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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.