb at the Web. Contrary to those circles’ popular beliefs, the Web might actually be a good step forward. Maybe this is me coming full circle to being “basic”, but here goes.

Hypertext

In the Browser

It is unpopular opinion in “advanced” technology communities to see the Web in a positive light, especially if it is the type that involves pointing and clicking on things. Can’t blame them in a way. Plethoras of streaming services and online advertising have invaded their way into daily life that people are simply asking themselves when their streaming company will go down and they can’t listen to their music or when the ads stop being annoying.

The Web doesn’t have to this bad. Back in the ye olden days of the Web, there used to be GeoCities, a service Yahoo! had that allowed people to create their own sites. I was a bit too young to actually experience it, shutting down during my stint in high school, but I’ve seen enough of sites from there before to know the kind of attitude to be expected: a playful space for people to have a spot on the World Wide Web. Now there’s NeoCities as a viable alternative.

But I digress. Point of that tangent was to enforce that people were experimenting with this new medium and its main offering: hypertext. That means you can click on a portion of one document to see another one, like how clicking some words on this page that are a different color takes you to a Wikipedia page or an official Web site.

Maybe HTM wasn’t the best of formats to do this with. Maybe HTTP wasn’t the best protocol. Maybe we’ll never see Xanadu see relevance outside of technological archæology.

People complained about Google adding text-highlighting and scrolling to highlighted text to the very URL bar that they’re easing out of their users’ workflows in Chrome. A 20-page essay in MLA format about them is due for a different time. As a hypertext enthusiast, this might actually be a good idea anyway. Google may be pushing tons of standards faster than any competitors can hope to keep up with, but standardizing Text Fragments may be one step forward closer to my documentation method.

Elsewhere

I brought up the slightly-regressive UNIX cult of personality earlier because of the fetishization of manual pages (or “manpages”). Manpages can be effectively summed up as a README.txt made official based on the fact they used to show up printed in a binder. Back then, you used to write manpages in typesetting macros. Now one would use the similar–but more semantic–mandoc. Imagine if you couldn’t click on those links. That’s a manual page in a nutshell. Searching the manpage may and will lead to countless false positives before finding what you’re looking for. There’s little structure and sometimes the structures are arbitrary save for the standardized name, synopsis, and explanation of command flags.

A better way to document a program or environment would be GNU’s Texinfo. Even its own documentation is written in itself.

In Conclusion

Hypertext is a pretty big deal. Maybe I’m becoming one of those ’90s optimistics when the Web came around, but there’s potential being sorely missed and being sorely abused for extracting value out of consumers. We keep focusing on the problems instead of actually doing anything about it besides simply saying “no”. Instead, let’s focus on what can be and work towards that.


Day 3 of 100 of the 100 Days to Offload.