The Blind Spot
35 years ago, Apple’s CEO introduced a visionary new software product. But the real lesson from its launch is what he failed to see.
In the very first installment of this series on creative workflows, I talked about the early obsession I had during my college years with HyperCard, the brilliant but before-its-time software program that Apple released in 1987. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine who knew some of that backstory gave me this as a gift:
Holding that long-out-of-print book in my hand immediately transported me back to my cluttered subterranean dorm room from sophomore year. For about three months in the fall and early winter of ’87 it was truly my bible. I undoubtedly spent more time browsing its pages—learning how to write HyperTalk, HyperCard’s groundbreaking programming language—than I did with all the required reading for all of my courses that year. (Ironically I was designing an application to help me manage the notes for those courses.) And yet somehow, over the 35 years that have passed since then, I had completely forgotten about the book’s existence.
I’d forgotten something else about the book as well: it begins with an introduction from then-Apple-CEO John Sculley, offering a rare glimpse of him writing in “software visionary” mode, extolling the paradigm shift that Hypercard represents, and suggesting that the product belonged to the canon of the recent breakthroughs that Apple had brought to a mass market: the personal computer, the graphic interface. (HyperCard was the brainchild of Bill Atkinson, one of the lead interface designers responsible for the original Mac operating system, so the hype was warranted.) Sculley tends to play the villain in a lot of popular accounts of Apple’s rise and fall during this period, but the truth is the company did release two products during his tenure—Hypercard and the Newton—that offered the first taste of technologies that would become ubiquitous a decade after they were introduced: hypertext and handheld computing. Both products failed to hit critical mass as commercial projects, largely because the underlying tech just wasn’t ready yet, most famously in the Newton’s disastrous handwriting recognition input. But both of them pushed the boundaries of the adjacent possible in profound ways, and inspired a generation of creators who went on to build products that did reach a mass market.
Sculley begins his introduction by defining a word—hypermedia—originally coined by Ted Nelson a few decades earlier. As a term of art, “hypermedia” has subsequently gone out of favor, but its meaning will be instantly recognizable to people who have lived their whole lives with the Web as their default communications platform:
In broad terms, hypermedia is the delivery of information in forms that go beyond traditional list and database report methods. More specifically, it means that you don't have to follow a predetermined organization scheme when searching for information. Instead, you branch instantly to related facts. The information is eternally cross-referenced, with fact linked to fact, linked to fact. Hypermedia is particularly true to its name when it links facts across conventional subject boundaries. For example, when studying chemistry, you may wish to study the life of a chemical compound's creator.
One hypermedia link would connect that compound to the chemist's biographical information located in an entirely different reference work. Another link might connect the chemical compound to a listing of grocery store products that incorporate the compound, or to long-term health studies on the compound. We can focus more on content, while ignoring the organization.
As a forecast of what was about to come—a new way of navigating vast amounts of information, made possible by hypertextual links—Sculley’s description hit the mark perfectly, though for obvious reasons its vision of the quality of information that future hypermedia users would explore was a bit Panglossian. (For example, he didn’t contemplate a future where the chemical compound links to a dietary supplement being hawked by a conspiracy theorist between rants about a stolen Presidential election.) I think we can probably forgive Sculley for not sketching out all the ways hypermedia might be abused in his three-page introduction; it was the late 80s, after all; companies like Apple were still struggling to convince people that computers would be useful at all to ordinary people, not just technologists.
But what’s more surprising about Sculley’s forecast is another omission: at no point in the essay does he mention online networks.
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