The other day, I began to think back to the way that I interacted with text as a child. A voracious reader from a young age, I would feign sleep each night as my parents left my room after tucking me into bed. Upon hearing the click of my bedroom door shutting, I would sit up and listen to the sound of their footsteps going down the hall. As the steps faded into the distance, I would crawl back under my covers, flashlight in hand, and read for hours.
I can still recall the golden glow of the flashlight and hear the rustle of the pages as I turned them. I still sense the feel of the faux leather covers that wrapped the set of children’s classics that was the stuff of my childhood dreams. These pages held no illustrations, so I had to complete the stories with vivid mental images of my own. Fritz in The Swiss Family Robinson, Captain Nemo, Black Beauty, Peter Pan, Tom Sawyer, Robin Hood, Robinson Crusoe, Sherlock Holmes, and Mr. Toad. I had imagined them all into reality and I was captivated.
When we read good stories, our minds are more fully engaged. We walk away from them with a sensory experience that has more depth. Finer detail. And not only are we able to read, we want to. This act is often defined as reading for pleasure. A form of play, reading for pleasure is a passion that carried over to my teen years and into my adult life.
And then I met the internet. At the same time, I was forced to focus on life and career. Somewhere in the process, my attention was stolen.
Over the years, I’ve had an uncomfortable feeling, a suspicion that something is rewiring my brain. I think differently (thanks, Apple). This is most evident to me when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or an article used to be a delightful pleasure. I could lose myself in a narrative and spend hours pouring over texts. These days, that’s rarely the case. My tolerance and patience are worn. Far too often, I read now because I must. And when I do, I can get lost as I follow the forks in the road. I get fidgety and lose myself in multiple threads of thought. I feel the same tendencies emerge when I write. My thoughts are scattered. I connect random ideas, expecting the reader to be able to reach the same conclusions and make the same connections. I think in hypertext.
The term hypertext was coined in 1963 to describe text, displayed on a computer screen, that contains references, or hyperlinks, to other text that the reader can immediately access. In other words, hypertext is a fancy name for the underlying concept that defines the structure of the internet. The name makes sense to me. For starters, the prefix hyper- means over or beyond. To me, that signifies the overcoming of the age-old constraints of written text and the change from linear, structured, and static forms of representing and understanding the world. We’ve moved on to a view of both text and the world that is fractured, decentralized, and mutable. Coincidentally, the same prefix, if used as an adjective, means to be overexcited or overstimulated. Hypertext therefore seems aptly named as its moniker is indicative of both its potential and its pitfalls.
Hypertext connects ideas and information. We have the freedom to jump around at will. We are not only permitted to explore, we are encouraged to. We are swimming in information. At times it even feels as if we are drowning in it. We have created a severe poverty of attention, making simple tasks such as reading a book, or even a magazine article, ever harder as our minds wander through hyperlinks. There are those who would argue that after decades of public brain rot caused by television, the internet revitalized long-form content consumption, but we forget to consider that wandering is built into the system. Consider that the reading speed for an average adult in the United States is purported to be around 250 to 300 words per minute. If the average time spent on a site is only fifty-six seconds, we must conclude that there’s not a lot of reading happening. In fact, if you’ve gotten this far in this article, you are already three times over that average—so, congratulations are in order. Thank you for reading.
I must admit that even as I begin to type this document, I feel pulled in multiple directions—a self-imposed attention deficit disorder of sorts. At this very moment, in the corner of my eye, the muted television screen beckons for my attention as Growl notifications on my laptop screen inform me that I have seven new emails. Like clockwork, my iPhone and iPad screens soon blink to life, their screens displaying Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram notifications that vie for my attention as well. I realize that we spend our days surrounded. Surrounded by screens. In fact, even in the morning, the very first thing I do when I wake up is turn on my iPhone and begin to check email. From morning to night, the routine continues in a futile attempt to keep up. Catch up. Create order. Instead, the only thing we seem to create is an expectation—and therefore an obligation—of availability. A culture of availability.1 It seems to come from everyone and everything around you—the overwhelming expectation that you are, and should be, constantly on call.
We can imagine that, through our grandparents’ eyes, our daily experiences with screens would feel like an overwhelming visit to the television section at Best Buy during the holiday shopping madness, an onslaught of different channels playing at once. Our idealized vision of the internet interaction, however, is more akin to that of Minority Report, rife with elegantly multilayered images, messages, and utility. But over the course of time, the amount of information that we glean from the screens around us has changed so incrementally that we hardly noticed the increasing demands on our attention. For years, they crept up on us slowly before suddenly exploding beyond our capacity to absorb. And all the sparkly bits of data raining down from that explosion seem to crowd and cloud our vision with more force each day.
As humans, when we encounter too much information, instinct takes over in the interest of self-preservation. We begin to rely on pattern recognition to structure our experiences and make sense of the world at large. We scan and skim. It can be overwhelming and is, at times, an experience akin to that strange feeling of driving on the highway and suddenly realizing that you haven’t been paying attention to what you’ve been doing for the last fifteen minutes. How did I get here? There’s so much information out there that it’s impossible to keep up. Even if you did, you would likely only have a shallow understanding of it all, ingesting merely the outer surface and never reaching that good, creamy center.
The cognitive overhead required to maintain so many tasks comes at a high cost. Foolishly, we often pride ourselves for our ability to multitask, but this notion is folly. While a computer is well suited for context switching, the human mind is much less so. Shifts in context whittle away at our concentration and ultimately at our efficiency and sanity. Instead of doing more, we simply spread ourselves ever thinner. For many of us, it can even be agonizing to wait. We’ve trained ourselves to need constant stimulation and instant gratification. If we are stuck in line, we can’t stop glancing at our phones. It is the modern equivalent of drumming your fingers in impatience. Instead of engaging with others nearby, we are engaged with the screen. Engaged with words and pictures that are merely a representation of the world around us instead of the reality we live in.
The devices we love to connect with are the same devices that cause us to disconnect from one another. Everyone knows where everyone is and what everyone is doing, but how does that enrich our lives? We experience the world through screens and devices, and we often document a life event with a tweet or post rather than participating in the experience directly. Note the stream of tweets from people who are supposedly giving their full attention to listening to a speaker at a conference. We are left with the illusion of engagement when we are actually less involved.
The technological advances of our tools shape and morph our societies and lives. The printing machine disseminated the written word, putting news and knowledge in the hands of the people and in turn, affected the future of mankind. In doing so, we saw the slow goodbye to exquisite hand-penned manuscripts. Picasso once pointed out that every act of creation is first of all, an act of destruction. By this he meant that in order to create music, we must first destroy the silence. To create a garden, we must destroy the weeds. It follows suit that in order to create the new, we must destroy the old, even if something born of love and beauty is lost. As humans, we naturally seek order and completeness. We are resistant to change. All of this flux leaves us uneasy and can result in a malaise due to our attempts to view the world of today through the lens of the past. It can lead to a sort of time sickness. A restless feeling that is a byproduct of our culture of availability. The strain we feel is simply the result of society and experience being out of phase with one another, a matter of perception. An asynchronicity.
It’s not just the screen that has changed. It is also the mode in which we approach the written word. The written word is an abstraction of oral communication. An abstraction of sight and sound, with sounds captured as symbols, symbols converted into language, and language then transformed into narratives. The linear progression of the unfurling scroll forced a single perspective on the passive reader.
In contrast, the internet is a place of multidimensional simultaneity. Our perspective is continuously changing. Thought and action are interwoven with time. We must learn to live in flux: imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. We can almost feel the universe expanding with each collective breath. This process of postmodern fragmentation has been accelerated by the rise of the internet as a medium of communication. Knowledge is no longer envisioned as a static, unified body, existing in one dimension. It is no longer the sole property of our institutions, universities, and libraries. We share it between us. It is accessible. Information is no longer passive. It lives and breathes like an organism. It ebbs and flows. Not only are there variables, but now even the variables themselves are in flux.
You can see evidence of this in the way that we document things. Snapshots are being slowly replaced by movies; pictures by simulations. Words and studies and explanations and essays are being replaced by graphs and data visualization. It even applies to our own life stories. Autobiography is now spread non-linearly across the internet. Our lattes from this morning are on one platform, our childhood photos live somewhere else. Our days are a tangle of disconnected events, thoughts, and reactions, each with multiple simultaneous conversations that some people see and others don’t.
Media now allows for new modes of narrative. Modes that retain some aspects of the linear traditions of oral and written word but that allow for user control. Modes in which time is abstracted, giving us the ability to scrub time or to interrupt, replay, or skip the serial narrative, much like we can with a video.
We begin to have a dialogue with the devices and content, an active exchange of feedback and information that creates an environment that has begun once again to feel rich and alive. Our senses are stimulated. When we take full advantage of the potential of hypertext, the page once again pops to life. Just like the pages we read under the covers as a child.
Where is the hope in all of this, the peace in the hypertext? As designers, we hold a potent place in this ecosystem. As the creators of the technology and content that is our new, shared experience, we influence and inform. We are storytellers, and as we learn to master our personal narratives and those of our clients, it’s with these shared stories that we shape our culture.
Design is not a passive container, but rather an active process invisible to the eye. We have creative control. We can make smart decisions about the things we introduce into our lives and the lives of others. We also must fiercely edit—but not so much so that the taproot is cut away. Design is about choices and, with them, the world we want to make. The world is our lump of clay.
Make something good.