keeping track

keeping track

We read so much about publishing, on the web and in the hypertext industry, that we can begin to think of hypertexts as finely honed artifacts. Some hypertexts are polished publications, but hypertext tools like Storyspace are also invaluable for simply keeping track of important information.

If all our work were planned and categorized in advance, we could simply file information as it arrived. Fortunately, life is usually more exciting than that! We constantly discover things that matter, not knowing exactly how we'll use our new knowledge or when we'll need it.

Consider, for example, Harvard anthropologist Maris Gillette, who works in the cities of Northern China. Each day, she meets new people, discussing their habits and customs to gain insight into the ways different ethnic groups adapt to urban life. Gillette's field notes show how information doesn't come neatly labelled and bundled:

Shan said that in the Hui area, families never eat together. Unlike Han, and unlike foreigners, they don't have a dining table and don't gather together for meals. The wife or mother cooks something to eat, and then as each family member comes home they grab a bowl of it and off the go. She says they very often eat lamb stew.

These short sentences contain information about families, about diet, about work schedules, about gender roles, about the way Hui view other ethnic groups, about interior design, and about ceramics! Yet this is just a part of a single interview in the midst of a long research program. An observation that seems dull or irrelevant when it first turns up may turn out to be very interesting later, as our knowledge increases and our perceptions improve.

Storyspace, with its spatial maps, multiple views, and fast linking, helped Gillette keep track of ideas by making it easy to interconnect them. This is where Storyspace's rapid linking is most important -- because Storyspace lets you make a link just by drawing a line, Storyspace lets people create complex, growing, and changing structures.

This sort of data gathering isn't limited to sociologists and anthropologists. Film makers use hypertext tools for continuity -- for keeping track of locations, costumes, props, all the little details that need to be remembered from shot to shot. Game designers use hypertext tools to explore patterns of linkage and to experiment with different connections. Writers use Storyspace for gathering facts about places and people, facts they'll later harvest when needed.

Hypertext tools can create finely-polished works for posterity. But that is not the only way they can help extend our creative lives.

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