Why people might not like hypertext/interactivity

Is the limited appeal of hypertext because most enjoy popular fiction (whether literature or television) as an escape into a linear world. An escape from lives that feel like a hypertext, interactive narrative — an array of bewildering choices, and series of fragments joined together in inexplicable ways. To surrender yourself to someone else’s story, to feel immersed in another world, to suspend disbelief and feel safe in the hands of a skilled narrator. A well told story carries you along …

Which is fine, but that’s not purely an argument against interactive storytelling, as much as it’s an argument against any form of difficult literature. In this sense hypertext interactive works are generally a subset of difficult, avant-garde literature. And that’s how they have been designed. See this

I mean, I think I like hypertext for exactly that reason — it captures the scattered, messy feeling of my life, my own memories, which I am often unable to place in clear linear order or locate causality between different events, or understand my own (or other people’s motivations) for doing things. Especially blurry summers when I was living like the main characters of The Unknown — the structure of the hypertext feels like the chaotic filing system of my own memories. I like to drink wine and read hypertext fiction and sink into that ‘dreamy, gravityless, lost-in-space feeling’ that Robert Coover described hypertexts as having.

I think it’s also that linear, printed narratives have another more specific escapist appeal which is related to the success of the hypertext/the digital revolution more broadly — because computers have revolutionised the way we work/communicate/study, when we turn to a book to escape all that — out eyes are already sore from staring at the blue light/exploring the infinite trove of information on the internet. We want something contained, delimited, linear. This argument is kinda related to what has been referred to as ‘The Bathtub Theory’ ☟

MAYBE SOME PEOPLE JUST WANT SOMETHING THEY CAN TAKE INTO THE BATH – IE THE PHENOMENOLGY/CULTURAL ATTACHMENT TO BOOKS

N. Katherine Hayles – Writing Machines

She tried it out with a group of college teachers from across the country when she was asked to conduct a weekend seminar for Phi Beta Kappa. Many of them made the same mistake she had, missing a lot of the text. Others argue vehemently that this electronic hypertext failed to deliver the immersion in a fictional world that for them was the main reason to read narrative literature. When she pointed out that many print texts, especially postmodern works, also failed to deliver this experience, they fell back on what Mark Bernstein would later call the “bathtub theory of literature,” arguing that if you couldn’t take the text into the bathtub with you, it wasn’t worth reading. She was not entirely unsympathetic, for as noted earlier the tub was one of her favorite reading spots, along with being sprawled across the bed. But Kaye was not ready to concede the point

Hamlet on the Holodeck new edition

page 18

Phenomenology of reading print vs. digital books by Nicole Basaraba

A major reason hypertext fiction has not taken off as one might expect in the digital age is because people are accustomed to and enjoy the phenomenological experience of reading print books. In casual conversation, people often state that they prefer to read print books because of the feel and smell of the book – the phenomenological experience. “Books feel good. They operate well. It turns out that hundreds of years of publishing have field-tested for us the best ways to display text, to compose pages,” (Kostick, 2011, p. 136). Publishers have mastered the print format and now they need to find the best design for the new digital medium.

The way we read is changing with the increased exposure to digital texts and Mangen (2008) explains this shift in phenomenological experience:

“When reading digital texts, our haptic interaction with the text is experienced as taking place at an indeterminate distance from the actual text, whereas when reading print text we are physically and phenomenologically (and literally) in touch with the material substrate of the text itself” (p. 405).

Therefore, the intangibility of digital text changes they way we experience reading. Mangen (2008) notes that when we read a printed book, the text is fixed in place and does not provide any options for switching our attention like a digital hypertext book provides. The act of clicking impacts the phenomenological immersion in narrative fiction and it results in impatience often experienced when surfing the Internet (Mangen, 2008).

It becomes pertinent for hypertext fiction to capture the readers’ attention so that they do not become impatient and click away. “If we take the main purpose and motivation for our reading to be that of becoming immersed in a fictional world, then the text will have to provide the necessary setting for such a phenomenological sense of presence – by way of whatever modality telling the story” (Mangen, 2008, p. 407). In other words, the method of telling the story becomes a key factor in determining the potential success of future hypertext fiction novels. Kostik (2011) pinpoints the issue of the reader’s phenomenological transfer from print to digital: “most readers want to transfer their established reading habits to the new technology; it is up to us to apply what we learn about the reading experience to the new technology of e-readers” (p. 136). We have yet to discover the best way to give readers an equally pleasant phenomenological experience with e-books.

cognitive information processing limitations

See Why don’t we read hypertext novels? by  Anne Mangen, Adriaan van der Weel.

Abstract: Ever since their appearance in the early 1990s, hypertext novels were presented as the pinnacle of digital aesthetics and claimed to represent the revolutionary future of literature. However, as a literary phenomenon, hypertext novels have remained marginal. The article presents some scientifically derived explanations as to why hypertext novels do not have a mass audience and why they are likely to remain a marginal contribution in the history of literature. Three explanatory frameworks are provided: (1) how hypertext relates to our cognitive information processing in general; (2) the empirically derived psychological reasons for how we read and enjoy literature in particular; and (3) the likely evolutionary origins of such a predilection for storytelling and literature. It is shown how hypertext theory, by ignoring such knowledge, has yielded misguided statements and uncorroborated claims guided by ideology rather than by scientifically supported knowledge.

I asked some digital media academics what they thought about that argument.

  • Rita Raley replied: Do we really know though how the brain processes literature, much less hypertextual forms of it, if we can even agree on what that category would include? One thing I never understood about the notorious fMRI studies of reading Jane Austen—and, truly, cognitive science is well outside my area of expertise—is what particular purchase literary language has on cognitive function. But the widespread popularity of complex game and serial narratives alone makes me skeptical about the argument for cognitive limitations as a barrier to the enjoyment of hypertext novels. If one wanted to go in this direction it would be more productive I think to make it a question about attention rather than capacity. Attentional resources are scarce and selectively distributed, as has been frequently noted, and I don’t think the problem of ‘not reading hypertext’ can be considered apart from ‘not reading.’ 
  • James O’Sullivan said: I couldn’t read this paper because it’s behind a paywall, but the abstract tells me everything I need to know: “It is shown how hypertext theory, by ignoring such knowledge, has yielded misguided statements and uncorroborated claims guided by ideology rather than by scientifically supported knowledge.” I don’t want to live in a world where art, literature and many of the theories concerned aren’t driven by ideology.
  • Alice Bell – The kinds of hypertexts that are referred to in the article are the hypertext fictions created in Storyspace in the 1990s. These fictions had to be purchased on CD-ROM and read from a desktop computer. Like most forms of experimental writing, they had a relatively small audience. I don’t think this diminishes their cultural or technological importance. They were extremely innovative at the time – using hypertext when hardly anyone had regular access to the web and thus had relatively little knowledge or experience of hypertext. Storyspace authors used hypertext to create multi-linear narratives which sometimes contained contradictory narratives. They were therefore quite challenging to read. James Pope has made similar observations in his empirical work. In terms of the argument the article makes about the lack of empirical research around hypertext fiction, I agree that this has been lacking (with some exceptions including Pope’s excellent work). In my work, I’ve categorised scholarship around electronic literature/digital fiction according to three ‘waves’ (see Bell et al 2017). The ‘first wave’ of hypertext theory used poststructuralist textual models as a means of conceptualising hypertext fiction and also situated digital fiction readers in a binary relationship with their print counterparts. A ‘second wave’ of research produced various methodological approaches to digital fiction and associated narratological, stylistic and semiotic analysis of individual works. A recent ‘third-wave’ of research builds on the second-wave and which compares, contrasts, and/or synthesises narratological theories and stylistic analyses of works with data obtained from reader response research. So, this is empirical research. This is a relatively new but important area to which I’ve contributed and hopefully the field speaks to the concerns that are raised in the Mangen and ven der Weel article.

Excerpt from Astrid Ensslin’s Literary Gaming

The experience of reading literary hypertext has often been described negatively in terms of “cognitive overhead,” “serendipity,” or being “lost in hyperspace” (Conklin 1987; Kuhlen 1991), or, more positively, in terms of “uncertainty, anticipation and curiosity” (Cuddon 1999, 883). Leaving aside any value judgments that tend to accompany both positions, the confusion and bewilderment resulting from hypertextual nonclosure and nonlinearity can be considered a generic feature of this type of writing. Feelings of ilinx are therefore ingrained in the medium itself and form part of readers’ expectations when embarking on a reading “session” (Rosenberg 1996). That said, some literary hypertexts set out to evoke particularly strong feelings of ilinx by adding to the formal structure specific semantic elements that further augment readerly confusion and bemusement. A prime example of this double ilinx is Richard Holeton’s surrealist Storyspace hypernovel Figurski at Findhorn on Acid (2001).

  • Also see Immersion, digital fiction, and the switchboard metaphor by Astrid Ensslin, Alice Bell, Jen Smith. Abstract: This paper re-evaluates existing theories of immersion and related concepts in the medium-specific context ofdigital-born fiction. In the context of our AHRC-funded ‘Reading Digital Fiction’ project (2014-17) (Ref: AH/K004174/1), we carried out an empirical reader response study of One to One Development Trust’s immersive three-dimensional (3D) digital fiction installation, WALLPAPER(2015). Working with reading groups in the Sheffield area (UK), we used methods of discourse analysis to examine readers’ verbal responses to experiencing the installation, paying particular attention to how participants described experiences pertaining to different types of immersion explicitly and implicitly. We explain our findings by proposing the idea of a switchboard metaphor for immersive experiences, comprising layers and dynamic elements of convergence and divergence. Resulting from our analysis, we describe immersion as a complex, hybrid, and dynamic phenomenon. We flag the need for a more discriminating treatment of specific types of immersion in medium-specific contexts, including a distinction between literary and narrative immersion, and collaborative and social immersion (Thon 2008). We argue that literary immersion is needed as a separate immersive category because it differs from narrative immersion, and is far more linked to the activity of cognitive word processing. Similarly, we introduce collaborative immersion as an additional immersive category to reflect attention shifts towards site-specific, human interactions. Finally, our data shows the importance of site-, situation-, and person-specific constraints influencing reader-players’ ongoing ability to establish and retain immersion in the storyworld.
  • Also see Alice Bell, Astrid Ensslin, Isabelle van der Bom & Jen Smith – Immersion in Digital Fiction A Cognitive, Empirical Approach. Abstract: In this article, we profile what we define as an “empirical cognitive poetic” approach to immersion in digital fiction by combining text-driven stylistic analysis with insights from theories of cognition and an empirical study. We provide empirically substantiated insights to show how immersion is experienced cognitively and site specifically by using Andy Campbell and Judi Alston’s (2015) digital fiction installation WALLPAPER as a case study.

-. — .– / -.– — ..- .—-. .-. . / .-. . .- .-.. .-.. -.– / –. . – – .. -. –. / .. -. – — / – …. . / – …. .. -.-. -.- . –

See Reading Digital Fiction which aims to investigate digital fiction reading using cognitive and empirical approaches.

A Future for Hypertext Fiction- James Pope

My experience as a teacher and researcher of interactive narrative at Bournemouth
University since 1999 has convinced me that hypertext fiction could be as stimulating, engaging and enjoyable as fiction in print, but also that many extant examples present significant problems which hamper reading pleasure. That position is supported by the literature, even among those who are hypertext advocates (Bolter, 2001; Douglas, 2000; Kendall and Réty, 2000; Landow, 1997; Murray 1997a, 1997b).

In classes on non-linear and new media narrative, my undergraduate and Masters students are asked to explore narrative possibilities in a range of media, including interactive forms such as games and hypertext. They have also been tasked with creating their own, original hypertext fiction, sometimes as adaptations of existing non-interactive stories. Data collected informally through these classes have highlighted many of the pleasures, and problems, of hypertext. For example, my students have enjoyed the many variations of interface, the range of multimedia elements possible, and the freedom to interact with a new kind of narrative. But unsatisfying hyper-linking, seemingly random plot structures, and apparent lack of closure, problems which are also complained about in the literature (Birkerts, 1997; Miall, 1998, 1999; Miller, 1998), have unsettled these otherwise keen readers. In addition, the perceived success or failure of the interface to facilitate navigation and deliver the story has emerged as a highly influential factor in reading enjoyment; this aspect is not at all well covered in the literature.

  • Gee (2001: 5) argues that ‘while hypertext narrative is allowed to challenge the concepts of linear reading and definite endings, it should not challenge traditional document design values if it is to be accepted by readers’. However, when we look at examples of hypertext fiction currently available, we see not only a challenge to traditional document design, but also often a disregard of digital document design conventions. ‘Essential’ interface elements such as back-buttons, menus, maps, hierarchies, and visual signposting (Nielsen, 1990; Studio 7.5, 2002) are not apparent, or if they are, they are visually obscure, inconsistent, or overcomplicated.
  • A comment made by every participant in my study to date was that they very quickly lose orientation, both in the story and in the ‘book’/site, and even though many are quite happy to explore a hypertext, they all still want to know where they are. This disorientation is the result of too much linking potential (Landow, 1997), poorly structured linking (Kendall, 1999), and poorly designed interfaces (Nielsen, 1990), resulting in a reader becoming ‘lost in space’, as Conklin (1987: 38) puts it. Holland (1975: 14) notes that ‘all readers need to “make sense” of a text to some extent. Otherwise they complain of obscurity and express varying degrees of discomfort and anxiety’. Given all the expectations readers will bring for cause and effect relationships, character development, excitement, anticipation, and meaningful conclusion, narrative disorientation could seriously threaten or even destroy the reading experience altogether. As Douglas admits: with all the choice offered and demanded by the interface, the reader risks ‘being overwhelmed by cognitive overload – and of finding the narrative largely incomprehensible’ (2000: 140). … The reader expects each new segment of text to add purposefully to what has already been read: this reminds us of Brooks’ theories of narrative desire and the innate need to feel that narrative makes sense out of disorder (Brooks, 1984). Understanding that, Kendall and Réty say ‘hypertext readers generally stop reading when they feel that their knowledge of the work is no longer growing significantly’ (Kendall and Réty, 2000: 167).

In Paul LaFarge’s article for Salon, Why the book’s future never happened he makes a few arguments:

Bad interfaces: if you read those fictions now … they seem difficult and problematic and not encouraging of successors. For one thing, the interfaces are terrible. Michael Joyce’s “Afternoon, A Story” (1988) offers the reader short passages of monospaced text, in which some words lead to other passages, and some words don’t, and the only way to find out which words are which is to click on every word in a passage, one by one. It’s interesting in a John-Cage-like, if-it’s-boring-for-two-hours-do-it-for-four kind of way, but the appeal of endless clicking was perhaps greater in 1988 than it is now, when we click plenty at the office, thank you. (Also related to the argument that print is now an escape from the digital media saturation of our lives more generally.)

Not enough coherence/meaning – “Victory Garden” refers several times to Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Garden of Forking Paths,” but the spy-versus-spy intrigue that lures the reader into Borges’ dangerous garden (which, by the way, is not a hypertext: its forking paths are, like so many of Borges’ creations, only gestured at) is absent here. In its place we get snippets of description, snatches of quotation, academic conversations, and, in flashes, the first Gulf War, which is supposed to make us feel that the world has fundamentally changed, but somehow doesn’t. True, the hypertext offers you the puzzle-solving pleasure of making sense of the story, arranging the pieces in your head to see the whole mosaic, but why would you do that, if the pieces don’t suggest a picture you care to see? Not every puzzle has an interesting solution.

Not-good-enough writers – This is not a flaw in the medium, though; it’s a failure of craft. With two exceptions (Shelley Jackson and Geoff Ryman, whose hypertexts “Patchwork Girl” and “253,” respectively, may be the first classics of the genre, both for the quality of their prose and because they found ways to make their fragmentary forms feel purposeful), the early hypertextualists just weren’t good enough writers to carry off such a difficult form.

Alice Bell – The Possible Worlds of Hypertext Fiction

Yet while hypertext theorists often perceive a high level of reader omnipotence in all hypertext manifestations, hypertext fiction novels often invert many of the attributes found within an informational hypertext. In an informational hypertext, clarity is often desirable, but in a literary text this is not always so. In an informational hypertext, the link is more often than not suggestive of what the reader will find at the destination. However, in a hypertext novel, words used as hyperlinks are often not indicative of the destination nodes to which they lead, so that any semantic associations are usually made, not in anticipation of the destination lexia, but in retrospect. Moreover, hyperlink words are sometimes hidden in hypertext novels – afternoon, for example, has no visible links so that readers must experimentally click within each lexia. In this case, the text inhibits rather than empowers them in their role as link chooser.

Analysing four different reading experiences in afternoon, for example, Douglas (1994) documents an approach in which she continues to read the text until a path is found that satisfies her own personal curiosity. The exploration of the text is based on what Douglas perceives as the reader’s desire to find closure in a hypertext fiction. ‘Our sense of closure’, she concludes ‘is satisfied when we
manage to resolve narrative tensions and to minimize ambiguities, to explain puzzles, and to incorporate as many of the narrative elements as possible into a coherent pattern’ (185). Douglas anticipates that readers will seek a definitive ending and one which represents ‘the most plausible conclusion to the narrative’s network of mysteries and tensions’ (170).

Ryan suggests that a hypertext behaves more like a game, which ‘emphasizes the active participation of the reader’ (143). In Ryan’s analogy, the ‘reader is not allowed to lose sight of the materiality of the language and of the textual origin of the referents’ (142) because the hypertext structure continually reminds her or him that the text constructs an artificial domain. Thus readers’ immersive experience in the fictional world is disrupted by the active role they are required to play.

Similarly, in her most recent study, Ryan (2006) suggests that certain types of text seem to anticipate if not enforce a particular type of narrative. In particular, she suggests that hypertext is ‘better suited for self-referential fiction than for textual worlds that hold us under their spell for the sake of what happens’ (109). The reader, she argues, is inevitably held back from the narrative because the hypertext’s ‘external/exploratory interactivity … promotes a metafictional stance, at the expense of immersion in the virtual world’ (109). In each investigation, Ryan identifies an almost inevitable partnership between the hypertext form and alienation from the fictional worlds they describe.

The Contingencies of the Hypertext Link – Terry Harpold

So, “navigation.” The word, or words related to it, are so common in writing on the subject of these unruly documents that they come easily, almost transparently, in discussion of nearly all aspects of design, implementation and cognition. I say “almost transparently” because the language of hypertext travel (reading as voyage, excursus as excursion) is invariably used in a cautionary, negative sense: the central difficulty in writing and reading a hypertext is that navigation is … difficult. You have to get from one place to another. There is territory to be covered in between, and danger of losing yourself along the way. The freedom of movement in a hypertext brings with it an excess of narrative possibilities, some of which may lead you away from your original destination. The destination may shift dynamically, as other routes, other ports of call, appear on your itinerary. As the density of the textual fabric increases and the paths traversing the document grow more numerous, so does the potential for misdirection. You might not get to where you were going.

…. …. …. …. ….

SNYDER – HYPERTEXT: THE ELECTRONIC LABYRINTH

WHILE THESE TRAVEL METAPHORS IMPLY IMPLY AN ACTIVE READER NAVIGATING THROUGH PATHWAYS, THERE IS ALSO THE POSSIBILITY OF THE OPPOSITE EFFECT:

A major problem facing future creators of hypertextual fictions is that the narrative runs the risk of becoming “slackly driven so as to loose force of attraction, giving way to a kind of static low-charged lyricism, that dreamy, gravityless, lost-in-space feeling” (Coover, as cited in Landow, 1992, p. 118).

AND ALSO 👇 (From Hamlet on the Holodeck)

‘The postmodern hypertext tradition celebrates the indeterminate text as a liberation from the tyranny of the author and an affirmation of the reader’s freedom of interpretation. But the navigational software designed specifically for this purpose and celebrated by many proponents of literary hypertext is anything but empowering to the reader, even in comparison to the earliest Web browsers. For instance, it offers the navigating reader no way to mark links as having been
already taken, and no way to mark a lexia so it can be easily jumped back to.
Many of the stories written in this framework do not even mark which words are
hot links within the lexia text. Instead, the reader has to click on a pop-up
display of cryptic link names. Moulthrop’s own Victory Garden, which is perhaps
the most coherently structured literary hypertext, contains a clever overview map
of the major story clusters, which are arranged like a Borgesian garden labyrinth.
But readers cannot easily return to the overview in order to get a sense of where
they are or how much is left to read. In trying to create texts that do not
“privilege” any one order of reading or interpretive framework, the
postmodernists are privileging confusion itself. The indeterminate structure of
these hypertexts frustrates our desire for narrational agency, for using the act of
navigation to unfold a story that flows from our own meaningful choices.

George Landow on the problem of disorientation

 

J. Yellowlees Douglas – The End of Books–Or Books Without End: Reading Interactive Narratives

For all that, the book that changes every time you read
it, responding to your moods, your whims, your latest fetish is, perhaps
tellingly, a fantasy that has never been explored in print—unless, of course,
you count the nightmarish,

endless book in Borges’s short story “The Book of Sand,” which so curses its owner with weeks of sleeplessness as he tries to chart its limits that he ‹nally slips it into the bowels of the Argentine National Library—presumably the same collection of tomes over which Borges himself presided during his term as the library’s director.8

“[S]urrender . . . and the intimacy to be had in
allowing a beloved

author’s voice into the sanctums of our minds, are what
the common

reader craves,” writes Laura Miller.1 Sven
Birkerts sounds a similar

note of surrender in The Gutenberg Elegies: “This ‘domination by the

author’ has been, at least until now, the point of
writing and reading.

The author masters the resources of language to create a
vision that

will engage and in some way overpower the reader; the
reader goes to

work to be subjected to the
creative will of another.”2

AND LATER 

Horizontal motivation also makes plots more interesting because it

invokes our tendency to perceive events in terms of causation, as mentioned in chapter 3,

which may well account for one of the primary reasons we read for pleasure. If narrative, as Bruner has suggested, is about “the vicissitudes of intention,”6 it is also, as historian Hayden White argues, about seeing events “display the coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure . . . that [in life] can only be imaginary.”7

As we saw in chapter 1, readers enjoy the trancelike spell,

immersiveness, and ability to screen out the buzzing world around them

that are the hallmarks of ludic reading only when they are reading books that are undemanding, immersiveness existing in inverse proportion to

the complexity of the characters and prose.

 Hamlet on the Holoeck (New Edition)

The postmodern hypertext tradition celebrates the indeterminate text as a liberation from the tyranny of the author and an affirmation of the reader’s freedom of interpretation. But the navigational software designed specifically for this purpose and celebrated by many proponents of literary hypertext is anything but empowering to the reader, even in comparison to the earliest Web browsers.3 For instance, it offers the navigating reader no way to mark links as having been already taken, and no way to mark a lexia so it can be easily jumped back to. Many of the stories written in this framework do not even mark which words are hot links within the lexia text. Instead, the reader has to click on a pop-up display of cryptic link names. Moulthrop’s own Victory Garden, which is perhaps the most coherently structured literary hypertext, contains a clever overview map of the major story clusters, which are arranged like a Borgesian garden labyrinth. But readers cannot easily return to the overview in order to get a sense of where they are or how much is left to read. In trying to create texts that do not “privilege” any one order of reading or interpretive framework, the postmodernists are privileging confusion itself. The indeterminate structure of these hypertexts frustrates our desire for narrational agency, for using the act of navigation to unfold a story that flows from our own meaningful choices.

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