In the video “The Machine is Us/ing Us,” Professort Wesch demonstrates many aspects of the power of hypertext. Its flexibility, its ability to separate form from content, its innumerable effects on things we take for granted, like privacy and free speech. The idea he seems to be getting at by emphasizing the ability hypertext has to link from what one reads to what the person writing it was reading, we are teaching “the Machine” – which is us – about the connections between things. When we link from one document to another, we are saying there is a connection between the two. When we tag a photo on Flickr or a video on YouTube, we are saying that this bit of media is related somehow to all those other bits of media with that tag, if only by sharing a subject.
What is unclear is whether the meaning inherent in all of the linking hypertext contains is being interpreted correctly. An implied link is there, but like all implication, the interpretation of the reader shapes meaning. When I linked to the EFF above, is there an implied assumption that I agree with their mission? What about the “Echelon” Wikipedia page? Do I agree with the “neutral” opinion therein displayed? Have I even read that page? The reader can not know. Maybe I just googled “internet privacy” and copied the first result that looked informative. Maybe not.
The point is that the reader must guess what I mean by any link or tag I place in hypertext. And, even if they guess correctly, there are still uncertainties. For example, assuming I actually read the “Echelon” page I linked, one must continue to remember that Wikipedia is the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Maybe when I clicked on that link, there was some spurious misinformation placed there by an anonymous troll. Maybe there wasn’t, but some was added before the reader of this post clicked it. Without reading the edit history, the reader can only hope. Even with the edit history, it’s speculative whether the reader and I actually read the same source.
Even worse, maybe the page I linked isn’t even there anymore. Dead links are increasingly common the further back one reads. While the Wayback Machine and Google Cache help, they only ameliorate the problem; they do not solve it.
One last problem with hypertextual analysis is simply that not everything has been digitized just yet. If I read something new and exciting on Slashdot, I can give the reader a link with reasonable certainty. If I read something interesting in an arbitrary relatively obscure book from the 1980s, the best I can give the reader is a link to the Amazon.com page and hope they can track down a copy to read themselves. Which is a shame, because that is actually a really good book.