Macworld Magazine, February 1988

The Iconoclast by Steven Levy



Meditations on HyperCard

The problem with HyperCard isn’t HyperCard, it’s what people are saying about it



What is it about HyperCard that clouds people’s minds? Has its developer, Bill Atkinson, concocted some ingenious mind-bending ray triggered when his code is fed into a Macintosh? I suspect so. Because when people first see HyperCard, the Program That Defies Category, they respond with near-hysterical enthusiasm. It’s reminiscent of how experimenters reacted to ingesting LSD in 1957. In other words, you have no analogue for the experience; you’re not sure how to handle it, but all of a sudden... you’re seeing God. In no time, you are babbling about how the world is about to undergo a profound transformation as a result of this wonderful substance. And the next few weeks are intense times of personal experimentation and energetic evangelizing. This, you croon, awash in visions of hyperbuttons and stockpiles of stackware, is It.


I do not exempt myself from this rush of enthusiasm. Though I had heard noises about this wonderful new program, I was unprepared for Bill Atkinson’s mind-blowing demo at the August Macworld Expo.


In retrospect, I may rationalize why I was grabbing people by the collar and saying, “This is the greatest Macintosh thing since the Macintosh!” For one thing, I was waiting for something thrilling. There has to be more to life, I figured, than waiting for WordPerfect to ship. For another, Mr. Atkinson’s programming virtuosity easily surpasses anything available since, well, MacPaint. The sheer speed with which his program whizzes through images and seeks out selected words is nothing short of astounding. And anywhere it was possible to insert a neat feature, a neat feature exists. There are more goodies in here than in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Finally, Atkinson really seems to have placed the complex capabilities of the Macintosh in the hands of nonprogrammers. With the mini-programming language HyperTalk, it seems that the rankest novice, with a little bit of tinkering, can devise a terrific application. Having once written a book lauding how the computer revolution conveyed to the masses the hacker’s ability to change one’s electronic environment, it is no wonder I swooned when I first saw HyperCard.


I did not go as far as some other communicants, though. Previous commitments prevented me from dropping out of society to create stackware. Nor did I proclaim, as did John Sculley, Apple’s leader, that HyperCard “shatters the barrier between a person’s information-handling dream and its realization.” That, considering the nature of dreams, is very heady stuff.


Sculley and many others here have fallen into a fallacy reflected by the misleading moniker of HyperCard—that the program signals the arrival of hypermedia, a tonic that will change the world by changing the way we deal with information. Just as some early LSD users thought the chemical would transform the world, some HyperCard mavens chorus with visionary fervor that the program ushers in this strange thing called hypermedia, which links all relevant information so the world’s knowledge falls into place as easily as the click of a mouse. I’m more skeptical, and hereby urge that the rhetoric be toned down, so that HyperCard can find its rightful place as a useful, if mortal, program and not have to bear the burden of a paradigm shifter.




Hands-On HyperCard

By now most of you have probably had some hands-on experience with the program, which is free to all new Mac owners and only $50 to everybody else. Probably the first thing you learned was that your current memory was insufficient to deal with the program. While HyperCard runs with a megabyte of internal memory, another meg or so is required to run the program in synch with other programs-and only that mode provides the full benefit of HyperCard.


But, Steve, you ask—just what is that benefit? Fair question; I haven’t really said what the program does yet, and for good reason. In Hollywood, the deal makers debate movie proposals in terms of whether they are “high concept.” A high-concept idea is one that its proponent can easily describe in a sentence, preferably in a single clause. The higher the concept, the greater the likelihood that the project will eventually become a major motion picture. By that standard, HyperCard would never make it to treatment. Apple’s own marketing has been vague, muttering about the “power of association” and promising all sorts of wonders.


In fact, it would be better for all concerned if people called it “a user-configurable information-handling tool” and left it at that. It is much more, of course, but when you start to explain the “much more” your eyes take on that Timothy Leary gleam. At its simplest, and also at its best, HyperCard manages information. The program s superiority to other datamanagement software is its recognition that information has more value if it can be manipulated into a larger universe than that of a single program. So while Helix and 4th Dimension have more power and depth in some respects, HyperCard, in its ability to link with the outside world, is like the mouse that trips up the elephant.


To use HyperCard, of course, you need stackware. HyperCard without stackware is like Macintosh without software. The sample stacks included in the package lose their novel appeal very rapidly, and if you want to really play, you must buy or download new stacks or write your own. In my case, which I guess is typical, I first tried to modify some of the freebie stacks.


I started with the Address stack and began playing around-designing my own custom cards with links to other stacks and programs.


One quibble here. While Atkinson is an original Macintosh wizard, oddly enough, the workings oi HyperCard in some ways vary from the standard religion. The program opens to the Home card, which displays icons representing your tried-and-true stacks. This is akin to the desktop that greets you as you first start up the Macintosh. However, while we’ve all gotten used to opening Macintosh files by double-clicking on them, in HyperCard it takes a single click. And there’s no Save command in HyperCard: the program automatically does that. While arguably a better way to do things (certainly a step towards idiotproofing), it does get confusing, since HyperCard exists side-by-side with the traditional interface.



Talkin’ HyperTalk Blues

That’s a small complaint. The bigger problem I had was figuring how to get the information in my current “electronic Rolodex” (the MacDialer desk accessory from Borland’s SideKick package) into the Address stack in HyperCard. Sitting in the press room at the Macworld Expo, I had watched Ted Kaehler, an Apple software engineer who worked on HyperCard, hack up a simple script (a HyperTalk program that controls a button, the thing that causes events to occur in HyperCard) to import information from a database to a stack.


Kaehler had no trouble doing this—he is a veteran wizard who earned his stripes at the famed Xerox PARC laboratory-yet it still took him a few passes through the script to get it right. To duplicate his work I would have to develop some prowess in HyperTalk and spend at least one afternoon of trial and error, eyes shifting from the screen to the tutorials in Danny Goodman’s essential Complete HyperCard Handbook. An enjoyable afternoon, certainly, because I enjoy solving puzzles.


On the other hand, it was a step toward a commitment. Did I really want to become a Macintosh programmer? It’s useful to customize programs to individual needs, and I fully intended to acquaint myself with the workings of HyperCard enough to do that. But I did not want to immerse myself in HyperTalk. I have plenty of hobbies and didn’t want to add software development to the list. So I decided not to write an importer script. I figured that someone else would do it.


Which is exactly what happened. Within two weeks, I found one in the new stackware data library stored on the MAUG section of CompuServe. It had bells and whistles and certainly did the job, but I wasn’t quite happy with the graphic setup, so I didn’t send in the $10 fee that the shareware programmer requested. A week after that, I noticed that there was yet another script available that did the same thing with better graphics. There is a lesson here: you do not have to plunge into programming HyperTalk to benefit from HyperCard. Since it is so easy to program, somebody else will do it for you.


Ultimately, the stackware will determine how much HyperCard will become integrated into our work habits. One obvious use-as an all-around scheduler and personal data manager-has been addressed right off the bat. I have been noodling around with a prerelease version of the first full-blown stack of that sort, Activision’s Focal Point, written by my Macworld colleague Danny Goodman. The program does what I expect it to. (Sadly, though, it lacks buttons that import data from other programs like—you guessed it—SideKick.)


As I get more stacks and more skill in manipulating them, Focal Point may become the personal organizing tool I’ve been trying to kludge together for years.





Hype and Hypermedia

But the ultimate scheduler is not what the HyperCard visionaries are touting. Instead they talk more about stacks on the model of Danny Goodman’s other Activision program, Business Class, a hypermedia sampler of information on many countries, linked in various ways and easily accessible by world-map graphics. It’s tops for getting a quick answer to a question like “What time is it in Sri Lanka?” but it doesn’t provide the depth of information available in a dedicated guidebook.


Business Class suffers by comparison because it stands alone. In the coming age of hypermedia, the visionaries say, a program like Business Class will be part of a boggling network of connections. In its current version, when you ask what the intrapersonal customs are in a given country. Business Class gives you a few terse pointers. For instance: When in France, don’t talk with your hands in your pockets. In the future, though, the hypermedia network will allegedly be in place. Asking the same question will link you to any French social bugaboo imaginable and provide the origins of those customs, and perhaps a passage from Madame Bovary to show the custom in action. Anything ever written about French customs, or customs anywhere, or Flaubert, or the history of pockets, will pop up on your screen. The information will be pumped into your home or office by an umbilical cord connecting you to some sort of giant World Brain.


There is a long line of adherents to this vision, beginning in 1945 with Vannevar Bush and continuing through Ted Nelson, who coined the word hypermedia. There has even been a Macintosh outpost in the field: Alan Boyd, the publisher of the Guide hypertext system. In his book Odyssey, Apple chairman Sculley has picked up the torch. He calls his contribution Knowledge Navigator, an intriguing, intelligent tool that will enable us to race through civilization’s accumulated knowledge like supersonic pilots blasting through the stratosphere. Sculley also writes of his belief that HyperCard and its descendants will free us from the “constraints of a book’s linear format”: linking information “the way you think” in many cases will obviate the tiresome convention of beginning, middle, and end. Our fiction may begin to resemble novels like Hopscotch, written by the South American writer Julio Cortazar. The Nobel laureate claimed the 155 chapters of his book could be read in any of several different sequences. In the hypermedia world, nonfiction books would not be read front to back, but would be blended into some World Information Bank, each passage linked in millions of ways to other relevant information. To quote Sculley, using this model “enables the user to summon up any information he needs, in the dosage he requires.”


This strikes me as an unlikely scenario, at least on the scale that some commentators have predicted. An enormous task stands in the way of realizing the hypermedia dream: all the world s knowledge must be entered as data and put online.


The problems of copyright and fair use must also be dealt with, and that means a near-infinite number of lawyer-hours. In a world where too many people are unfed and homeless, our space program is dead in the water, corporations are lean and mean, and every spare penny goes for tools of destruction, it is difficult to imagine this multibillion dollar project ever getting underway.


What’s more, I do not mourn the loss. For raw data-gathering, the hypermedia dream would indeed be a boon. But when it comes to dealing with ideas, I wonder about the jet-pilot metaphor of racing through information. Sometimes it s better to walk. At that slower pace, one can actually think about the information pouring in, and not be so easily tempted to rush on to the next link. When push comes to shove, I prefer reading to navigating.


No doubt fast ways to access information—in what might one day be known as the HyperCard tradition—will change the way we do research and gain knowledge. But any changes in the near future will occur on a much more modest scale—for instance, “computer Filofaxes” like Focal Point. Or fast-searching front ends for CD-stored data. Or interactive teaching aids like the Help stacks for HyperCard itself Meanwhile, let s not let the talk of information superhighways blur our vision of what is in front of us: a terrific program named HyperCard. It’s here now, it’s real, and we’ve all got a job ahead of us figuring out how to make the most of it.