In this post I will be looking at a brief history and influence to the world wide web. This is important as it is the infrastructure of the Internet which has direct effect on the way we intercept information, and it is this that Carr discusses so passionately when talking about his own experiences with using a hypertext as his main source of information. It is important to note I am not considering historical aspects of the Internet, just of the concept of the world wide web.

In doing so I will discuss Vannevar Bush’s 1945 paper, ‘As We May Think’ in which he proposes the idea of a mechanized file/device that could store information and would have an infinite memory to be able to call upon any information it stores. I will also look at Ted Nelson’s work; Nelson coined the term Hypertext and his work, ‘Project Xanadu’ was an early competitor of the world wide web. On a smaller scale I will also review at Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine’s ‘Mundaneum’ and its link to my work.

As We May Think

Bush, V. As We May Think –

Figure 1. Bush's 1945 paper, 'As we may think'.

Figure 1. Bush’s 1945 paper, ‘As we may think’.

In his essay Vannevar Bush states that society has invented products which enhance the physicality of man but nothing that builds on the intelligence of humankind. He states that the human mind works by association, however he highlights a significant problem. He argues that the brain can process information, but recalling it becomes extremely difficult and far less proficient when it is not revisited frequently. Bush states that we can extend our record of knowledge but we cannot consult it and therefore in many ways it becomes redundant. It is this problem Bush argues that stops us from significantly pushing forward our knowledge, and also our ability to develop in many aspects.

“This is a much larger matter than merely the extraction of data for the purposes of scientific research; it involves the entire process by which man profits by his inheritance of acquired knowledge.” (Bush 1945). Bush goes onto discuss the issue that there may be an almost infinite amount of data, information and opinion but the rate at which it can be recalled by reduces the impact of ones synthesis.

Bush then continues to talk about the method of information retrieval and states that typically artificial systems of indexing recall data alphabetically or numerically. This is a problem as the human mind operates by association of thought and so there is long gaps between finding what information is required.

His vision of a ‘memex’ believes that a mechanized file/device could store information and would have an infinite memory to be able to call upon any information it stores where the user could make trails and links between information to create a compilation of associated material from books, journals, records and communications.

Figure 2. The Memex.

Figure 2. The Memex.

His idea explores the possibility of having the ability to browse this ‘virtual library’ in a way the human mind could never do without the ability to recall information in a swift and sufficient manner. Bush’s concept is extremely helpful to my studies as it is the first devised idea for a hypothetical hypertext system. This idea is arguably what Carr discusses so prominently in his book and the nature of this system has profound influence over the behaviour of users on the Internet. It is this behaviour and the way information is distributed online which is of great interest to my study and to be able to look into early foundations of this concept are of immense value to my understanding of this topic.

Project Xanadu

Nelson, T. Project Xanadu –

“Others imitate paper (Word, Acrobat) and the constant 3D world we live in (“Virtual Reality”). Our system instead tries to create documents better than paper in a space better than reality.” (Nelson, T., Smith, R A 2011).

That was the abstract of a paper by Ted Nelson and Robert Smith entitled, ‘BACK TO THE FUTURE: Hypertext the Way It Used To Be’. Here Nelson and Smith discuss how the purpose of hypertexts were to facilitate what paper could not; connections, trails of linked information, space limitation, inflexibility and a lack of interconnection and presentation.

Project Xanadu, developed in 1960 by Ted Nelson who coined the term ‘Hypertext’ proposed a philosophy of data retrieval where users could create documents that coherently embedded other sources that it was referring to. Nelson wanted a system where individuals could access a rich library of seamless information in a virtual map that was forever connected, irrespective of software change. Nelson has argued that the World Wide Web as a hypertext is too shallow and that Project Xanadu has always focused on the idea of creating a far superior, deeper system of knowledge. One that facilitates greater exploitation in terms of its usability as a hypertext and its ability to provide a deep, developed, reliable and easily accessible data retrieval system that is built on coherence.

Figure 1 & 2. 'Project Xanadu'. Schematically illustrated model of parallel visualization. - "Side-by-side connected comparison of parallel documents on the computer screen has always been Xanadu's fundamental visualization." (Nelson, T n.d).

Figure 3 & 4. ‘Project Xanadu’. Schematically illustrated model of parallel visualization. – “Side-by-side connected comparison of parallel documents on the computer screen has always been Xanadu’s fundamental visualization.” (Nelson, T n.d).

Xanadu 2

Ultimately Xanadu failed at the success of the World Wide Web, which it shares many resemblances by no coincidence. However Xanadu still exists, albeit on a smaller scale than what Nelson envisaged and despite its failure to achieve its full ambition, the idea itself is very influential to my work. Referring back to Nicholas Carr’s argument, I believe the hypothetical development of this system would concur with what he argues for. Furthermore, the basic principal of Project Xanadu is fundamental to the way in which we could receive information that allows for a more developed insight into a particular topic. Of course the Internet promotes a wealth of behaviour outside of information accessibility but Project Xanadu is based on a concept which had the potential to be far superior in this aspect and so this is very significant in my study.


The Mundaneum

The Mundaneum was an institution created by Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine in 1910. It was in 1981 that both met each other and it was during this time that Otlet devised the principles of his career in an article titled “Something About Bibliography.” Otlet believed that to build upon the rapid accumulation of published material and avoid redundant research it was vital to establish a system of classification to record this recognised information. His vision was to encompass a way to have immediate access to retrieve documents and to be aware of what has already been established and what is yet to be.

Information would be stored irrespective of its medium, but by its content where it could be organised into an easily searchable, universal system. This was achieved by extracting the substance of selected material and recoding its content on three by five inch index cards. The cards were kept in a bibliographical card repertory and were organised by general and specific subjects. The Mundaneum eventually became an archive hosting more than 12 million cards index cards and documents. The Mundaneum has been identified as an important concept in the history of data management and is seen as an early inspiration to hypertext study and eventually the World Wide Web.

Figure 5 & 6. The Mundaneum's index system.

Figure 5 & 6. The Mundaneum’s index system.

Mundaneum 2


Figure 1. Bush, V. (1945) ‘As We May Think’. Image available at: [Accessed on 22/03/15]

Figure 2. Bush, V. (1945) ‘The Memex’. Image available at: [Accessed on 22/03/15]

Figure 3. Nelson, T. ‘Project Xanadu’. Image available at: [Accessed on 22/03/15]

Figure 4. Nelson, T. ‘Project Xanadu’. Image available at:,Fig4-WithCaption.png [Accessed on 22/03/15]

Figure 5. The Mundaneum. Image available at: [Accessed on 22/03/15]

Figure 6. The Mundaneum. Image available at: [Accessed on 22/03/15]

Bush, V. (1945) ‘As We may Think’ [online] Available at:   [Accessed on 22/03/2015]

Nelson, T. Project Xanadu. [online] Available at: [Accessed on 22/03/2015]

Nelson, T., Smith, R A. (2011) ‘BACK TO THE FUTURE: Hypertext the Way It Used To Be’. [online] Available at: [Accessed on 22/03/15]

Nelson, T. (n.d) ‘Xanalogical Structure, Needed Now More than Ever: Parallel Documents, Deep Links to Content, Deep Versioning and Deep Re-Use.’ [online] Available at: [Accessed on 22/03/15]

Springfield, M. (n.d) ‘inside the mundaneum/. [online] Available at: [Accessed on 22/03/15]