Thoughts on Hypertext


(a book wheel, from Agostina Ramelli’s Le Diverse  et Artificiose Machine, 1588) 

Hypertext is strange, when you think about it.

Throughout most of human history our writing has been self-contained within books, tablets, or structures (in the case of hieroglyphs). Early hyper textual precursors such as some of the more complex reference systems, Wilkins’ philosophical language, book wheels (pictured above), annotations, and  logograms.

But while these systems allow for modular interaction between packages of information, none of them have the “depth” of hypertext.

[Please excuse my terminology here. I don’t like using the term “depth” to describe this phenomenon, as it implies that digital information is a space – which I disagree with. I’m trying to convey the idea of information depth here, rather than embodied space.]

We take hyperlinks for granted in our society. They appear everywhere. Its the primary means of acquiring information digitally, but we usually think of them as just … normal text.

Hypertext offers a whole new way of thinking about text. To read an article with hypertext, clicking on links, connecting sources and ideas, creates a different mindscape and psychology than reading a book or newspaper.

Imagine a huge stack of single-sided pages, where every word takes up the same amount of space on a page of all the others. Perhaps they’re part of a story, or an article, or even a manual of some kind. If you read it normally: left to right (or vice-versa depending on where you live and what you read) page [start] to page [end] then you get the normal story, information, or instructions displayed within. But, what if it turned out that, if you were confused by a word in the text, you could turn to the next page and find the word that aligned underneath the word you were confused about. Imagine that if you continued in this fashion, reading the “column” of words that lined up, you were given a complete account of word choice, intention, purpose, citation, and all sorts of other outside information. This is something like hypertext. This is what I mean by “depth” of information.

When we read hypertext we compartmentalize and associate in more direct ways than we do with words written on pages or in blocks. Authors like Michael Joyce and Shelley Jackson have implemented hypertext in literature before the internet was being used. The narratives are fractured, yet interconnected, like memories that mirror and oppose each other.

[Unfortunately, the management of Eastgate Publishing has not bothered to update these stories for newer platforms. many of these hyperstories may therefore be considered out of print. Shelly Jackson’s current website can be found here. Joyce is, as of the time of writing this, a professor at Vassar and still publishes in print].  

So, hypertext makes us read, and think, differently. Is this good? Is this bad? I’m not qualified to say, but I think its more accurate to say its just… different. There’s been a lot of research put into this subject, a lot of it negative. But as neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf famously said in her 2008 nonfiction book Proust and the Squid: “human beings were never born to read.” We evolved to read as a means of communication and processing information. Why can’t hypertext be seen as an extension to that?

This is not to ignore the dangers of such progress, especially alienation, conditioning, and disembodiment from identity. As Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other and Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age says in this interview: “When a parent talks to a child over breakfast and says, ‘What’s happening at school today?’ … You’re getting respect for someone finishing their thoughts. You’re getting the feeling that someone else is listening to you. You’re getting the feeling that someone else is going to be there to hear you finish your idea. You’re getting the bare bones of a relationship. You’re learning empathy and continuity.”

Much of Turkle’s argument (which is by no means anti-technology) is based around acting with intention. When we begin to go into these spaces surrounded with technology, we must interact with intention. Go to Facebook knowing why you want to check Facebook. Check your phone because you have a reason you want to check your phone. Read this blog because you want to read this blog. When you’re done, acknowledge you’re done. Then be done.

This can be difficult with hypertext, where ideas are linked and so tantalizingly close. Turkle also mentions the idea of “sacred spaces” or spaces in our lives where we choose not to interact with technology. Especially spaces where we expect conversation and interaction non-digitally: the dinner table, for example, or the bedroom before one goes to sleep beside ones partner.

Again, this is difficult to implement, but I see where Turkle is coming from and I agree. We need sacred spaces and intention with our interaction with technology as thought, conversation, and continuity is increasingly fractured and reconnected in this digital world of ours.

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