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Write Me Disconnectedly: Assembling Hypertexts

In his vision of a grand, intended masterwork yet undone, Ted Nelson is reminiscent of Walter Benjamin.
Mike Mosher

Issue #44, June 1999

No hypertext has yet grabbed the public imagination and demonstrated the possibilities of the medium the way the work of Robert Crumb, and then Art Spiegelman, did for the contemporary comic book. Few have even really met the task that Russian formalist critic Shklovsky demanded of novelists, the creation of a moment of absorbing unfamiliarity or "making it strange." The sterile and academic affectlessness of most creative hypertexts, including those published by Eastgate, is lamentable. There are branches and places to click in these texts, but not characters whom we grow to care about over the course of the work's unfolding. Yet the potential is still there for hypertext to richly express the complexities of contemporary life, both public and private.

Hip Hyper Predecessors

A great burst of interest in hypertext appeared after Apple Computer's 1987 introduction of the hypermedia-builder, HyperCard. One of the first "stacks" (HyperCard documents), created shortly after its introduction to the Stanford Macintosh Users Group (SMUG), was a catalog of resources for people with AIDS. Apple published a journal of educational stacks produced by professors, schoolteachers and students around the country, called Bicycles for the Mind. When Apple produced the PowerBook notebook computer in 1991, Voyager Inc. published "Expanded Books" of some hypermediated classics upon disk for it. Yet at the HyperTEXT'87 conference Jef Raskin, originator of Apple's project to build the Macintosh, perceptively and pessimistically noted that since a Mac was required to run HyperCard it was essentially doomed to be "yuppie-text."

The basic concept of hypertext -- nonsequential onscreen writing -- was articulated almost forty years ago by Ted Nelson. This artist-scientist-theorist's personal aesthetic falls between that of a consummate Hollywood auteur and that of an inward, dissembling critic. Nelson first considered himself a filmmaker but soon realized the computer offered information processing structures that gave form to his wide-ranging interests and intellect. He called his proposed online publishing system Xanadu after the fabled land in Coleridge's poem.

Some central tenets of the Xanadu vision are accessibility to documents and hypermedia links between them; micropayments gathered and sent to the author for their use and quotation; and multiple versions of a piece residing online with "zippered lists" of correspondences between them. Those who have been around Ted Nelson for even a few minutes become aware that his vision of hypermedia is that of a prosthetic, an apparatus to extend and compensate for limitations he perceives in his own life. He clicks on a tape recorder, so that both the conversationalist and Ted's own digressive epiphanies are nailed down for future reference. Legend has it that Ted has filled numerous storage lockers with books, papers and other media, referenced and cross-referenced yet largely inaccessible. For there is so much interesting in life, so much that needs to be studied and worked with, so many things whose significances are deeply "intertwingled," to use Nelson's coinage, that every means must be utilized.

ted nelson The relation of an inventor's personal traits to conceptualizing the invention is relevant here. Perhaps people who perceive the world more simply would have seen no need for linked, branching writing. In Hypertext: The Convergence of Critical Theory and Technology, George P. Landow calls Nelson "poststructuralist" for recognizing the similarity of hypertext to postmodern literary tendencies of de-centeredness, multivocality and intertextuality. Although a sneering 1995 WiReD article painted him as an eccentric who failed to complete any coding, in 1998 Nelson designed ZigZag, an operating system that could conceivably serve as the root of the entire Xanadu project. His polemical, digressive books, Computer Lib/Dream Machines and Literary Machines, have had significant impact upon computer hardware, software, networking developers and theorists in the last quarter century.

In his vision of a grand, intended masterwork yet undone, Ted Nelson is reminiscent of Walter Benjamin. In his 1928 assemblage of urban notes and aphorisms entitled One-Way Street, Benjamin predicted impending development of a language of picture-writing, read vertically. This innovation would come at the end of a long historical process that began with text written on incised in tablets that lay flat. In later eras, text began to rise from the horizontal with the manuscripts upon medieval monks' sloping desks, continuing an ascent to the printed book, then newspapers, film and advertisements. Three-dimensionality was added with the invention of the card-index filing system, eventually to leap towards his predicted "international moving script." Benjamin's contemporary, the American scientist Vannevar Bush, electrified the file-card metaphor (probably with no knowlege of Benjamin) in a 1947 article in the Atlantic Monthly. He proposed what he called the Memex, a desktop system upon which the world's knowlege could be called up with the flick of a switch and typing fingers upon a keyboard. Bush's essay is hailed by Ted Nelson, among others, as the dawning of hypertext.

The experience of wandering through interactive narrative can be compared with Benjamin's model, drawn from studies of nineteenth century Paris, of the flaneur, a spectator on foot losing himself in the twists and turns of the unknown and essentially unknowable modern city, seeking to get lost in its streets and find significance there. This image has inspired producers of hypertexts to see themselves as carrying on Benjamin's venerable literary and philosophical traditions. Benjamin is also of interest to the hyperauthor for the trail of fragments he left. His short, dense and pithy essays, like "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," can be unpacked, read closely, deciphered and discussed, revealing surprising meanings upon seemingly endless readings. His "Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century" is both the proposal and the prologue for a grand "Arcades" project for which he left voluminous notes and literary sketches.

Fragments left lying around are not a bad thing for the hypermediaste, for this is a medium that favors the magpie, pulling together the detritus of life and thought into the structural integrity of a creative nest. Literary fragments lie strewn about like junked cars on a hillbilly's lawn, needing only linkages. As important as his embodiment of the lifelong wandering flaneur, Benjamin represents the tendency toward beginnings, leaving many fragmentary, unfinished and unfinishable works of art and thought. Life constantly presents as many temptations as did the glassy gallerias of bourgeois Paris, glittering items and activities to distract the passerby from the world of work. Benjamin as an exemplar of intellectual life is often as attractive to artists as his ideas and words. He was celebrated as a brilliant melancholic hero by Susan Sontag in her 1978 essay "Under the Sign of Saturn." Like Ted Nelson, Benjamin seems to have been a distracted intellectual suffering (or enjoying) that slight but visionary madness where everything connects, everything is significant and worth archiving.

benjamin If one defines hypertext as linked, nonsequential writing with graphic, animated or audio elements, the computer industry (led by Apple in the late 1980s) first defined multimedia as "movies on computers." Video segments were rushed into "shovelware" -- content re-purposed from other media -- with little regard for their impact upon the viewer's experience. The totality of interactive arts (hypermedia and multimedia) can be said to be pulled between twin poles, between tendencies embodied in its twin gods, Walter Benjamin and Richard Wagner. Benjamin embodies the private, quiet literary side, digging deep into cities rather than declaiming on mountaintops, the side of linked associations and hidden meanings. The work of Wagner (whom Benjamin detested), the other pole of multimedia, is carried on in some of multimedia's grandiose, theatrical, immersive tendencies. This Wagnerian aspect is loud, bombastic, and richly colored; it is a synaesthetic spectator-sport of sonorous text, orchestral music, elegant set design and collective assembly of an audience sharing the experience over fixed blocks of time. The narrative is entirely in the maestro's control. Wagner made it into huge, all-inclusive "musical drama," intended as a congress and culmination of all the Arts. Painting was marshalled into the service of the architecture of set design and theatrical experience. Text unfurled in tandem with music, and musical and literary motifs served as recognizable milestones that gave structure to the narrative.

In the 1990s digital media attempted to replicate virtual Wagnerian experience, from pitiful video segments and animation delivered on lumbering CD-ROMs, to games played under headmounts where holophonically processed sound and virtual audio are integral to the experience, augmented by hydraulic chairs. Grand Wagnerian concepts and their realization drive cybernetic performers like George Coates' Performance Works (housed in a chapel inside a skyscraper in San Francisco), the Emergency Broadcast Network, and the multimedia performances of most big name rock bands since U2's "Zoo TV" Tour.

Writing Visuals, Visualizing Writing

Hypertext is a fertile medium for those with too much to say in a single essay or image. An author may begin with building themes, gathering motifs, and adding notes on topics worthy of mention in the text. One can proceed from a concept, some scattered images, textual fragments, and grow the hypertext from any point. Like a book, a clear and simple interface keeps users focused upon the content. Visuals can be inserted that relate, or may create a creative distance, between image and text. This stretches the viewer to comprehend and draw a conceptual connnection.

Hypermedia is a rapid reading experience of image, caption, and choice of navigation. In designing hypertexts, the chunks of narrative text are at times a single idea on a page worth recounting or teaching, a unique discovery or rediscovery. Each answers the question "What's the big idea?" This is a narrative form friendly to aphorists, thinking in terse, dense chunks in the tradition of Chamfort, Wilde, Cioran, or signage artist Jenny Holzer. A single idea upon a screen is often quite enough, packaged with a single image.

spider My own hypertexts have been works where visuals are given nearly equal weight as words, the same onscreen real estate. The pictorial element on the screen accompanying the text may be an illustration with a direct visual correspondence, or can be a graphic which forces the viewer to make a conceptual leap. Usually simplified, it is to be read in glance to transmit the gestalt -- word plus image (again, like the comics). I favor hand drawing, scanned in, with perhaps simple color added. Captions to unusual images were the first texts I learned to read as a young child, and perhaps I try to recreate that delight. Economy is a virtue in such "emblematic" design; it's logical that Walter Benjamin was a connoisseur of 17th century emblems often used in the publication of German plays.

In visual writing, an image can be programmed to act as an icon button, where action upon it takes the viewer elsewhere in the text or brings up a different image. Links behave like analogies: this is like this. By being called up in user-dictated sequence, unseen information or imagery becomes contextualized in relationships: suddenly adjacent beads share the same thread. These are the links, the conceptual leaps, where this proceeds to that. Fine art hypertexts should operate essentially like poetry, alarming in their elegant and thought-provoking juxtapositions of elements. There may well be multiple branches from a single previous anchor on the screen. Most of the time there is little need for the primitive little video segments onscreen that characterize much shovelware multimedia circa 1992-95.

The multimedia industry of the early 1990s was clearly more market-driven than thoughtful, involving too many people who thought all media should endeavor towards television. Video (or non-ambient audio, another time-based medium) is passive. It interrupts the user's pace and demands spectatorship: I sit and pay attention for as long as you dictate. Even in Colette Gaiter's superb multimedia work about the 1960s "S P A C E|R A C E," when historic videos appear on screen the playful mood previously established with linked texts, well-designed animation and participatory games suddenly feels Can a 3D virtual real-time environment, where motion and spatial orientation are paramount, be read as a text? As one example of this possibility, projections of architecturally-scaled textual narrative raced by as visitors pedalled a stationery bike in Jeffrey Shaw's 1988 art installation "The Visible City" at the ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany.

In hypermedia, authors can collaborate with computer engineers to extend the range of expressive possibilities. I cobbled together "Hucklefine" (1990), an updating of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, with single-paragraph chapters borrowing motifs from the original book that appeared to the reader in random order. But Apple Computer co-worker Mike Larkin offered HyperTalk code that would make its randomness more robust and interesting by also randomizing the illustrations. In 1998 I designed "PosadaSpace" for José Guadalupe Posada's cartoon skeletons that illustrated events of the Mexican Revolution, with Tim McFadden, a VRML (virtual reality modeling language) and JavaScript programmer. When artists have friendly, interested engineers around with whom to work, it's a learning experience beneficial to both.

Click for Politics

Stuart Moulthrop's "Victory Garden" was a 1991 hypernovella based on the Gulf War, but there have been few significant and memorable hypertexts with content rooted in politics. A dearth of subject matter that deserves this medium is clearly not the problem. Political ramifications spring from the aesthetic arguments of artistic control versus choice and maximum interactivity, the reason George Landow calls Ted Nelson's vision of Xanadu "the embodiment of the sixties New Left thought." Art usually succeeds by enclosure, by excluding the rest of the world. Politics, in all senses of the word, is about making connections. Within existing systems, it can be about personalizing power, meeting the players, connecting with legislators and funders. Yet on the outside, or at the periphery of a system, it involves conceptually understanding all the mechanisms and aspects of control, large and small.

Hypermedia can be a place for these connections to be presented. The centralization of publishing industry and mass media into a decreasing number of corporations could be illustrated with a hypertext structure. The ownership of real estate in a neighborhood subject to speculation, gentrification and arson -- like San Francisco's Mission district -- could access a database of municipal records to be reconstructed into an instructive hypertext for neighborhood activists. University students investigating the corporate ties of the regents might link the biographies of the personages to their companies, making graphic the concept of interlocking directorates. Political artists like John Heartfield in the Weimar Republic and Berkeley's Doug Minkler have created memorable images that serve as interfaces, the artwork becoming a node from which links to further details of the issues being addressed in the image (and organizations addressing them) could be accessed. The 1994 disc in support of Commandante Zero's uprising in Chiapas, produced by the students of Allucquere Rosanne Stone at the University of Texas, is a rare instance of interactive political media. Amnesty International's "Amnesty Interactive" from the same year was another such example.

Though working hypertexts have been in place since Doug Engelbart's Augment system in the 1960s, the World Wide Web has been in existence for only about five years. The Web is the inadvertant realization of Walter Benjamin's predicted vertical text for an electronic era beyond that of mere mechanical reproduction, as well as representing a large part of Ted Nelson's vision of the Xanadu publishing environment. In 1987 Nelson wrote in Literary Machines that "tomorrow's hypertext networks have immense political ramifications, and there are many struggles to come. Many vested interests may turn out to be opposed to freedom...for rolled into such designs and prospects (are)...the kinds of future that become forbidden, or possible." Despite the clamorous commercial domination of the Web at century's end, remarkable sites of clear political thinking can be found on it -- often with connections to others who struggle -- as well as rich, inventive literary and artistic works. Perhaps there is no longer a library of individual hypertexts. Rather, the Web has become a greater cyberspace into which all individual hypertexts are eddies in the onrushing currents of words, a sea of interconnected human works and possibilities.

Thanks to Joe Lockard for editorial suggestions and attentions.

Mike Mosher is an artist in California's Silicon Valley. He is the author of hypertexts "Hucklefine,""DevilsFood Daniel," and "Flight Paths," as well as a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.

Copyright © 1999 by Mike Mosher. Drawings Mike Mosher 1999. All rights reserved.