A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

A Review of Barnet's Memory Machines

A review of Memory Machines: The Evolution of Hypertext by Belinda Barnet, 2013. Anthem Press

Jessica Beckett, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

(Published November 22, 2016)

Belinda Barnet’s 2013 book Memory Machines: The Evolution of Hypertext should come with a warning label that reads This book is not about the internet. This 140 page technological history is about the way a particular definition of hypertext attempted to free humans from the boundaries of print culture and do justice to the way knowledge functions within and across human minds. As a young field, digital humanities has wrestled with the question of what it offers the humanities and whether it can answer questions about culture that are somehow unique to digital studies.1 Barnet, a Lecturer in Media and communications at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne uses her book to demonstrate that the study of computing reveals a history of human beings, as it traces the ways technology constitutes, enhances, or limits our understandings of knowledge. While Barnet focuses on the history of technological advances and visions, her reader is also left with a roadmap of who we are as a species, and an urge to pioneer our way into the future.

Throughout the book, Barnet works to strip away any assumption that our current technologies are triumphant discoveries and brings us back to earlier visions, suggesting that technological artifacts are reflections of humans’ views of ourselves: ways of understanding and embodying the human through machines. In this approach, Barnet’s history of hypertext refers to an idea that is slightly different from what we know of today—it is not HTML, for example, with its structured set of links that takes us from one place on the web to another predetermined place. Rather, hypertext was envisioned as a reflection of the functions of the human brain: an actualization and enhancement of knowledge and cognitive processes that transcends the material boundaries of print culture. Barnet writes that Douglas Engelbart, one of the pioneers of hypertext, “didn’t just set out to create a computer program—he set out to create a new model of the human system,” which could be realized with growing technological advances (20).

The chapters in Memory Machines are structured around a particular notion of evolution, in which a technological artifact emerges non-sequentially from other artifacts, created by an ongoing and circulating vision. After an introduction to Barnet’s concept of technical evolution, each subsequent chapter lingers on these artifacts and their visionaries. The artifacts she uses to trace the hypertext vision include the Memex, the oN-Line System, Xanadu, the Hypertext Editing System (HES), and StorySpace. These artifacts range from the years 1945-1995, several of which are still being built or refined today.

Though Theodor Nelson began circulating the term hypertext in 1965, Barnet’s trace of the concept begins in the 1940s. In chapter 2, Barnet introduces her readers to Vannevar Bush and his fascination with microfilm as a way of mimicking and tracing paths of informational connection. She suggests that the Memex, a mechanical rather than electrical information storage and retrieval system, is the first of the memory machines. While the Memex was never prototyped or built, it was founded on the vision of increasing the speed of information storage and retrieval, while mimicking the associative aspect of human memory and maintaining a record of the associations an individual Memex user would make.

Bush never used the term hypertext, and his early model did not include the digital technology that would make hypertext possible. But his Rube-Goldberg like contraption for navigating endlessly through large catalogs of information represents the germ of a vision that others picked up later. In fact, Barnet claims that every advance in personal computing and the internet since has been an attempt to build a machine that brings his vision of complex textual connections to life.

In chapter 3, Barnet demonstrates the way the Memex as an “image of potentiality” allowed for the creation of the oNLine System (NLS), a revolutionary computing system created in the 1960s. The NLS, though designed to be a practical and compact computing system, was Douglas Engelbart’s vision for augmenting the human capacity to deal with complex knowledge relationships. Much like the individualized paths available through information in the Memex, Engelbart's program used linking as a way of moving across texts or pieces of information. Barnet contrasts this early form of linking with contemporary HTML, in which links are an integral part of the system’s architecture. Building on existing groundwork in information retrieval and electrical engineering, Engelbart proposed a symbiosis of man and machine in which the computer integrates “inherited systems of concepts, language, and skill” (48). This symbiosis was meant to take the natural processes of the human mind and both augment them with technological capabilities and change them with new kinds of processes that technology affords.

In chapter 4, the longest chapter of the book, Barnet moves forward only a couple of years to present a program which has been in development for over five decades: Xanadu. Building on the dynamic linking of Engelbart's NLS, Theodor Nelson, the visionary who coined the term hypertext in 1965, wanted to be able to see texts side by side and look at all of the many ways they fit together and interconnect: endlessly and simultaneously. As a program designed to explore intertextuality and connections across units of information, Xanadu is idealized by Barnet as the ultimate vision of hypertext because it posits connections as nonlinear and free moving associations. She positions Xanadu as an important point in history, where computer scientists, electrical engineers, and dreamers are still trying to realize a vision on the one hand, and where hypertext in the contemporary sense of hierarchical linking structure has been realized and has become part of a complex infrastructure, on the other. Xanadu is an “intensive pursuit of ‘lost’ or ‘forgotten’ values” regarding literacy, Barnet explains, and it is an enduringly tantalizing idea that remains an image of potentiality (80). “Technical white papers are not known for their shelf-life,” she writes, but she explains that Xanadu’s have thrived for over 50 years (89).

While this discussion of Nelson, the man who coined the term 'hypertext,' is only a single chapter of the book, the vision that Nelson used the term 'hypertext' to describe is at the heart of each of these machines Barnet chooses to explore. In Barnet’s history, Theodor Nelson is cast as the hero, whose work brought together ideas of the past and shaped the future of early computing. In contrast, web innovators Andries van Dam and Tim Berners Lee are cast as sellouts in regards to this history of the hypertext vision. This is because Barnet’s book is a history of a particular vision, rather than of realized technology that does not remain true to that vision. As a result, Barnet spends very little time discussing the internet, purposefully halting her trace of hypertext at the early Web, where hypertext as the vision reached its point of failure and the evolutionary chain deviated into something altogether different.

In chapter 5 Barnet traces two paths, one through hypermedia and complex organizational arrangements in the Hypertext Editing System (HES) of Ted Nelson and Andries van Dam, and one through the paper-like system of organizing documents and folders and tracking records, in the File Retrieval and Editing System (FRESS) by van Dam and his students. It is in this chapter that Barnet shows the beginnings of this genealogical deviation, as contemporary computing moved away from early visions of hypertext. HES and FRESS both represent the domestication of computing, specifically for the handling of text. HES was meant to implement a small part of the Xanadu vision, bringing hypertext as nonlinear and nonhierarchical to life. Nelson and van Dam created links to be “optional paths within the body of a text . . . [which] represented a relationship between two ideas [as] an intuitive concept” (104). FRESS, on the hand, was a paper-like model of hierarchies and embedded linking structures, which mimicked physical folders and existing methods of document organization. This system was a representation of the material print culture that hypertext—embodied in HES—was fighting against. However, it became the dominant mode of text-based computing due the fact that it was practical, recognizable, and possible to create within existing technologies.

In chapter 6, Barnet shows that in spite of moving away from the original hypertext vision, contemporary forms of hypertext and the web still allow humans to realize associative connections and complex networks of information. For example, Barnet describes the circa 1987 program StorySpace, which used the diluted and hierarchical form of hypertext to represent writing as nonlinear and dynamic. As a literary composing program, StorySpace allowed writers and readers to conceive of narrative in smaller units with multiple paths for navigating meaning. While Barnet suggests that the now-outdated StorySpace represents the waning of the original hypertext vision, her discussion illuminates the way the digitizing of paper-based systems still allows users to transcend material constraints and conceive of knowledge in more dynamic ways.

Barnet draws her text to a close with the reminder that all ideas, individuals, and units of information are intertwined. Much like the work of today’s digital humanists, who archive, connect, preserve, link, catalog, share, and maintain information, Barnet asks us to imagine “a system whose trails do not fade . . . objects [that can] be stored permanently . . .version[s] of these documents [which can be] intercompared side by side” (141). While Barnet is asking her readers to imagine the reality of the hypertext vision in order to keep it alive, she is also echoing many of the drives and goals of digital humanists who are working within today’s technological systems. “Imagine if there were no artificial distinctions between readers and writers,” Barnet suggests; “imagine if we could capture the deeply tangled structure of knowledge itself, but make it better, make it permanent” (141). The idea of knowledge and the role of connections and networks are the heart and soul of this vision Barnet traces; memory and perseveration are its motivators.

Not quite a history of machines and not quite a history of theories of memory, Memory Machines brings us a history of dreams becoming paradigms and of the evolutionary nature of the computer as hypertext. Barnet expertly draws in a humanities audience without oversimplifying her technological and theoretical understandings of this history. She does this through a focus on the individual, dream-like theories of human cognition and on visions for future advancement. Barnet strikes a delicate balance of educating the novice about innovations of computer science in relation to hypertext, and of theorizing the way the technology of hypertext evolves. Her method is an evolutionary approach, but not in the biological sense. Barnet writes that biological evolution is based on a vertical process of inheritance, each generation drawing a line from the next. The evolution of technological artifacts, on the other hand, includes lateral legacies, clusters that explode outward, and lots of stealing of ideas.

Beneath its surface, Memory Machines is a history of who we are as a species and how our use of tools reflects our history back to us. It is really a history of how things get made—with a flair for the accidental and the honoring of chance. Barnet writes of the web as an accidental inheritance, not as the goal of intentional designs begun by Bush, Nelson, or anyone else. And this is the basis of her evolutionary approach: she demonstrates the changes, influences, and places we end up through inheritance, invention, paradigmatic thinking, borrowing, dreaming, and failing. As inventors, we are never creators in the god-sense, we are simply members of a larger system of evolution, creating artifacts that spawn other artifacts, knowledge that spawns other knowledge; never in a linear progression, never fully on purpose. The Web is not Xanadu. The iPhone is not the pocket version of the Memex. Computers are not the answer to the human brain.  But the evolution keeps progressing as humans keep pursuing their visions of perfecting the memory machine. Barnet’s history seems to have been written to memorialize a dying vision and the men who dreamed it. But it also functions to inspire scholars and engineers to keep pressing forward into a future where the true nature of knowledge is mimicked, enhanced, and perfected. Her book is history which becomes a manifesto which becomes an inspiring commandment. Go, Barnet seems to be suggesting, and keep working towards the creation and preservation of knowledge.