Screens, Research and Hypertext

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Links Are More Important than Text

How exploring Victorian intellectual history prepared me for a life working on the web.

I love making connections between things—finding the relationships between the seemingly unrelated.

It's a love that really started when I was an undergraduate student at Hampden-Sydney College. As a freshman, I took a two-semester honors course on the Industrial Revolution. The course was co-taught by three people, two of them specialists in Victorian literature and the third an historian of economics.

As you might expect from such a grouping of professors, we read an eclectic mix: Dickens, Carlyle, Macauley, Mill, Engels, Tennyson, Meredith, Bentham, Ricardo, the Brontës, Malthus ... and a bunch of others that I'm forgetting at the moment. That's where I first learned that Gradgrand and Bounderby were Dickens' take on Mill and Bentham. It's also where I gained a real appreciation for the fact that none of these writers worked in a vacuum.

They were talking to one another.

During my senior year, I got special permission to write a double-length paper that I could submit for both an English and a philosophy course. It looked at the "Eyre affair." (No, not the one by Jasper Fforde, though you should read that one, too.) The one about a rebellion by former slaves in Morant Bay, Jamaica. The colonial governor, Edward John Eyre, suppressed the rebellion with the special kind of brutality reserved for European colonial powers. Over the course of a month, Eyre burned over 1000 homes, killed 500 Black residents and had even more flogged and tortured.

Many years—and a dissertation on Mill's moral and political theory—later, I came back to the topic.

These days, I don't do much in the way of the history of political philosophy. Indeed, I've forgotten more than I remember about the specific arguments I made close to two decades ago. I certainly don't remember much of that honors course any longer.

But I do remember many of the connections between the books we read back then—indeed, I remember far more of the connections than I do the specifics of the books themselves.

That class shaped how I think about the world. It nurtured my ability to find the connections between ideas. That ability would help me later become a scholar. (And, dare I say, it's the driving force behind the work you're reading right now.) Indeed, it's probably why I gravitated to working on the web.

What is the web, if not making the links between texts into literal links between texts.

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