What’s a small new web tool without a portentous manifesto? We don’t have a big manifesto, but we do have some biggish questions.
Summary: It’s been two decades since people started weaving myriad links among web pages. Isn’t it strange that sentences and paragraphs, the foundational units of complex thought, still remain unlinkable, effectively online orphans?
What would change if anyone could link directly to an idea embodied in a specific sentence or paragraph on any webpage? While idea-linking seems minor, a mere technical twitch, history has shown that the small, seemingly happenstance attributes of various techniques and technologies we use to manage words — columns on library buildings, smaller books, swiftly printed newspapers, and a boundless Internet — can play a big role in shaping our thoughts.
Intro: Across nearly six centuries of publishing, humans have invented scores of different technologies for sorting, storing, transporting and displaying words. Each technology has its own function, its own shape. Book, pamphlet, blog post, SMS, poem, post-it note, magazine, headline, card catalog… the list of technologies goes on and on… sentence, poster, chapter, list, footnote, tweet, clause, library.
It’s obvious that a poem expresses a radically different species of thought than a footnote. But our intellectual lives are so embedded in these technologies that we almost never think about how each format influences the words it carries. Stuck in what Max Muller, an early Kant translator, called “the spectacles of language,” we find it difficult to examine the lenses themselves. Let’s look at some examples.
Libaries: For a start, step back and ponder the assumptions embodied by the biggest technology for word containment ever invented by humans (before the Internet), the library building. Robert Darnton, cultural historian and director of Harvard’s libraries, gives this view of how a library’s edifice embodies a particular vision of knowledge:
To students in the 1950s, libraries looked like citadels of learning. Knowledge came packaged between hard covers, and a great library seemed to contain all of it. To climb the steps of the New York Public Library, past the stone lions guarding its entrance and into the monumental reading room on the third floor, was to enter a world that included everything known. The knowledge came ordered into standard categories which could be pursued through a card catalog and into the pages of the books. In colleges everywhere the library stood at the center of the campus.
Books: Or take the book. The book’s purpose seems obvious enough — its binding and cover keep the book’s constituent words in a specific order and make those words storable and portable.
More conceptually, a book serves as a handle that makes it possible to heft a big wad of words. Thanks to the book, it’s possible to ask a friend, “What did you think of the last sentence of Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms?” rather than to say “Hey, somewhere in that 325-meter-high pile of words, you’ll find the sentence ‘After a while I left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.’ Find that, maybe by looking for sentences nearby that include words like Jake, Catherine, wine, priest, Italy, war, Lieutenant, nurse or fine. Generally in sentences made of short words and declarative sentences. Once you’ve found that particular string of words, tell me what you think of it.”
Lyric, haiku, canon, encyclopedia, magazine, epitaph, paperback, concordance… the list does go on and on. Each format has its own unique style, rules, expectations, even its own distinct assumptions about reality. In his book Too Big To Know, philosopher-turned-technologist David Weinberger argues that the book’s finitude, linearity and high production cost — as metered by the author’s time and the cost of printing and distribution — reinforce an underlying epistemological fixity. Having invested much time in a book, both the writer and reader crave a sense of certainty when its final page is turned.
Some scholars argue that books helped popularize humanist culture when, around 1500, printer Venetian Aldus Manutius, put aside Bible-printing to publish legible, portable, affordable classics by thinkers like Homer and Plato. Marketed to general readers across Europe, Manutius’ books helped thaw Europe out of a Medieval ice age.
Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, author of a mammoth study of printing’s cultural impact, The printing press as an agent of change, went so far as to argue that the act of mass-producing books changed in one grand sweep the scope and pace of intellectual progress by standardizing, diffusing, preserving, accumulating and historicizing thought.
Newspapers: A parallel analysis might be applied to the relation of the newspaper’s format to the shape of the world it portrayed. Unlike books, newspapers are engineered for speed. Published daily with fast-expiring information selected to appeal to the broadest possible audience, the newspaper embodies a more ephemeral reality. The newspaper’s tropes and traits — ledes, inverted pyramids, pull quotes, point and counterpoint, apparently neutral omniscience — signal that newspapers peddle a reality that is at once exciting, evanescent, comprehensible and rational.
The internet: Zooming out to 30,000 feet, Weinberger argues that our biggest technology for organizing and porting words, the Internet, is once again reshaping our assumptions about reality. The Internet allows near instantaneous publication, with little fore-thought and zero expense. The Internet permits easy citation of multiple sources. The result: the web catalyzes a shorter writing style, a greater reliance on third party sources and a celebration of subjectivity and partisanship. Write now, correct later; link now, read later; debate now, synthesize later; shout now, whisper later. Many of the links we click today lead to links about other links. Which leads us to…
Hyperlinks: Hyperlinks are another recently invented word-sorting technology with a novel function and powers. Serving both to organize and to credit, these small virtual rivets hold together our wide scaffolding of electronic words. To date, most links have pointed to specific web pages or a parent site. This affordance makes works embedded in the web far more digestible and shareable than the average book or library.
Sentences: But much remains to be links. Specifically sentences and paragraphs, arguably the essential building block for complex thinking.
Though we live in a citation-slinging, link-loving age, just a conceptual tier or two down from the hyperlinked site and the web page at the bedrock level of the sentence, there are still no easy handles, no obvious citation methods, no links. This is odd, because the sentence is the structural lingua franca of our age, copy/pasted incessantly from webpage to e-mail to blog post to Facebook to e-mail to web page to book. What libraries are to books, the Internet is to paragraphs. And yet we still possess no Dewey Decimal system for paragraphs.
As Eugene Eric Kim noted in 2001, the lack of sentence or paragraph level linkability “is a serious deficiency for the World Wide Web as a system for collaboration and knowledge management, one that the World Wide Web Consortium is addressing with XLink. However, until XML and XLink become widespread, the problem is not going to go away.” Eleven years later, Xlink is pixel-dust.
Besides Xlink, there have been numerous valliant efforts to create links to sentences or paragraphs over the years. The first well-known case, in the mid-nineties, was the concept of “purple numbers”, which were conceived as a tool that, among other things, facilitated links directly to paragraphs. Web publishing pioneer Dave Winer tweaked his own blogging software to add a small hashtag after each paragraph to indicate its linkability. Two years ago, the New York Times added the ability to hyperlink to specific paragraphs. And Daniel Bachhuber built Winerlinks as a WordPress extension that made paragraphs linkable.
Lots of hard work, but nothing has taken off yet, perhaps because user habits rather than technology seem to be the real barrier to success.
What might happen to the shape of our thoughts when people regularly link directly to a paragraph rather than a webpage?
The Pullquotes team aspires to create a tool for linking to paragraphs. But beyond building a technology, we hope to help catalyze a culture of micro-bookmarking. We hope that Pullquotes will help make arguments more specific, tweets more useful, blog posts more easily digested, references more contextually rooted. And, who knows, perhaps the shape of knowledge will shift yet again.
If nothing else, we’ll be able to link to the final sentence in Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms.