Dynamic Texts: Beyond the Tablets of Moses
Hypertext, first of all, is non-linear. With this we do not mean, that it for the first time allows one to select which bits of a text to read, or in which order to do so - the codex (modern-day book) already allows this -, but that hypertext is making this much easier, and the natural default. The reader has to draw his own line, and is autonomous in a web of possible lines. To speak with McLuhan again; the web (and thus the reader) carries the press, as the press carried writing, writing carried speech, and speech carried thought. Besides determining the order in which parts are read, hypertext can also break open the running text, so that it can - at least in modern systems - be annotated. The text thereby is no longer closed or static, but is becoming responsive. This can make a difference, as currently annotations are mainly published in elaborated commentaries, which thus require their authors to deem the source text worthy of a considerable time-investment. And such implicit pre-selection of commentators could create a positive bias.
Historically there have been many improvements in our ways of handling texts. After orality came the papyrus scroll, which was purely linear and had no pages, then the codex was introduced, which could be randomly accessed, but was still most often read aloud. Then came printing, the page-number, tables of contents, and indices. Journals arrived for selection, quality control and periodic dissemination, followed by public libraries and archives for storage and wide access. And now there is IT, which, besides even faster access, so far offers elaborate searching as an answer to the ever greater amount of information available. But this is inadequate as the amount is still far greater than anyone can keep up with or find one's way around in. In the near future, being able to inter-connect texts, or to drop a comment here and there, could make historic knowledge lot less like a sacred, but shimmering, decaying labyrinth, and more like an ever updated space to add to. Therefore we agree with L. Floridi that IT-tools will become fundamental to our way of handling information-overload.
One way in which the development of such tools can be eased is by separating publication and review. Because when these become separated, many ways and variations of reviewing the same stream of articles can be devised, developed, and experimented with. Experimentation is important here, as on the web most successful applications were only gradually improved after initially being successful 'by accident': evolved instead of invented, rising from a sea of many unsuccessful variations. Allowing for diversity can thus speed up the improvement of techniques for handling our information overload. Additionally, separating publication from review is sensible in itself too, as computer-memory and bandwidth are extremely cheap nowadays (0.10 US dollars for transferring and storing 2,000 book-sized texts). The time and attention of scholars is the only really expensive and valuable thing. Furthermore, the splitting up of texts into smaller bits, and publishing them under Creative Commons Licenses could also improve this situation. It would allow them to be imported and re-used in a wide variety of web-systems.
Now ultimately, whether one sees something as hypertext or not, is a matter of the level of abstraction (LOA) at which one looks at it. At the most distant level of abstraction current libraries with their footnotes, references and quotes, their inter-library loan-systems, and journals with their various review-processes and policies, are already a bristling kind of hyperspace. And one which most academics (including your author) feel at home in, and a system which seems to be working reasonably well. But nevertheless, when looking at it from a more up-close LOA - the level of individual texts - these systems appear horribly inefficient and static compared to what is - as illustrated - already becoming possible. It should be remembered that historic hypertext systems are primitive versions of an advanced technology, while the books and journals we generally compare them with are advanced examples of a primitive technology. Thus something a bit more dynamic than current articles, which still are as static as the Tablets of Moses, should at least be possible and advantageous.