A line is defined by two points; let's call them A and B. We could call them One and Two, or even index.html and index2.html, but A and B will suffice for our purposes. The direct path between these two points is a straight line. Neat, efficient and with no fuss, we travel between these two points ... and that's all we can do: travel straight from point A to point B. One path without deviation or interruption. Linear.
In communication, the book is the penultimate form of linear discourse. You move through a book from page one to page two to page three, from point to point to point. Sure, some reference books allow you to flip through to find just the information you are looking for (this is also called random access), but the design of these books is still based around linear ideas.
At school we are taught the alphabet and our numbers all in a nice straight order. We learn history in the order in which the events transpired year after year, one event following the next. We learn the scientific process step by step, effect always following the cause. We grow up to assume that this is how one learns things: in order.
This way of learning is, of course, a load of rubbish. The fact is that we human beings reason in far more chaotic, far more intricate and far more cryptic ways than can ever be described by mere lines. We learn through exploring, searching, discovering and finding. We learn by making mistakes, by trying again and again. We often learn by complete accident. We rarely learn in a straight, systematic line.
So why do we structure our knowledge in this way? There are plenty of theories to account for it, some to do with organisation, some to do with hierarchy. Some claim that we are just more comfortable with this format, but most of the theories amount to saying: "Have you got a better idea?"
Well, now there is a better idea, one that more closely parallels our own learning process. It's called hypertext and its most important medium to date is the World Wide Web.
A lot of Web designers, though, confuse "hypertext" with "navigation" - not hard, since on the Web they are both created with the same HTML code, ... . Nevertheless, navigation links are what we use to move around from topic to topic in a linear fashion on the Web. Hypertext, on the other hand, enables you to click on a word, a phrase, an idea or an image within the context of the Web page and receive a fuller explanation of that thing. In theory, it allows a single page of text to include an infinite amount of information.
In practice, that is not feasible. But we can include a lot of information for the visitor to explore, to improve understanding. The designer and the author (the one who provides the content itself) control what is and what is not referenced through a hypertextual link, and they have to consider every link they create.
The Web designer's goal, then, is to help the visitor not only to find the information he or she is looking for as quickly and efficiently as possible, if that's all that's desired, but also to allow the visitor the ability to explore, define and discuss that information through hypertext.
Rather than a medium for discourse, like a book where one voice speaks to many, the best Web sites are where many voices can learn and speak to each other. Otherwise, what is the point of the Web? Words, pictures, animations, video, voice and sound - these are all possible on the Web but can be done much better by books, magazines, cinema, telephone, radio, television and CDs.
Through hypertext, though, the Web can break the mould of linear thought to work with our natural learning processes. But this will remain only a potential until the people designing for the medium make use of its unique forte. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, who conceived the grandest hypertext to date, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the Web without hypertext "... is like listening to ballet on the radio".
That's the theory of hypertext, but what good is a theory if you can't implement it? If you have any thoughts on the matter, let me know on email@example.com. Next week I'll share some of the practical answers that I have seen or come up with myself to design a better hypertext.