Information Liberation Leads to Conformity, not Creativity

by astanhaus

Writer’s note: originally submitted for McGill University’s New Media class with Professor Caroline Bem.

Building upon Bush’s memex, Ted Nelson envisions a grand hypertext as the ultimate way for technology to mimic human train of thought and memory.  Bush penned his description of a memex in 1945, imagining a comprehensive storage device that “is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”[1] Almost thirty years later in 1974, Nelson pens Computer Lib / Dream Machines, imagining a grand hypertext, which “consist[s] of ‘everything’ written about a subject, or vaguely relevant to it, tied together by editors (and NOT by ‘programmers,’ dammit), in which you may read in all the directions you wish to pursue. ”[2]  Tumblr’s liberated hodgepodge of information expands an individual’s memory and allows users to seamlessly follow their curiosity. Nelson’s grand hypertext  is realized by Tumblr, as this technology allows an individual to post street style photos, survey others’ photos and interact with other street style aficionados.

A Tumblr blog is a hub of one’s interests, whether the user creates or reblogs the content. Tumblr realizes Nelson’s dream “that we may be able to store things digitally instead of physically.”[3] For example, no longer do fashionistas have to wait for Vogue’s September issue to know what to wear that winter. Fashionistas can assess what the current trends are by viewing posts tagged “#street style.” If a user fancies a blog, the user can choose to follow the blog for constant updates.

Nelson hoped that technology would mimic human’s non-sequential, branch-like thinking. Nelson’s ideal was that technology would allow content to be linked to each other, so humans may act on their natural curiosity and seamlessly transition to either directly or indirectly related topics. On Tumblr, users can view “#street style” posts, and click on the post’s other tags to view specific trends such as, “#cobalt,” “#denim,” or “#leather.”  These tags allow everyone to show their unique perspective on a trend.

Tumblr blogs have endless possibilities, as users can curate their blog with any content, written or visual, that piques their interest. Nelson astutely notes, “the structures of ideas are not sequential. They tie together every which way.”[4]  One’s creative impulse is uninhibited, as it is easy to hop from one interest to another by clicking on tags and reblog a post to document one’s interest in a topic.

Nelson believes information cannot be controlled and instead, it must roam free, as it does on Tumblr. Nelson’s dream of information liberation is nostalgic, “We must once again become a community of common access to a shared heritage.”[5] With universal access to common information, Nelson hopes his grand hypertext maximizes humanity’s creative potential.

Tumblr is the realization of Nelson’s grand hypertext, yet the outcome is the opposite of what he hoped would come from information liberation. In the Tumblr age, no longer does Tokyo have fashion trends distinct from Montréal.  Instead of realizing Nelson’s avant garde dream, Tumblr has fostered his nightmare of humanity’s creative capacity being stifled into conformity.


[1] Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” The Atlantic,  July, 1945.

[2] Ted Nelson, “Computer Lib / Dream Machines, 1974,” in Multimedia—from Wagner to Virtual Reality, eds. Randall Packer and Ken Jordan (New York: Norton, 2001), 160.

[3] Nelson, 158.

[4] Ibid, 159.

[5] Ibid, 161.

(Originally submitted for Amanda Stanhaus’s New Media Communications course  with  Caroline Bem.)

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