A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 82: the Future (and the Past) of Text

On Monday 11th September I gave a talk at Southampton University for the 2017 edition of a yearly symposium called “The Future of Text”. I’ve known Frode Hegland, its organiser, for a few years now (we first corresponded back in 2014, as I was finishing the manuscript for The Book, and he’s a fellow immigrant here in South London) but I must confess to having been a terrible conference tease. Each time he has asked me to participate, I’ve made positive noises and then subsequently had to back out because of one thing or another.

Finally, though, the stars aligned and this year I was able to attend. I’m glad I did! Frode’s focus, and that of the conference itself, is the concept of hypertext — how we can and do use computers to break up texts and recombine them in ad hoc and surprising ways. Hypertext, or at least the concept of it, has been around for some time now: Vannevar Bush first speculated about it in 1945 for The Atlantic1; Ted Nelson gave it a name in 19652 and Doug Engelbart demonstrated it in the “Mother of All Demos” in 1968.3 Most recently, of course, Tim Berners-Lee gave hypertext a home in 1989 in the form of the World Wide Web.4

Despite this long history, the feeling that I got from my fellow presenters at The Future of Text is that there is still a lot to be learned. For my part, I had little to nothing constructive to add about the future of text and so I went off script and talked about the past instead. (No-one seemed to mind!) Specifically, I ran through the history of the book from cuneiform tablet to double-cord–bound books in ten minutes flat plus five for questions,* then gratefully took my seat to listen to far more qualified people talk about where the written word might be going in the future.

Here’s my talk. I hope you enjoy it, indistinct slides aside, and please feel free to ask any questions in the comments section below!

The image featured above is a sheet from a Book of the Dead, circa 1075–945 BCE, courtesy of Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1699Ea-c.

Bush, Vannevar, and Jingtao Wang. “As We May Think”. Atlantic Monthly 176 (1945): 101-108.


Wedeles, Lauren. “Prof. Nelson Talk Analyzes P.R.I.D.E”. Vasser Miscellany News. February 3, 1965.






If the voice of my first questioner sounds familiar, that may be because it was none other than Vint Cerf, co-inventor of the goddamn INTERNET. 

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