March, 1996

Is Hypertext Really Good for Anything?

By Alison Stuebe
When push comes to shove, is hypertext really good for anything? Sure, if you're looking for game results, it's handy to be able to go from ESPNnet's scores to the game story to the box score--but how often does hypertext contribute to telling a story, rather than simply giving you more information? As a senior editor at Time/Warner put it, "We have yet to cry in front of a computer screen in anything other than frustration."

One of the initial hazards for hypertext neophytes is the overwhelming temptation to link. The 'net offers at least one vaguely germane site on every topic in human discourse--but what user can begin to absorb a thought if every word is an off-site link? Compounded with the slow-motion crawl of so many modems downloading a tangentially-related graphics-intensive image map based in Australia, hypertext tends to derail any coherent train of thought.

But the problem is broader than newbie over-linking. When Hypertext was first conceived a half-century ago by Vannevar Bush, a scientific visionary, he proposed a personal file cabinet with links from one document to another. An individual would assemble manuscripts and images, and then link them to one another along an associative trail, much the way our own memories connect faces and experiences. That coat hangers remind my of a high school debate-tournament prank makes perfect sense to me; to you, such a link would be meaningless.

When Bush wrote, computers could barely calculate missile trajectories, and a global network was inconceivable, but his vision holds lessens for modern hypertext. When I explore a densely-linked web page, I am delving into the author's mind and following her associative trails. I may expect a link from "Pat Buchanan" to go to his campaign web site; she may send me to NARAL or to Operation Rescue. By contrast, a Vannevar Bush approach to hypertext would provide me with a document that I would enhance with links to my own interests, and then, perhaps coded in a different color, I could follow the author's connections as well. But rather than following, I would shape the associative trail, just as I process an idea in my mind within the context of my own thoughts--not someone else's.

So what becomes of the scattered hypertext offered by so many web sites? Should we strip out all the href's and let readers build their own?

No, and yes. Without links, the web would wither to nothing, but good web sites provide context for their links. CyberTimes, the New York Times' exclusive-to-the-web technology area, offers an interesting approach (which I've shamelessly copied here). Links within the text of a story jump to a list of off-site resources at the bottom of the page, so readers will know where they are going--and rest assured that they won't miss anything if they read the full text of the story. Tripod takes another approach, listing off-site links in a table-supported "side bar" to some of their stories. These approaches simulate the time-honored print concept of "browsing," glancing over an article and then noticing something else of interest, or scanning the graphics and the pictures but skipping the story. For all its interactivity and user-control, an unidentified link in the midst of a story is perhaps the most author-controlled environment possible--"You don't know where you're going, and I'm not telling you. Just click here. Trust me."

An annotated framework may be useful for an informational narrative--but what happens to fiction in a hypertext environment? Though I have little experience with hyper-novels, I question whether foreseeable technologies will ever create a "choose your own adventure" hyperbook that can compete with 500 author-controlled pages of Crime and Punishment. I have watched my younger brother disappear for hours into games that tell a story, a story that his actions inform and create. But can literary narrative exist in the absence of a narrator?

Certainly, stories have been told interactively for eons--from the earliest story-tellers answering questions to modern improvisational theater. But such "technologies," if they are technical, rely on human minds creating and embellishing. Combinatorial mathematics guarantee that a hyper-author could never anticipate every possible turn his readers might pursue--and so the hyper-novel becomes an exercise in the frustrations of calling an automated telephone help line. Explore 10 menus and 17 additional options, and then, despairing, dial 0 for a human voice. But the hypernovel offers no "human voice," doomed, it seems, to pre-structured "choices" among threads of a narrative, a souped up-version of the Apple II+ "Cranston Manor" adventure game I grew bored with when I was 10.

In the end, I fear, the hypernarrative faces more challenges than even the most ambitious virtual reality efforts. For while a full-body VR experience can rely on computer-generated gradients of temperature and equation-created graphics and sound, a no conceivable computer can write great literature in response to user decisions. And if technology could author literature, would reading an IBM mainframe's conception of a love story match Jane Eyre or Shakespeare? Doesn't human authorship form part of the appeal of fiction?

In his book, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, book critic Sven Birkerts makes an impassioned case for reading, on paper, in linear form.

... The effect of the hypertext environment, the ever-present awareness of possibility and the need to either make or refuse choice, was to preempt my creating any meditative space for myself. When I read I do not just obediently move the eyes back and forth, ingesting verbal signals, I also sink myself into receptivity. But sitting at my friend's terminal I experienced constant interruption--the reading surface was fractured, rendered collagelike by the appearance of starred keywords and suddenly materialized menu boxes. I did not feel the exhilarating freedom I had hoped to feel. I felt, rather, an assault upon what I had unreflectingly assumed to be my reader's prerogatives. (162)

As an aspiring new-media journalist, I am part of the assault on the traditional relationship between reader and writer. In the flurry to get on the web, merge onto the information highway and explore the potential of multimedia, newspapers and magazines have grappled with plenty of issues dealing with copyright, business models and system administration--but too few conversations deal with what it means to tell a story in non-linear form. And until that question is answered, I'm not sure what hypertext is good for.

  • The text of As We May Think,Vannevar Bush's original proposal on hypertext describes a personal database, rather than a vast, decentralized network.

  • CyberTimes, part of The New York Times' web site, offers one model for links "in context" by listing off-site material at the bottom of a page.

  • Tripod uses table-driven "side bars" to suggest other interesting material on the web.

  • Sven Birkerts, "The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age." New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1995.

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