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Hypertext Publishing and the Evolution of Knowledge

K. Eric Drexler

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Extending the discussable

The last section outlined how intellectual resources are wasted today and noted that hypertext publishing systems promise to reduce that waste significantly, with quantitatively great benefits. This benefit involves doing what we already do, but more efficiently. Harder to quantify are the effects of extending the range and improving the quality of debate.

The result of arguing complex policy questions in modern media has typically been caricature, polarization, and paralysis. Recognition of this problem has led even thoughtful analysts to advocate simplistic policies: if ideas will be caricatured or ignored, it makes sense to cast them as slogans from the outset. In a sense, these questions are beyond the range of what can practically be discussed in present media. Why is this, and what effects might a hypertext medium have?

Breadth, complexity, and qualification

Many discussions seem to operate at or beyond practical limits related to breadth, complexity, and the need for qualifying remarks. Some are interdisciplinary, requiring backgrounds broader than real people have. Examples are arms control and missile defense systems, topics that combine issues such as weapons, sensors, space systems, orbital dynamics, software, strategy, diplomacy, and much else. Topics of this sort are up against the breadth limit.

In addition to sheer breadth, some topics are complex, in that any non-trivial statement about a single part may depend on its relationship to a complex whole. Again, arms control and missile defenses are examples, with the emphasis this time on the complex relationships among their parts. A statement on either subject may make sense only in a certain set of scenarios (involving assumed technologies, measures and countermeasures, relative costs, goals. . .) but each individual scenario may easily be too complex to allow brief description. Topics of this sort are up against the complexity limit.

Finally, some topics are highly controversial, requiring that statements be carefully qualified. Examples, again, include arms control and missile defenses. This time, the emphasis is on the difficulty of stating how a particular proposal might be improved or how it might fail (subject to the assumption that other technologies, costs, goals, etc., etc., are such-and-such) while not being seen as taking a stand either on those assumptions or on whether there is or isn't any sense in the general idea of controlling arms or of shooting down missiles. Topics of this sort are up against the qualification limit.

Big problems

We face many other big, messy problems where discussion is up against one or more of the above limits. Examples include acid rain, ozone depletion, nuclear winter, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, economic policy, and military strategy. Many of these issues are cross-disciplinary, involving chemistry, physics, biology, ecology, economics, political science, and so forth. All are complex, involving economic systems, ecosystems, multiple technologies, international politics, and so forth. All are subjects of contention. In all of them, an improved chance of avoiding major mistakes could be of enormous value.

These problems involve complex tangles of facts, values, and policies. With more accurate facts known and available, and with better means for discussing policy choices, we could hope to find policies that would better serve our values (such as survival). A better medium for representing and debating these problems could help substantially.

Extending debate

Today, discussion of big problems tends to be simplistic, polarized, repetitive, and ineffective. In part, this is because we lack effective ways to debate technical issues point by point and to make the results available as factual building blocks for further arguments. In part, this is because we lack effective ways to represent complex problems and overlapping scenarios they spawn. In part, this is because we lack ways of representing large contexts to which people can easily append small, incremental insights. Hypertext debate promises to be more detailed (hence less simplistic) and more cumulative (hence less repetitive). This, in turn, should make it more effective and perhaps less polarized. Thus, it should help us better discuss big problems [27,28].

Basically, hypertext publishing will let people express ideas, relationships, and criticisms more effectively. But at a higher level, this will help groups represent whole networks of beliefs, including broad summaries rooted in detailed evidence and argument. At a yet higher level, this will help groups do battle over their worldviews, enabling direct point-by-point comparison. Overall, this process of expression, transmission, and evaluation will aid the evolution of knowledge in society by knitting minds and ideas together more closely.

There are many open questions, ranging from how best to represent links in machines to how best to represent abstract argumentation structures on screens. But even now, we can see how to improve on paper publishing in crucial ways. Even now, we can foresee great benefits from systems that seem within our grasp.

Improving problem solving

A hypertext publishing medium will have abilities beyond supporting improved critical discussion. Since it is computer-based, it can naturally support software for collaborative development of modeling games and simulations [29] (and enable effective criticism of published model structures and parameters). Social software could facilitate group commitment and action: individuals could take unpublicized positions of the form I will publicly commit to X if Y other people do so at the same time. Once Y people take a compatible position, everyone's commitment (to making a statement, forming a group, making a contribution, etc.) could be automatically published. The possibilities for hypertext-based social software seem broad.

But let us focus on the narrower value of hypertext publishing in debating facts and policies. It will drop the costs of such operations as publishing an idea and following a reference by factors of ten to a thousand. It will greatly improve our ability to see what is and isn't in the literature, and to find the best available arguments for and against a point. By speeding work (and redirecting effort from square to round wheels), these characteristics of hypertext publishing will make intellectual effort more efficient.

By how much? A factor of ten? Given all its advantages, perhaps so, but this seems too much to count on. By a mere ten percent? This, too, may be an overestimate, but for a well-established system it seems more like a gross underestimate. Therefore let us consider what it would be worth to improve the problem-solving ability of various research and policy communities by this modest (and ill-defined) ten percent.

The value of solving problems

More efficient application of intellectual effort to a wider range of problems will mean more useful knowledge. More useful knowledge will mean many things.

Knowledge generates wealth. Take our ten percent figure to mean a ten percent faster rate of advance in technology (and in the understanding of how to use it wisely). The value of this would rapidly mount into the billions of dollars.

Better economic knowledge would shape better economic policy. Take our ten percent figure to mean a ten percent less ridiculous economic policy (by some measure), and again the benefits rapidly mount into the billions of dollars.

Better knowledge would improve health care. Take our ten percent figure to measure an improvement in the rate of biomedical advance, or in the effectiveness of applying existing knowledge to the problems of medicine. The number of lives saved would rapidly mount into the millions.

Better knowledge can aid survival. Take our ten percent figure to mean a ten percent lower chance of making a major mistake regarding arms control or missile defenses. What is the value of a significantly lower chance of nuclear war?

In short, an estimate of the long-term value of a hypertext publishing medium can be conservative, yet enormous. Knowledge is a primary asset of our civilization, crucial to all our goals. Hypertext publishing promises to speed its evolution, bringing broad and great benefits.

Why hasn't this been obvious?

Claims of wonderful benefits within reach are rightly suspect; the more wonderful, the more suspect they they should be. The heuristic here is that great opportunities are apt to be visible and appealing, and hence already exploited; those that seem to be sitting around within reach are usually illusory. It seems wise to consider how the benefits outlined here might be real and yet underappreciated - lest we suspect that hypertext publishing must violate some law of conservation of (social) friction, dismiss its value, and pursue wheels with corners instead.

The chief value of hypertext publishing lies in how it can aid the evolution of knowledge - but evolution, like spontaneous order in general, is a thoroughly misunderstood subject. People tend to think that order must result from orders and that progress must result from design. Schools teach evolution (if at all) as an allegedly controversial theory in biology. They do not speak of the evolution of economic systems (but who designed markets or corporations?) or of technologies (but who designed the modern automobile?) or of science (but who invented its practice and content?) or of language (but who designed English?). Each of these achievements emerged through many trials, many errors, and the slow accumulation of what works. This describes evolution (including the evolutionary process we call 'design'). Ignorance of evolution makes it hard for people to see the value of improving society's ability to express, transmit, and evaluate a myriad of small, interrelated ideas.

People share other cognitive blind spots [30], and the value of a hypertext publishing medium falls into several of them at once. People pay more attention to the tangible than to the intangible, and seek direct solutions to their problems more often than indirect solutions. Accordingly, they tend to undervalue basic research (with its unknown benefits) compared to research aimed at particular problems. Basic research is an indirect approach to the intangible product of useful knowledge. Hypertext publishing is likewise an indirect approach to this intangible product, but it isn't even aimed at a specific field, like physics or molecular biology. Its benefits, being more diffuse, seem less concrete.

People also tend to underrate the importance of media, thinking that thinking depends just on the quality of individual minds. Further, a hypertext publishing system (supporting an open-ended set of user interfaces and information structures) is better seen as a medium for the evolution of media than as a medium in its own right. Finally, people tend to think that only majorities matter, encouraging them to neglect the value of better intellectual tools in the hands of minorities. And as for developing a better medium for evolving media for a minority - what good could that be, in a world that has achieved color television?

Might it be that the goal of hypertext publishing is achievable, valuable, and yet radically undervalued? It seems so, and that presents us with a great opportunity.

Table of Contents - Hypertext Publishing and the Evolution of Knowledge

Getting there

If hypertext publishing is promising enough, we should consider its implementation. Questions include how this might be done, when efforts might bear fruit, and what reasons there are for making a focused effort.


Various paths could lead to a hypertext publishing medium. Incremental paths might start with existing hypertext systems and electronic mail; these paths run risks of setting standards that are incompatible with long-term needs. Another kind of incremental path would start with a design aimed at meeting long-term needs but would first implement functions having independent, short-term value. The resulting system will provide markets for many profitable activities: library services; telecommunications; publishing; input and output of paper documents; the development and sale of hardware, software, and integrated systems for businesses and laboratories.

How difficult?

Discussions with researchers reveal some common confusions and misconceptions regarding hypertext publishing. Some of these lead to underestimation of its difficulties, others to overestimation.

Underestimation of difficulties chiefly results from failures to understand the difference between a distributed publishing medium with two-way links and the distribution of hypertexts joined (at best) with one-way references. The issues raised by true hypertext publishing are explored at length in [8].

Overestimation of difficulties stems in part from the assumption that hypertext publishing, to succeed, must reach a large fraction of the population and contain a corpus of knowledge on the scale of a major library. These grand goals are inappropriate for a new medium (though one should seek system designs that do not preclude such achievements). This paper has argued that a hypertext publishing medium could reach the threshold for usefulness and growth with only a small community of knowledge workers, and that it could be of great value while used by only a minute fraction of the population. With this realization, the fear that hypertext publishing must be an enormous, long-term undertaking seems unmotivated. No positive arguments have been advanced to support this fear.

Overestimation of difficulties also stems from the notion that the challenges of hypertext publishing include all the challenges of lesser hypertext goals - that a publishing medium would be of no value unless isolated hypertexts had proven their competitiveness with books, magazines, movies, schools, or whatever. This seems mistaken. Isolated hypertexts compete with authored, organized documents; a hypertext publishing system would compete with the disorderly tangle of material found in journals and libraries. One can imagine that linear textbooks are always superior for organized presentations of established knowledge, while simultaneously believing that the linked, non-linear organization of a scientific literature would greatly benefit from computer support. This shows the difference of the goals, and the lesser challenge of certain aspects of hypertext publishing.


It seems that the technology is in hand to develop a prototype hypertext publishing system, but how long will it take for such a medium to grow and mature to the point of practical value? If one's measure is number of users and one's standard of comparison is telephone, radio, television, or the (failed) goals of videotex, the answer is a long time, perhaps never. It would be hard to reach a readership as large as that of serious books, much less that of books in general, or of newspapers and magazines.

A better measure of value is the evolution of knowledge - and knowledge, once evolved, can have a broad impact through conventional channels. By this measure, payback can begin while the system is small. What would it mean to improve the effectiveness of 1,000 competent people by 10%? In the course of a few years, it would more than repay the person-years required to implement the system, giving a good return on the investment of intellectual resources. The value of hypertext publishing does not depend on its becoming a dominant medium, or even very large (though in time it may do both). Its value and richness will grow as software evolves and the literature expands, but its value may be substantial while the system is still small and unpolished.

Why try?

Why bother trying to make this happen, rather than saying 'Let's wait and see'? True, it might happen anyway, sooner or later - but with billions of dollars and millions of lives seemingly at stake, a little sooner is far better than a little later. And a blind, incremental approach could lead to bad initial choices, setting inadequate standards and blocking progress for a long time. It seems that we can best serve our interests by focusing on the goal of an adequate system and trying to move toward it with all deliberate speed.

Table of Contents - Hypertext Publishing and the Evolution of Knowledge


Knowledge evolves, and media are important to the evolution of knowledge. Hypertext publishing promises faster and less expensive means for expressing new ideas, transmitting them to other people, and evaluating them in a social context. Links, in particular, will enable critics to attach their remarks to their targets, making criticism more effective by letting readers see it.

Hypertext publishing should bring emergent benefits in forming intellectual communities, building consensus, and extending the range and efficiency of intellectual effort.

In A Survey of Hypertext [4], Jeff Conklin summarizes the advantages of hypertext as: For full, fine-grained, filtered public hypertext systems - hypertext publishing, in the terminology of this paper - we can add the following, emergent advantage: Knowledge is a primary asset of our civilization, crucial to all our goals. By improving the quality of debate and speeding the evolution of knowledge, hypertext publishing will not only further our goals, but help us choose them more wisely.

Table of Contents - Hypertext Publishing and the Evolution of Knowledge


I have benefited greatly from discussions on these matters (some spread over many years) with Jim Bennett, Roger Gregory, Robin Hanson, Kirk Kelley, Mark Miller, Theodor Nelson, Chris Peterson, Phil Salin, and Randy Trigg.


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[3] Popper, Karl R., Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. Oxford University Press, London (1972).
[4] Conklin, Jeff, A Survey of Hypertext. MCC Technical Report No. STP-356-86, Rev. 1 (February 1987).
[5] Trigg, Randall, A Network-based Approach to Text Handling for the Online Scientific Community. PhD Thesis, University of Maryland (University Microfilms #8429934) (1983).
[6] Nelson, Theodor, Computer Lib/Dream Machines. Published by author, available from The Distributors, 702 S. Michigan, South Bend, IN 46618 (1974).
[7] Nelson, Theodor, Literary Machines. Published by author, version 87.1, 1987, available from Project Xanadu, 8480 Fredricksburg #138, San Antonio TX 78229. Available on disk from Owl International, 14218 NE 21st St., Bellevue, WA 98007 (1981).
[8] Hanson, Robin, Toward Hypertext Publishing: Issues and Choices in Database Design. Draft available from the Foresight Institute, Box 60158, Palo Alto, CA 94306 USA.
[9] Pool, Ithiel de Sola, Technologies of Freedom. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA (1983).
[10] Kahn, Ken, 'Language Design for Open Systems'. In The Ecology of Computation, Bernardo Huberman, ed., North Holland, Amsterdam (1988).
[11] Miller, Mark S., Daniel G. Bobrow, Eric D. Tribble, Jacob Levy, 'Logical Secrets'. Concurrent Prolog, Ehud Shapiro, ed., MIT Press, Cambridge MA (1987).
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[16] Trigg, Randall, Lucy Suchman, and Frank Halasz, Supporting Collaboration in NoteCards. Available from Xerox PARC, 3333 Coyote Hill Rd., Palo Alto, CA 94304.
[17] Lowe, David G., Co-operative structuring of information: the representation of reasoning and debate. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 23:97-111 (1985).
[18] Guide User's Manual, Owl International, Inc., 14218 NE 21st St., Bellevue, WA 98007 (206) 747-3203.
[19] Hershey, William, 'ThinkTank'. Byte, (May 1984).
[20] Yankelovich, Nicole, Norman Meyrowitz, and Andries van Dam, Reading and Writing the Electronic Book. IEEE Computer, pp.15-30 (October 1985).
[21] Garrett, Nancy L., Karen E. Smith, and Norman Meyrowitz, Intermedia: Issues, Strategies, and Tactics in the Design of a Hypermedia Document System. Proceedings of the Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, MCC Software Technology Program, Austin, TX (December 1986).
[22] diSessa, Andrea, Harold Abelson, Boxer: A Reconstructible Computational Medium. Communications of the ACM (September 1986).
[23] VanLehn, Kurt, Theory Reform Caused by an Argumentation Tool. ISL-11, Xerox PARC, 3333 Coyote Hill Rd., Palo Alto, CA (July 1985).
[24] Steele, Jr., Guy L., Common LISP: The Language. Digital Press, Bedford, MA (1984).
[25] Malone, Thomas W., Kenneth R. Grant, Franklyn A. Turbak, Stephen A. Brobst, and Michael D. Cohen, Intelligent Information-Sharing Systems. Communications of the ACM, 30:390-402, (May 1987).
[26] Rumelhart, David E., James L. McClelland, and the PDP Research Group. Parallel Distributed Processing: Explorations in the Microstructure of Cognition, Vol. 1. MIT Press, Cambridge (1986).
[27] Drexler, K. Eric, Engines of Creation. Doubleday, New York (1986).
[28] Drexler, K. Eric, Technologies of Danger and Wisdom. Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing (Symposium Proceedings) (DIAC-87), Jonathan Jacky and Douglas Schuler, eds. Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, Seattle, WA, pp. 182-186 (12 July 1987).
[29] Kelley, Kirk, Xerox PARC, personal communication.
[30] Nisbett, Richard, and Lee Ross, Human Inference. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ (1980).

Table of Contents - Hypertext Publishing and the Evolution of Knowledge

WWW conversion by Russell Whitaker.

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