19 January 2016

The Annotation Model For Hyperlinks

Early last year, through an enthralling post by Mike Caulfield, I discovered the article As We May Think. In it, half a century before the invention of the web, Vannevar Bush proposed an alternative model of sharing knowledge, revolving around an inverted concept of hyperlinks: He wanted readers to be able to create hyperlinks on a document as well.

The resulting system allows us to transfer knowledge by linking and annotation, not just by exposition. Apart from hypertext pioneers like Douglas Engelbart and Ted Nelson (a vocal fighter for a web based on annotations), many have tried to make it a reality. A list of such efforts can be found here. There is also an ongoing standardization process, called Open Annotation.

Still greater potential of Vannevar Bush’s vision lies in the value of following other peoples annotation history. He calls these histories trails and goes so far as to imagine a new profession of people that build and curate interesting trails, the so-called trail blazers. As the aforementioned Mike Caulfield puts it:

I don’t just get to read Alan Kay’s work — I get to see what occurs to Kay as he reads the work of others.

Given my own experiences with education and knowledge sharing (which I have touched upon here and here), I believe annotations and openly accessible trails of thought would greatly improve how we think and learn.