Hypertext Versus Hierarchy


Hypertext and social tagging tend to defeat the whole point of information hierarchy, but they still work. How come?

As a person who prides himself for being an expert at subversion, let me make this very clear. Hypertext does not defeat the purpose of hierarchies, nor is the opposite true. It is people who build systems, and the ones who eventually overthrow them.

Hypertext is but a set of interlinked documents. Hierarchies cannot help but emerge, be it ones comprising of information or people. Consider if all the printed material in the world was accessible to you and everyone else. Will it take longer than a few days at best for a majority to start saying that an epic novel is far better than a grocery list? For fans and critics to start shaping opinions?

Anything that helps disseminate information helps people to have conversations that bypass the restrictions imposed upon them. But to proclaim that kingdoms have fallen solely due to handwritten letters, that stereotypes have been broken only due to photos, or that religious practices would not be at any threat had it not been for video consumption, would be absolutely incorrect.

It is true that Google and Wikipedia have made libraries and encyclopedias obsolete, but also understand that without their ability to rank / categorize links, and also because of the fact that they were perceived as authorities made of employees or volunteers, these institutions would have failed utterly.

What I am trying to say is that technology is an amoral enabler. Chemicals can cure or kill. Planes can transport stuff quickly or fly you into skyscrapers. Similarly, hypertext can be disruptive or protective for any sort of hierarchy. Take a look at the Arab Spring, then the advertising empire being built by Facebook.

For sure, it democratizes things and uplifts people to a whole new platform, but human tendency is such that aristocracies will spawn again and it is this writer’s firm belief that this cycle will never end. Efficiency and equity shall battle for all of eternity. The scenery changes, the world remains the same.

A vertical pyramid system is just too rigid, uniform and atrocious, and something made of only links will create simply chaos and consume all your time. One allows people to explore in depth and provides clarity, another in breadth and gives power.

Hypertext is a nifty technology that facilitates the communication of information, whereas hierarchies are a methodology that enables people to function without confusion — so they should not be considered for comparison or competition, but as each other’s companion.