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Hierarchies, Networks, and the Web that Wasn't

By murray - Posted on 03 April 2008

For most of us who work on the Internet, the Web is all we have ever really known. It’s almost impossible to imagine a world without browsers, URLs and HTTP. Today, however, developers are increasingly grappling with some of the Web’s inherent limitations, especially the document-centric “page” metaphor that often forces information architects to organize content in terms of documents rather than in terms of underlying concepts.

This is the precisely the problem that Topic Maps tries to solve; but in the years leading up to Tim Berners-Lee’s world-changing invention, a few visionary information scientists were exploring remarkably similar ideas, developing prototype systems that often bore little resemblance to the Web as we know it today. By mining the history of these promising early experiments, we can find a largely forgotten heritage of thought that is surprisingly consilient with the philosophy of Topic Maps.

The presentation will focus on the pioneering work of Paul Otlet, Vannevar Bush, and Doug Engelbart, forebears of the 1960s and 1970s like Ted Nelson, Andries van Dam, and the Xerox PARC team, and more recent forays like Brown’s Intermedia system. We’ll trace the heritage of these systems and the solutions they suggest to present day Web quandaries, in hopes of finding clues to the future of the Web – and Topic Maps – in the recent technological past.