Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 3 / March 1, 1995 / Page 13



by Nancy Kaplan

Hypertexts: multiple structurations within a textual domain. Imagine a story, as Michael Joyce has, that changes each time one reads it. Such documents consist of chunks of textual material (words, video clips, sound segments or the like), and sets of connections leading from one chunk or node to other chunks. The resulting structures offer readers multiple trajectories through the textual domain (just as I have tried to do in this essay). Each choice of direction a reader makes in her encounter with the emerging text, in effect, produces that text. The existing examples of this form, especially the fictions, are so densely linked, offer so many permutations of the text, that the "authors" cannot know in advance or control with any degree of certainty what "version" of the story a reader will construct as she proceeds.

Of course, we have long had proto-hypertexts in print. Every dictionary, encyclopedia, and reference manual organizes its contents in a fairly arbitrary manner, usually alphabetically. The reader's purposes create the order in which information is accessed. The organization of textual information on British television's CEEFAX system exemplifies this type of hypertext. With a few buttons on the remote control device, I can access programming information, weather, news stories, and the like. I can even read this information while the sound track of the television program I was watching when I activated CEEFAX continues to be audible. In this way, I appear to control what I read and the order in which I read it. Within limits, of course -- the most obvious being the authorial and editorial functions that have already determined what constitutes news, what time span the weather predictions will cover, what programs will be offered on each television channel. This variety of hypertext replicates the newspaper.

But other electronic hypertexts have no print equivalents at all. Some hypertextual writing systems, though by no means all of them, provide a graphic representation of textual structures, a dynamic map of the textual system in play. (You can explore another hypertext essay and see a picture of one of these maps, if you like.) Although these visual representations can usually be printed, such systems appear to be of most value when they remain dynamic pictures of an evolving text. In any case, each screen -- at least in Storyspace (the hypertext authoring system in which I revised my talk to turn it into this essay) -- represents only a partial view of the hypertext.

More interesting, perhaps, are other unprintable forms. Some of the early examples of hypertextual fiction, for example, place conditions on the accessibility of particular bits of the story. If a reader has accessed a certain set of texts, then the texts in the restricted set become available. If the reader has not, then the restricted set remains closed to her. Such narrative gaming depends on the logic of another text, what Stuart Moulthrop has dubbed the "hypotext," that substructure of programming code only the operating system (or a clever hacker) can read. And as Moulthrop also points out, such authorial control over readers' choices represents a return of that perennial zombie, the author who is never quite dead after all.

Those texts left fully accessible to readers, those in which readers can write as well as read -- texts Michael Joyce terms constructive -- depart most sharply from printed ones. The textual additions, deletions, re-formations a reader might make are indistinguishable from those the first writer created. And being electronic, such a text can easily be replicated and disseminated widely. These forms have no paper-based equivalents: they are "native," if you will, to a specific computing environment.

Here are some other key terms I use in this argument:

E-Literacies and Elite-racies
Politexts and Politics
Other Cultural Formations

And in case you're wondering what you've stumbled into, here's a brief statement of the argument.

If you want to know more about hypertext, visit the website for bibliography on hypertext there.

This page is part of the article, "E-literacies: Politexts, Hypertexts and Other Cultural Formations in the Late Age of Print."

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