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What is hypertext you ask?

This is hypertext

HYPERTEXT – Hypertext is the presentation of information as a linked network of nodes which readers are free to navigate in a non-linear fashion. It allows for multiple authors, a blurring of the author and reader functions, extended works with diffuse boundaries, and multiple reading paths. … Our definition does not limit itself to electronic text; hypertext is not inherently tied to technology, content, or medium. It is an organizational form which may just as readily be delivered on paper as electronically. Thus, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is no less a hypertext than Joyce’s Afternoon. The latter we would term a hyperbook. Other important definitions include those of Jakob Nielsen, the InterMedia development team, and Delany & Landow. Contrast these to the perspective of the information sciences.

This too is perhaps also more hypertext

This is a wikipedia esque electronic labyrinth that may be of assistance



HYPERHISTORY, CYBERTHEORY – From Memex to ergodic literature – Raine Koskimaa


From a bit later in the George Landow book:

George Landow – Hypertext Pages 3-7

Hypertext, a term coined by Theodor H Nelson in the 1960s, refers also to a form of electronic text, a radically new information technology, and a mode of publication. “By ‘hypertext,’” Nelson explains, “I mean non-sequential writing–text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen.

Writers on hypertext trace the concept to a pioneering article by Vannevar Bush in a 1945 issue of Atlantic Monthly that called for mechanically linked information-retrieval machines to help scholars and decision makers faced with what was already becoming an explosion of information. Struck by the “growing mountain of research” that confronted workers in every field, Bush realized that the number of publications had already “extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships” (17–18). As he emphasized, “there may be millions of fine thoughts, and the account of the experience on which they are based, all encased within stone walls of acceptable architectural form; but if the scholar can get at only one a week by diligent search, his syntheses are not likely to keep up with the current scene” (29).

According to Bush, the main problem lies with what he termed “the matter of selection”—information retrieval—and the primary reason that those who need information cannot find it lies in turn with inadequate means of storing, arranging, and tagging information:

Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path. (31)

As George Landow [9] pointed out in 2006, hypertext fiction negates traditional Aristotelian ideas of a three-act plot structure, with the story being experienced differently by each reader. This means that a reader of a hypertext may be more empowered than readers of a print narrative, simply because they can make their own passage through a text [10].

Traditionally, all stories have a set beginning middle and end, according to the plot structure defined in Aristotle’s Poetics[3]. In defiance of this, branching path narratives are stories with the potential for multiple beginnings, middles and ends[1]. This structure has appeared in various print and digital stories, over the years. In print, writers like B.S. Johnston explored the potential of multi-linear narratives with The Unfortunates[4]; a series of pamphlets that could be shuffled and read in any order, and still maintain coherency. Choose-your-own adventure books, stories that involve pages of narrative intersected with choices, emerged with Packard’s The Cave of Time[5]. These books contained multiple endings that could be enjoyed by readers, who were motivated to return to the book to seek out a happier ending. As the reader of the book has a goal, much like the player of a game, this genre is also known as a gamebook. — THINK THIS IS HOLODECK TOO


Previous discussions of the effects of hypertext upon literary form either have sought to identify quasi hypertextuality in print texts and then suggest what hypertext fiction might be like or have deduced the rules of hypertextual narrative from first principles, particularly that involving the removal of linearity as a dominant principle of forms. The first approach to predicting the way hyper-text might affect literary form has pointed to Tristram Shandy, In Memoriam, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake and to recent French, Ameri-can, and Latin American fiction, particularly that by Michel Butor, Marc Saporta, Robert Coover, and Jorge Luis Borges (Bolter, Writ-ing Space, 132-39). Such texts might not require hypertext to be fully understood, but they reveal new principles of organization or new ways of being read to readers who have experienced hypertext. Hypertext, the argument goes, makes certain elements in these works stand out for the first time. The example of these very differ-ent texts suggests that those poems and novels that most resist one or more of the characteristics of literature associated with print form, particularly linear narrative, will be likely to have something in common with new fiction in a new medium.

Hamlet on the Holodeck – New edition, page 55 onward:

The accessibility of the World Wide Web has introduced a growing audience to hypertext fiction. Hypertext is a set of documents of any kind (images, text,charts, tables, video clips) connected to one another by links. Stories written in hypertext can be divided into scrolling “pages” (as they are on the World Wide Web) or screen-size “cards” (as they are in a Hypercard stack), but they are best thought of as segmented into generic chunks of information called “lexias” (or reading units).9 Paper pages are bound into books in a single sequence; paper index cards must be arranged with no more than one card before and one after them even though they can be more easily searched in non sequential order. Butscreen-based pages and cards become lexias: they occupy a virtual space in which they can be preceded by, followed by, and placed next to an infinite number ofother lexias. Lexias are often connected to one another with “hyperlinks” (or “hotwords”), that is, words that are displayed in color to alert the reader/viewer thatthey lead someplace else. For example, if I were writing this book as a hypertext,I would display the word lexias in the third sentence of this paragraph in color asa hot link instead of placing a superscript number next to it to indicate an endnote. Mouse-clicking on the word would bring up a new screen displaying the information on who invented the term and who applied it to electronic text,information that is now hidden at the back of the book. Another hyperlinkmight lead out of my book entirely and straight into a book by Roland Barthesor George Landow, or it could lead to a short bibliographical annotation that would pop up on the screen like a sticky note, appearing and disappearing at the will of the reader. A single lexia may contain many links, or it may contain no links at all, thereby gluing readers to the page or allowing them to move only forward or backward, as the pages of a book do. The existence of hypertext hasgiven writers a new means of experimenting with segmentation, juxtaposition,and connectedness. Stories written in hypertext generally have more than one entry point, many internal branches, and no clear ending. Like the multiform life stories imagined by Borges and Lightman, hypertext narratives are intricate,many-threaded webs.Hypertext formats are not new as intellectual structures. The Talmud, for instance, is a giant hypertext consisting of biblical text surrounded by commentaries by multiple rabbis. Literary works are hypertextual in their allusions to one another. In the twentieth century the allusiveness has grown so dense that a work like James Joyce’s Ulysses is almost impossible to understand without accompanying pointers to other works, including a map of Dublin. The Dictionary of the Khazars, one of the multiform texts discussed earlier, is a print-based hypertext with entries that point to one another, making possible many coherent reading sequences. Although hypertext is not new as a way of thinking and organizing experience, it is only with the emergence of the computer that hypertext writing has been attempted on a large scale

But for many postmodern writers, the quintessential multiform narrative is the much darker story in Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths”(1941). Here the pivotal moment is a seemingly meaningless act of murder. The narrator, Dr. Yu Tsun, is a German spy during World War I who knows that heis on the verge of capture. He resolves to murder a man named Steven Albert,whose name he has selected from the phone book. Albert, by coincidence, has devoted his life to studying an incoherent novel (which is also called The Gardenof Forking Paths) written by Ts’ui Pên, an ancestor of the narrator. As Albert explains to Yu Tsun, the story of the forking path is really a labyrinth because it is based on a radical reconception of time

In all fiction, when a man is faced with alternatives he chooses one at the expense of the others. In the almost unfathomable Ts’ui Pên, he chooses—simultaneously—all of them. He thus creates various futures, various times which start others that will in their turn branch out and bifurcate in other times. (P. 98)

Time in Ts’ui Pên’s world is not an “absolute and uniform” line but an infinite “web” that “embraces every possibility.” Albert tells his future murderer that they are living in a world of similarly bifurcating time, full of many alternate realities:

We do not exist in most of them. In some you exist and not I, while in others I do,and you do not, and in yet others both of us exist. In this one, in which chance has favored me, you have come to my gate. In another, you, crossing the garden, have found me dead. In yet another, I say these very same words, but am an error, a phantom. (P. 100)

As Yu Tsun gets closer to committing the murder, he is aware of a“pullulation,” a splitting of reality. Like the characters in Ts’ui Pên’s story, he is choosing multiple alternatives, creating various futures simultaneously:

It seemed to me that the dew-damp garden surrounding the house was infinitely saturated with invisible people. All were Albert and myself, secretive, busy and multiform in other dimensions of time. (Pp. 100-101)

The notion of multiple possible worlds seems at first to absolve the narrator of moral responsibility and to make the deed much easier. He murders the unsuspecting Albert while his back is turned, choosing his moment in order to be as merciful as possible. It is a dispassionate crime, a triumph of cryptography. Yu Tsun has succeeded in sending a message alerting the Germans to attack a city named Albert by causing his own name to appear linked with the name of his victim in newspapers. Since Yu Tsun does not believe in the German cause,the murder is a deeply meaningless act of pure communication. Yet the story ends with the narrator full of “infinite penitence and sickness of heart” (p. 101). The fact that Yu Tsun’s experience of life is only a slender thread in the infinite web of his possible lives does not change the fact that he is firmly embedded in his single lived reality.

Janet Murray goes on to list several other movies that she thinks exhibit this ‘multiform’ character (does this just mean ‘what if’ narrative structures? Either ‘what if this happened’ or ‘what if this person has a different point of view?), straining against the boundaries of their medium. They are:

  • Delmore Schwartz’s story ‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’
  • Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams
  • Groundhog Day
  • Rashomon
  • Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars
  • The Talmud

What about-

  • Walter Benjamin’s Arcade’s Project – As Marjorie Perloff writes in Unoriginal Genius: Walter Benjamin’s Arcades as Paradigm for the New Poetics – ‘The configuration of the page is thus hardly that of “normal” prose. In the Frankfurt edition, the typeface of the citations is smaller than that of the author’s own reflections; in the English, the citations are separated from Benjamin’s words by the use of a different font and boldface, and the cross references are given in outline rather than black squares. Translations into other languages no doubt proceed in still other ways. But of course the “original” German (more properly German/French) version is not really “original” or definitive at all: who knows how Benjamin would have used his fragments, had he lived to see the project into print. The Arcades Project may thus be understood as an ur-hypertext: the numerical classification of the notes (e.g. A3, 1, A3, 2 … A3a, 1) provides ready passage from link [black square] to link in this Passagenwerk—a passage that would be even easier in a hypothetical digital version of the whole, which would allow the reader to to follow particular threads from text to text—indeed, to rearrange them. Benjamin’s Project is thus literally a movable feast; its hypertextual quality is part of its great appeal. Walter Benjamin’s Arcade’s Project’ — SOMEONE ACTUALLY MADE A HYPERTEXT VERSION OF IT – Jay Bolter’s book Remediation–an expansion on his ground breaking project Writing Space–has become a standard in the field of hypertext studies, examining as it does the phenomenon of new media in postmodern critical contexts. Benjamin’s work with media in “The Work of Art” essay is integral to Bolter’s development of the title concept.  Theodore Nelson’s discussion of  “nonsequential writing” in Literary Machines, the Hypertext/Hypermedia Handbook and Landow’s The Digital Word. Text-Based Computing in the Humanities, Hypertext. The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology and Hypermedia and Literary Studies are all helpful introductions to hypermedia’s connections with postmodern theory.
  • See also the Arcades Project turned into a hypertext work

Anyway, here’s the final part of the chapter from Hamlet on the Holodeck:

The fragmentation of the story structure represents patterns of historical fragmentation, and the patterns of readings echo the characters’ efforts to reconstruct the past in order to restore a lost coherence.As this wide variety of multiform stories makes clear, print and motion picture stories are pushing past linear formats not out of mere playfulness but in an effort to give expression to the characteristically twentieth-century perception of life as composed of parallel possibilities. Multiform narrative attempts to give a simultaneous form to these possibilities, to allow us to hold in our minds at the same time multiple contradictory alternatives. Whether multiform narrative is a reflection of post-Einsteinian physics or of a secular society haunted by the chanciness of life or of a new sophistication in narrative thinking, its alternate versions of reality are now part of the way we think, part of the way we experience the world. To be alive in the twentieth century is to be aware of our alternative possible selves, of alternative possible worlds, and of the limitless intersecting stories of the actual world. To capture such a constantly bifurcating plotline, however, one would need more than a thick labyrinthine novel or a sequence of films. To truly capture such cascading permutations, one would need a computer.

And then later from the same book

Like every human medium of communication, digital media have been developed to perform tasks that were too difficult to do without them. Hypertext and simulations, the two most promising formats for digital narrative, were both invented after World War II as a way of mastering the complexity of an expanding knowledge base. The mathematician Vannevar Bush put it this way in his landmark 1945 magazine article, “As We May Think”: “The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as that used in the days of square-rigged ships” (p. 102). Bush’s solution was “associational indexing” in a kind of magical desk based on microfilm files, a solution he called a “memex” and described as follows:The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the crusades. He has dozens of pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item…. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.And the trails do not fade. (P. 107)This earliest vision of hypertext reflects the classic American quest—a charting of the wilderness, an imposition of order over chaos, and the mastery of vast resources for concrete, practical purposes. In Bush’s view, the infinite web of human knowledge is a solvable maze, open to rational organization.

By contrast, Ted Nelson, who coined the term hypertext in the 1960s and called for the transformation of computers into “literary machines” to link together all of human writing, has been more in love with the unsolvable labyrinth. He sees associational organization as a model of his own creative and distractible consciousness, which he describes as a form of “hummingbird mind.”11 Nelson has spent most of his professional life in the effort to create the perfect hypertext system, which he has appropriately named Xanadu. He describes this pursuit as a quixotic quest, “a caper story—a beckoning dream at the far edge of possibility that has been too good to let go of, and just too faraway to reach, for half my life.”12 Nelson’s vision of hypertext is akin to William Faulkner’s description of novel writing as a futile but noble effort to get the entire world into one sentence. Those like Nelson who take delight in the intricacies of hypertext, the twisting web rather than the clear-cut trail, are perhaps seeing it as an emblem of the inexhaustibility of the human mind: an endless proliferation of thought looping through vast humming networks whether of neurons or electrons.

From Scott Rettberg’s ‘The American Hypertext Novel, and Whatever Became of It?’
Hypertext was first conceptualised by Theodore Holm Nelson (1965) in his paper ‘A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate’ when he introduced the term “to mean a body of written or pictorial material interconnected in such a complex way that it could not conveniently be presented or represented on paper.” In his ‘No More Teachers’ Dirty Looks’ (1970), Nelson followed up with a more expansive definition of “hyper-media” as “branching or performing presentations which respond to user actions, systems of prearranged words and pictures (for example) which may be explored freely or queried in stylized ways.” Among the types of hypertexts he discusses in that essay, which focused on the potential uses of hypermedia in new systems that could potentially revolutionise education are “discrete hypertexts” which “consist of separate pieces of text connected by links.” The majority of hypertext fictions published during the 1980s and 1990s would fit within this rubric though, as Noah Wardrip-Fruin (2004) argued, this conception of hypertext as “chunk-style” linked nodes is somewhat narrower than hypermedia as Nelson originally envisioned it. The post-millennial turn in electronic literature towards a broader use of media-rich texts, more complex uses of generativity and other computational processes, and deeper engagement with network-specific communication technologies and styles of writing better represents the broader range of hypertext and hypermedia as conceptualised by Nelson than either the first-generation hypertext fictions published by Eastgate or the second-generation works published on the Web.

Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s What Hypertext Is

How can we answer the question, “What is hypertext?” Our most respected scholars offer answers that span a wide range. In the literary community, the definitions offered often focus on the link. Marie-Laure Ryan [5], for example, states that, “In hypertext… the reader determines the unfolding of the text by clicking on certain areas, the so-called hyperlinks, that bring to the screen other segments of text.” Espen Aarseth [1] offers a similar view of the term, writing that, “Hypertext, for all its packaging and theories, is an amazingly simple concept. It is merely a direct connection from one position in a text to another.” In the computer science community definitions can sound
somewhat different. In a forthcoming article a number of well known hypertext researchers from the University of Southampton [6] argue that link-based understandings miss “some of the more profound aspects of hypertext” especially “hypertext-asinteraction with information to build associations, and through associations to build knowledge.” In a similar vein, Peter J. Nürnberg’s [4] closing keynote for the Hypertext 03 conference (“What is Hypertext?”) offered “structured knowledge work” as a summary of the focus of the hypertext research community.

Given these incompatible definitions, we could argue that one group or another has more right to define the term. But
intellectual communities must be home to arguments over the definitions of key terms — as these are arguments about the meaning of the field, necessary if we are to avoid stagnation. Better, instead, to understand the history of our terms, so that we may see how competing definitions of the moment are movements in different directions from a common starting point. That is to say, when we ask the question, “What is hypertext?” we are asking a question fundamentally similar to questions such as “What is psychoanalysis?” “What is natural selection?” and “What is communism?” We are asking about the meaning of an intellectual term coined by a particular thinker, around which further thinking has grown. While such terms are often taken in variety of different directions after they are coined (much as Stalin took usage of the term “communism” in a direction that Marx is unlikely to have imagined) it is generally agreed that serious discussion of the meanings of such terms must begin with the work of thinker who coined them. (Ted Nelson)

From Robert Coover’s The End of Books

“Hypertext” is not a system but a generic term, coined a quarter of a century ago by a computer populist named Ted Nelson to describe the writing done in the nonlinear or nonsequential space made possible by the computer. Moreover, unlike print text, hypertext provides multiple paths between text segments, now often called “lexias” in a borrowing from the pre-hypertextual but prescient Roland Barthes. With its webs of linked lexias, its networks of alternate routes (as opposed to print’s fixed unidirectional page-turning) hypertext presents a radically divergent technology, interactive and polyvocal, favoring a plurality of discourses over definitive utterance and freeing the reader from domination by the author. Hypertext reader and writer are said to become co-learners or co-writers, as it were, fellow-travelers in the mapping and remapping of textual (and visual, kinetic and aural) components, not all of which are provided by what used to be called the author.

From Pressman’s Digital Modernism

Electronic hypertexts have print predecessors in experimental novels like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Julio Cortazar’s Hopsotch, and the Choose Your Own Adventure young adult book series, all of which use footnotes or other textual devices to connect chunks of text and enable navigation of the narrative as a network rather than a linear path. — NOT SURE WHAT THIS IS FROM

University of Melbourne Structural Editing notes

The printed (or digital) text has developed a wide range of ways of marking and signposting texts, many of which help readers to engage in selective, hypertextual reading. Hypertext existed long before the Internet and the World Wide Web. In fact, one way to tell the history of print culture is to focus on the increasing use of hypertextual reading aids. As James O’Donnell argues in Avatars of the Word, it was the hypertextual quality of the codex – the book bound in sheets – that secured its ascendancy over the scroll. Readers found it far quicker to flip to a particular numbered page than to search through a long strip of papyrus, unrolling it as they went. In time, many other devices came into use: title pages and chapter headings in books, headlines in newspapers and magazines, indexes, contents pages, even the numbering of sections in the Koran or the Bible. Collectively, these devices are referred to as paratexts, in that they are texts outside the main body of the text itself.

Espen J Aarseth Cybertext-Perspectives on Ergodic Literature

Since writing always has been a spatial activity, it is reasonable to assume that ergodic textuality has been practiced as long as linear writing. For instance, the wall inscriptions of the temples in ancient Egypt were often connected two-dimensionally (on one wall) or three-dimensionally (from wall to wall and from room to room), and this layout allowed a nonlinear arrangement of the religious text in accordance with the symbolic architectural layout of the temple (Gundlach 1985).

Possibly the best-known example of cybertext in antiquity is the Chinese text of oracular wisdom, the I Ching (Wilhelm 1989). Also known as the Book of Changes, the existing text is from around the time of the Western Chou dynasty (1122-770 b.c.) and was written by several authors. The I Ching system also inspired G. W. von Leibniz, who developed the binary mathematics used by today’s digital computers (Eber 1979). The I Ching is made up of sixty-four symbols, or hexagrams, which are the binary combinations of six whole or broken (“changing”) lines ( 64 = 2 6 ). A hexagram (such as no. 49, :::: Ko /Revolution) contains a main text and six small ones, one for each line. By manipulating three coins or forty-nine yarrow stalks according to a randomizing principle, the texts of two hexagrams are combined, producing one out of 4,096 possible texts. This contains the answer to a question the user has written down in advance (e.g.; “How much rice should I plant this year?”).

Much simpler examples of nonlinear texts are some of Guillaume Apollinaire’s “calligrammes” from early in this century (Apollinaire 1966). The words of these poems are spread out in several directions to form a picture on the page, with no clear sequence in which to be read. A play from the thirties, Night of january 16th by Ayn Rand (1936), is about a trial where members of the audience are picked to be the jury. The play has two endings, depending on the jury’s verdict. In the early 1960s, Marc Saporta (1962) published Composition No. 1, Roman, a novel with pages like a deck of cards, to be shuffled and read in any sequence. It is written in such a way that any combination will appear fluid. (See also Bolter 1991, 140-42.) A rather well-known example is Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poemes (a hundred thousand billion poems; see Queneau 1961), which is a sonnet machine book of 10 x 14 lines, capable of producing 1014 sonnets. Several novels have been identified as ergodic over the years: B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969), Milorad Pavic’s Landscape Painted With Tea (1990), and many others. The variety and ingenuity of devices used in these texts demonstrate that paper can hold its own against the computer as a technology of ergodic texts:


Indeed, the ur-example of such a transformational metasystem is the I Ching, which evolved from the trigrams and hexagrams developed, according to legend, by Fu Hsi. These were said to have been recorded on bones and tortoise shells and, later, inscribed on bamboo strips. Around 1100 B.c., King Wen and his son the Duke of Chou added explanations, and around the sixth century B.c., Confucius wrote his commentaries (Sherrill and Chu 1989, 3-8). However, Rudolph Ritsema and Stephen Karcher (1994) claim that this traditional version of the I Ching’s origin is a myth “popularized in the Han Dynasty” and that the oldest part of the book is “words, not diagrams and systems … assembled between 1000 and 750 B.C.E.” (12). Like the origin of Adventure, the origin of the I Ching’s is not easy to establish. Even today, the I Ching continues to be transformed, specialized, and extended (note such titles as “I Ching for the Successful Businessman”). These numerous paradigmatic and syntagmatic transformations and translations of the Book of Changes are not to be regarded as perversions or mutations of the text, since in the case of the I Ching it seems doubtful that any specific and original text ever existed. Rather, we should consider the “text” as an unfinished historical process of system transformation, the sum of all evolutionary stages and paraphrases

Paul LaFarge – Why the book’s future never happened

Hard as it is to write novels, hypertexts are harder, because you don’t have the spring-loaded crutch of linearity and “arc” to support your work; the sections have to be readable along multiple paths; they have to be richly related in multiple ways; and they have to keep you reading. It’s a tall order, but it can be done: think of Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” (1962) or Cortázar’s “Hopscotch” (1963), two great non-linear novels that were published before Ted Nelson coined the word “hypermedia.” Or Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” (1759-69), a novel written almost entirely in digressions. Or Jacques Roubaud’s heartbreaking “The Great Fire of London” (1989), a story “with interpolations and bifurcations,” which chronicles Roubaud’s grief at the death of his young wife, and the failure of the “project of his existence” — an unfinished work called “The Great Fire of London.” You need six bookmarks to read it, but you can’t put it down.

From Robert Coover’s A History of the Future of Narrative

The earliest known “literary” experiment on the computer was Christopher Strachey’s 1952 self-mocking love letter generator which created simple grammatical constructions with blanks to be filled in from appropriate implanted lists, using a random number generator as a recombinant text mechanism. It was written for an immediate successor to the first true stored-program computer – the “Manchester Baby” – built in 1948 at the University of Manchester, England, and indeed, then only four years on, an invention still very much in its post-partum infancy. Poets drawn early to this new expressive domain over the decades that followed exploited its transformative, generative, and kinetic potential, while the first novelists to enter into it were fascinated primarily by the computer-specific novelty of hypertext with its linked networks of multidirectional text spaces and labyrinthine trails through mapped narratives. That most of these early experimental hypertext writers were Americans may have had something to do with the native affinity – in a nation that was itself an invention in a time of inventions, a cut-and-paste composite of clashing ethnicities accustomed to ceaseless change and an everexpanding frontier – to spacious exploratory multivoiced narratives with arbitrary beginnings and no clear endings. These early experimental writers in the pre-World Wide Web era worked almost exclusively in text, partly because they were born and raised there and you start with what you know, but largely because the very limited capacities of computers and storage disks in those days dictated it, text being relatively memory-cheap. Their works, which examined the tantalizing new possibility of laying a story out spatially instead of linearly, inviting the reader to explore it as one might explore one’s memory or wander a many-pathed geographical terrain, were published on low-density floppies (CD-ROMs not yet invented) and distributed by snailmail, entering one’s library as a book might. Reading them indeed was much like reading a book, except that they used links through unbound text spaces instead of turning pages, and they could only be read on a computer screen, and for some years only on Macintosh computers. Some electronic journals began to appear around 1990, but for the most part if these first hyperfictions (as they were sometimes called) were reviewed at all, they were reviewed in print, there perceived often as another experiment in the centuries-long history of vanguard fictions that have challenged the constraints and conventions of the book machine.

Excerpt from Howard S. Becker’s A New Art Form: Hypertext Fiction

Beginning in the mid-1980s, a number of people began to create computer based fictions. Most of these authors took advantage of the computer’s possibilities to write what have been called, generically, hypertexts. (The standard work, if we can speak of such a thing for so new a field, is Bolter (1991a, 1991b). See, also, Joyce (1992), Landow (1992), and Rizk (1990).)

 The idea of hypertext fiction is older than the computer, but computer-based implementations of the idea are as new as the personal computer, and have many roots. not just the precomputer attempts I will mention in a moment. It takes more than a new concept to create a new art form so, if we are to understand the development of this new form of literary art, we must explore the development of skills, peer groups, support institutions, and audiences.

 The idea and fact of hypertext are sufficiently unfamiliar to require description and explanation. Let us think of a text as made up of units, each unit consisting of a paragraph, a page, perhaps only a word–the size of a unit is variable and arbitrary. In conventional (what we should now, as will become clear, call “linear”) texts, such as books or articles, each unit is connected to at most two other units, the one that precedes it and the one that follows it, the page, paragraph, or word before and the page, paragraph or word after. A straight line runs through the work from beginning to end (which is why the term “linear” is appropriate). The work’s structure is physical as well as conceptual. Paragraphs and pages stand in a physical relation of before and after which cannot be changed without destroying the work’s physical integrity.

 In hypertext, each unit (now defined as the computer screen’s contents, including what can be viewed by scrolling) may be connected to many other texts, in such a way that the reader may see any one of many possible successors, either by choosing one, say by using a mouse to click on a word on the screen), or by having the author make the choice by creating “paths” to be followed which depend on previous choices the reader has made. The entire work exists physically in the form of code in a storage device such as a hard disk and in the computer’s RAM (random access memory). Each text can, in principle and in fact, have many preceding texts and many texts which follow it. Rearrangements of the text do not entail any physical disruption of the work’s existence. There is no one linear path through the work. The experience of reading such a text is more like consulting a map, or looking at a painting or photograph, than reading a book. Readers can move in many directions, follow the many paths the author has prepared (just as in a painting we follow the paths the artist has composed for our eye), and in some hypertexts may follow paths of their own devising. All this, as with a painting, leaves the work just as it was found.

 We could say that this is merely an extension of older experiments in organizing texts. Footnotes are minimal hypertexts, in which a branch leads from the main text to the note and from the note back to the text. Encyclopedias are typically organized to provide multiple paths from one article to another, the links being indicated by the references at the end of the article (“SEE IMPERADOR JOÃO VI”). Many novelists have experimented with hypertextual forms in physical, print books, e.g. Julio Cortázar in Hopscotch, (1966) with its multiple forking paths, George Perec’s La Vie: Mode de Emploi (Life: A User’s Manual)(1987), which uses the metaphor of a jigsaw puzzle and almost forces the reader into the sort of puzzle-solving activity jigsaws entail, or Milorad Pavic’s’s Dictionary of the Khazars (1989), which takes the form of three parallel encyclopedias deaing with the same historical events. These all push the reader into a meandering, multi-pathed perusal of the text. Indeed, they typically confuse readers who try to read them as continuous linear texts. They all use typographical devices to direct the reader here and there, leaving the physical format of the book just as it has existed for centuries. Given the limitations of the book format, there was no alternative to typographic devices.

 Even considering these earlier experiments, we might equally say that being able to move around the work at the click of a mouse has fundamentally changed the relation of reader and writer, who now collaborate to create the kinds of worlds envisioned in Borges’ “Garden of the Forking Paths” (which some hypertext authors, especially Stuart Moulthrop, cite as a legitimation of their enterprise). Readers, it can be said, now make their own books out of the materials the author has prepared, becoming in a real sense co-authors of the work.  Neither argument is persuasive. Computer-based hypertexts often resemble earlier experiments. But, just as often, they clearly have somewhat different roots. Whether hypertext fiction is “old” or “new” cannot be solved by investigating lineage, but rather by describing the kind of world that exists to support one or the other way of creating fiction. Print-based hypertexts depend on the already existing world of print literature, on its institutions, conventions, and audiences. Computer-based hypertexts, on the other hand, have created a new world of cooperative links: new writing tools, new forms, new marketing arrangements, and new readers. “New” and “old” can should be seen, then, as social constructs to be understood sociologically, rather than as literary facts.

Ted Nelson demonstrates Xanadu Space (And talks about hypertext as a writing concept)



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