November 27, 2004

After Hypertext

I found this old essay, which I presented (virtually) at the Computers & Writing Conference three or four years ago in the Nouspace MOO. I had intended to revise it for traditional publication, but never got back to it (the title and a few of the ideas in here ended up, in very different form, in an essay Amy Kimme Hea and I wrote for Computers & Composition. It's longish, so there's just an excerpt below, with the remainder linked to at the bottom of the post.

1. Intro: After Hypertext

In which the author provides a linear narrative to talk about the death of network structures. He admits to the irony of this.

The final decade of the last century witnessed the dramatic rise of hypertext as a literary, technical, social, and intellectual phenomenon. Today, despite the fact that hypertext provides the conceptual underpinnings for the World Wide Web (among other things), "hypertext" remains a relatively peripheral term. In this talk, I'll track some of the ways that "hypertext" has been articulated during the last five decades, describing how the social construction of hypertext inscribed the technology(ies) in limiting and ultimately self-defeating ways. I'll then attempt to track (and construct) some possible futures for a dramatically redefined hypertext, one constructed as an "ethic of reference" within and among social communities rather than a technical practice.

2. How Hypertext Ate Itself

Today, despite the fact that hypertext provides the conceptual underpinnings for the World Wide Web (among other things), "hypertext" remains a relatively peripheral term.

During the mid to late 1990s, hypertext seemed too good to be true: the simple node/link technology provided a powerful way for understanding and enacting textual structures that had long been hinted at.

For literary theorists, hypertext provided the true weapon for assasinating the author: readers now wrested control of the text away, kicked the author in the head a few times for good measure, and skipped off into the dawn of a new day.

For poets and creative writers, hypertext provided the foundation for erecting a space for free exploration and innovation, unburdened by the repressive limits of the line.

For technical writers, hypertext provided a method for dealing with individual users in varying, concrete situations. Henceforth, rather than force users to tediously thumb through manuals, hypertextual online help would bring the right information (and *only* the right information) directly to the user, when the user needed, not a moment sooner or later.

I can almost hear the children laughing and singing now.

3. Feeling Old

Last semester, I asked students in my information architecture course if they knew what "hypertext" was. Most of them looked at me blankly, a few raised their hands. One said, "It's the Web." (Notably, the Usenet group on hypertext that I used to participate in during the 1990s collapsed with the advent of the Web, as new users began posting innumerable technical questions about HTML.)

I suppose I should be glad for the Web. But it leaves me wondering, as Jay Bolter did: What happened to hypertext?

Here are some very brief suggestions, then a rough map for where we might go next.

  • Although many of the early (and late) claims for hypertext were way overhyped, one thing seems clear: Hypertext offered something that people wanted: Power over the structure of text.
  • "Power" in text is an odd thing, though, illusory. It's a mutual construction, not something that's simply *taken* or *given*.
  • Michael Joyce made an early and often quoted distinction between hypertext that invited exploration and one that invited active reader participation in the construction of new links and nodes. We've built such an enormous amount of the first type (exploratory) that we've almost completely forgotten about the second (constructive). Sure, we can all build new web sites, but the private ownership model (inherent to some extent in the file structure of most operating systems) keeps those sites separate.
  • The point isn't merely that we need new models of ownership (although we do). It's not that we need to start building more constructive, collaborative spaces (although we do). The point is that "hypetext" as a concept and a practice was only an ANALOGY for the things that we were practicing. It's a boundary condition between linear print and something as yet unnamed: it's the illusion of freedom, not necessarily in an evil, repressive way, but in a We HOPED So Hard That It Was TRUE That We Started To BELIEVE It Was TRUE sort of way.
  • Hypertext, as a practice and concept, was simultaneously too powerful and too widely applicable.
  • Here's another way of thinking about all of this:
    • Hypertext was merely a metaphor, a set of suggestions for thinking about communication.
    • Without degenerating into teleological argument about Perfecting True Textual Practices, I want to suggest that hypertext was just a set of training wheels, a choreographer's chart, a libretto. We were supposed to be doing something *with* those suggestions, not merely going through the motions.

4. Intermission

Another Story: In 1998, working with a team of graduate students at Purdue University, we constructed a collaborative hypertext consisting exclusively of fragments of other texts we'd used during the semester: philosophies of communication, edited collections on technology and theory, email messages from our University President, and more. Working in Storyspace, we generated a massively interconnected Web of textual fragments. Excited, we shipped the URL to the site off to the Web based journal PostModern Culture. Reviews were decidedly mixed: The first reviewer thought the site was the greatest thing since CheezeWhiz. The other two reviewers, unfortunately, strongly suggested rejecting the site, because it didn't contain any of our own text.

5. The Metaphor of Hypertext

The problem of hypertext is that it *suggests* reader control, but rarely delivers it. Indeed, we are never completely free in any choice, constructed as we are among various social institutions that encourage us strongly (and sometimes with physical force) to act in certain ways.

Still, what the metaphor of hypertext can remind us is that the boundaries around any single text are suspect, including (and perhaps especially) the boundaries around any hypertext. As people living in the world, we constantly shift, filter, rearrange, and forge new connections among the multitude of communications in my immediate (and virtual) environment. Any isolated (or even global network) of hypertext cannot contain possible meanings. As Derrida put it several decades ago, there is always a surplus of meaning. Although Landow and others often claimed that hypertext captured that surplus and made it tangible for readers, in fact all it did was provide suggestions about those things.

6. Post-Hypertextual Practice

But what a post-hypertextual theory and practice can offer is this: the understanding that living in the world is an ongoing process of forging, examining, breaking, and rearranging connections among a nearly infinite number of objects. This seems like a rather mundane or old point, but let's consider what it means if we apply it to textual practices:

  • All texts are incomplete representations, by definition.
  • Divisions among texts are artificially constructed; all texts must constantly be connected up to each other, fragments at a time.
  • Living in the world is the ongoing process of connecting and disconnecting concepts in numerous social contexts.
  • The ability to deal with information overload (by definition, a condition of the first three points) is a fundamental skill for a post-hypertextual age.
  • The ability to assemble fragments of texts into new forms within particular social contexts is extremely valuable, probably more valuable in the long run that the ability to generate strings of "original" text.
  • With this ability must come an understanding and a commitment to an "ethic of reference": a responsibility to not merely present to readers a unified solution, but to actively help them breaking down your text as soon as it's constructed, in order to make their own meanings within the ongoing social process.

7. Making and Opening Structures: Some Questions

Hypertext can remind us of the need to rearrange and forge new meanings, but in the end it's only one other closed structure. It's up to us to open those structures
This all sounds very simple, but those of us with some experience know that saying text is open and making a text actually open are two different things. So here are some implications (and questions) to discuss.

  • How do we manage the notion that the text we create will be modified by someone else, necessarily, when they read it and use it. How do we keep this from feeling like a violation?
  • At the same time, if we acknowledge that linking to someone's texts requires an ethic of reference, how do we construct that ethic?
  • What is the dividing line (or lines) between freedom of speech and an ethic of reference? How do we construct it (or them)?
  • If the reference to another subject's work is an act of power, is that necessarily negative?
  • How do we teach students (and ourselves) to filter information, rearrange it, etc. Do we provide them models? Just throw them in? What strategies have you used (for yourself or in the classroom) to learn to deal with information overload in produtive ways?
  • What happens to evaluation (of students, of academics, of anyone) if every text bleeds into every other text?
  • If I reference another text, does that somehow make me responsible for its contents?
Posted by johndan at November 27, 2004 10:52 PM | TrackBack