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Copyright 1994 WHAT IS HYPERTEXT? (from an essay by Charles Deemer) On a winter day in 1985, I was sitting in front of my CPM Kaypro 2x computer, staring at the blinking green cursor, unable to begin writing. I was not a writer who had experienced "writer's block," and so this was a new experience for me - and yet it wasn't really writer's block that kept me from beginning. It was a nagging question that on the surface was embarrassingly ordinary. How could I be "stuck" over such a simple problem? But on this wintry day, as the green cursor blinked on and on, the ordinary question sounded profound, baffling, strange: How was I going to number the pages of this new script I was about to begin? I was eager to begin and already had my opening scene clearly in mind. I'd received a commission to write this play, which was scheduled to open in a year in Portland's magnificent and historic Pittock Mansion, the most luxurious setting a play of mine had ever called home. What an incredible space for which to write a play. What an incredible opportunity this was for me. If only I could figure out how to number the pages of the script . . . The foundation of my confusion was this: the action of the play was not going to be linear, one scene happening after another, but simultaneous, with many scenes occuring throughout the mansion at the same time. This was what made the commission so unusual, the dramatic form was modeled after a strange new kind of play that was selling out in Los Angeles, a play called "Tamara." If many scenes occur at once, I was asking myself, what does it mean to have a "page whatever"? And how was my director going to read the script - how was I? - if two or three or - the number, at one point, would turn out to be eight! - many scenes were happening at once? How is a non-linear script read within the confining format of textual pages arranged in numerical order? Without knowing it (I had never heard the term before), I was having my first experience with "hypertext." Out of desperation, I finally settled on a methodology for numbering the pages of "Chateau de Mort," and several years would pass before I learned how cumbersome, awkward, and labor-intensive my solution was. I came to learn that "hypertext" was the form in which the dynamics of nonlinear writing came into focus and under control. "Hyper"-text. The prefix means "over" or "above," and early in the century was used in physics to describe the strange new kind of "space" that was being defined by Einstein's relativity theory - "hyperspace." Einstein's space is space seen in a new way, a new kind of space - hyperspace. So with text. Hypertext is text seen in a new way, a new kind of text. Hypertext has a surprisingly long history, given its recent entry into popular computer nomenclature. An early computer scientist with the unusual name of Vannevar Bush is credited with first speculating in print about hypertext, although he did not use the term and two decades would pass before anyone else did. But in the July, 1945, issue of The Atlantic Monthly magazine, Bush set down the fundamental concepts of what would become known as hypertext in an article called "As We May Think." What troubled Bush was the discrepency between mankind's mushrooming storehouse of knowledge and his inadequate tools for accessing that knowledge. "The means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item," he wrote, "is the same as it was used in the days of square-rigged ships." Bush began by looking at how the mind worked, observing that it "operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts." An information retrieval system, he reasoned, should display a similar profile, being freely able to link associated subjects. Bush's thinking led him to an invention in the mind (he was doing something similar to what Einstein called "a thought experiment"): Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and to coin one at random, 'memex' will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records and communications and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory. What Bush was seeing in his mind's eye was a contemporary PC, in part, and in part a sophisticated hypertext software program. The way Bush describes the use of his memex is a perfect description of the way a contemporary reader moves through hypertext: ". . . he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him." I said earlier that hypertext is non-linear but this may be misleading. Any individual path through hypertext is linear, of course: the reader is still reading or viewing or hearing items in sequence, which is to say, one after the other, linearly. What makes hypertext hypertext is not non-linearity but choice, the interaction of the reader to determine which of several or many paths through the available information is the one taken at a certain moment in time. In this way, hypertext closely maps "real life." I act out my daily life on a path built by moment-by-moment choices - and so does everyone else. Imagine that you are walking down the aisle in a grocery store, looking for your favorite box of cereal. You find it - and next to it another brand that you like is on sale. You have to decide which to buy and move on. Readers of hypertext make similar choices. At some point in the text, a reader is given options. For example, when I earlier mentioned Bush's Atlantic Monthly essay "As We May Think," a few of you became curious enough to jot down the title so you can look it up later. If I were writing this chapter in hypertext, I could save you a considerable amount of trouble by linking from my mention of the essay directly to the essay itself (I'll address how this is done in a later chapter). Or perhaps I could give you two choices, by linking to the entire essay or only to those parts of it that directly relate to the concept of hypertext, some of which I've quoted above. (NOTE: this essay originally appeared in a "flatland" publication. This version has been hypertext coded; the option to link to the essay was available above.) Hypertext is about giving the reader options. "What do you want to read next?" is the question that hypertext asks again and again. Different readers, of course, will respond to these repeated questions in different ways, each defining an individual path through the material. This is the sense in which hypertext is called "non-linear," because there is no one "linear" way to read the text, such as from beginning to end. Instead there are alternative "webs" that weave through the material according to the individual decisions each reader makes in answer to the question, "What do you want to read next?" Or, in the cast of multimedia where sound and graphics and video can be part of the sequence of information, "what do you want to hear or look at next?" Do you want to read the poem, or hear the poem, or watch the poet read the poem? There are poetry "electronic books" on the market that give the reader these very options. This is hypertext - a special kind of text in which the reader actively chooses the sequence of material. (For more about hypertext electronic books, click here. Conceptually at least, these applications were already in the mind of Vannevar Bush as World War II was coming to an end. But although other computer scientists were intrigued by Bush's ideas, two decades would pass before a school dropout named Ted Nelson coined the term that would stick. Hypertext was officially born in 1965. The guru of hypertext, like Bush before him, began his thinking by focusing on a better way to organize a great deal of information. Through the 1960s, Nelson fiddled with different ways to allow the same kind of linkage between bits of information that Bush's imaginery memex was designed to make. As Nelson was developing his ideas about hypertext, pretty much alone, CAI - Computer-Aided Instruction - became popular. This was a teaching methodology in which students learned by making choices through a network of options. Despite having stricter rules and author/teacher-controls that Nelson wanted, CAI suggested the way later readers would move through hypertext. Nelson became familiar with the methodolgy and would learn from it. Finally, late in the decade, Nelson was invited to participate in a project at Brown University that would lead to the development of an elementary hypertext editing system. Today Ted Nelson has a home page on the Internet, which lists a bibliography of his early work in hypertext. A glance at some highlights is revealing: 1965: "The Hypertext," in the proceedings of the World Documentation Federation; 1966: "New Media and Creativity Systems," a graphical brochure; "Hypertext Notes," 10 brief essays on hypertext forms circulated in manuscript; 1969: "A Hypertext Editing System for the 360," an essay published in a University of Illinois Press anthology; 1972: "As We Will Think," in proceedings of the Online '72 Conference at Brunel University, England; 1978: "Electronic Publishing and Electronic Literature," in Plenum Press collection of essays; 1980: "Replacing the Printed Word," in proceedings of the World Computer Conference; "Interactive Systems and the Design of Virtuality," in Nov-Dec issue of Creative Computing magazine. (For a more complete list, click here. And so on. The guru of hypertext is still at it, designing hypertext under the umbrella of the Xanadu project in Australia. So give Vannevar Bush the "first in print" award and Ted Nelson the "term coinage and staying power" award in the history of hypertext. Today the most realized application of hypertext is on the World Wide Web on the Internet. The Internet is the term used to describe a world-wide network of computers that are organized under a standard protocol, which allows you to access information located in libraries and at computer workstations around the globe from your home or office PC. There are a number of ways that information on the Internet is organized. The fastest growing and most popular format is called "The World Wide Web," which is a hypertextual web that links the information available at many distant sites. Organization is brought to the system by the individual site's "home page," which serves as a kind of table of contents to the Internet universe. (We'll get into this in more detail later.) After you link from a home page on the computer screen to another screen at a different site, links again are availabe to go elsewhere, and so on, creating a vast web of links between information sites all through the "cyberspace" of the Internet. In other words, where formerly you would have access only to the information at the particular site you were connected to, the Web provides "horizontal links" to other sites as well. For example, from a workstation at MIT you can link to Paris for information, link from Paris to UCLA, and then quickly return to Paris or MIT again. Moreover, in practice these links commonly are made between documents at each site - in other words, you may create a path of information, for example, from within a document at MIT to a portion of a document at UCLA to a portion of a document at the University of Paris. As far as retrieving information is concerned, the World Wide Web literally puts the globe at one's fingertips. Creative writers - the major audience for this book - are still inventing new ways to use hypertext. (To read more about hyperfiction, click here.) In my own work as a playwright, I've written hypertext playscripts which when produced result in a play in which many scenes occur at the same time. The audience, like the reader of hypertext, must decide "what happens next." For example, the script excerpt below from "Chateau de Mort," the play I was commissioned to write for the Pittock Mansion, has two "decision moments" for the audience in less than a minute of action. Putting it another way, the story "branches" twice in less than a minute: ____________________________________________________________________ (Jack, Polo, Heather and Medalion are in an upstairs bedroom.) HEATHER: Want to go downstairs for a drink? MEDALION: Why not? HEATHER: Jack? I'm really sorry about your dad. JACK: Thanks, hon. (The women leave to go downstairs.) ________________________________________________________________ READER INTERACTION: Do you want to follow the women or stay here with the men? ________________ Make your choice below: |<<
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>| ____________|______________ ______________|_____________ (After the women are gone:) | (The women head downstairs, | running into Brown.) JACK: Polo, I know that you-- | | BROWN: Hello. POLO: Hey, man, for the last time, | it's not my concern that you got | HEATHER: Have you seen Dr. a weirdo for an old man. Hear | Brodey? what I'm saying? So where's the | stash? | BROWN: I think he's in the | dining room. (etc.) | _______________ | HEATHER: Thanks. | ________________ READER INTERACTION: Do you want to go: |<<<< >>>| _____|_____ __________| (new scene) (etc.) (new scene) __________________________________________________________________ The particular links that appear in any document or on any "home page" (or table of contents) are what determines the options offered to the reader. It's important to emphasize that these decisions are made by the author, the writer of the hypertext. Despite the new power given readers in creating "what happens next," the writer is still in control of the material in a very essential way: s/he creates the universe of language within which everything happens. Writing hypertext is really two kinds of writing: text writing in the normal formal sense (but with a new emerging logic of narrative and drama) and computer code writing (of the most elementary kind!). For example, writing a home page for the Internet is hypertext writing, which means one not only writes the language describing what is available and what a reader's options are but also writes computer codes that activate whatever electronic links that are being made available from one document to another (wherever those documents may be). Hypertext coding is a very necessary part of writing in hypertext but it shouldn't scare you off. Coding is much easier than you may imagine, as you'll learn in a later chapter. The author of hypertext, then, is still very much "the author," even though different readers will create their own individual paths through the web of material. The hypertext author makes many universes possible for the reader - but not every universe. Just how many options should the reader be given? Each hypertext author must decide. Hyper-text: text that is more than text, which is more than one word after another, from beginning to end, with no variation allowed. Hypertext is like the nation's system of highways and roads. There are many ways to get from the west coast to the east coast, depending on whether or not we are in a hurry, depending on what kind of scenery we want to look at, depending on what may intrigue us as a side trip from moment to moment. Hypertext is a web of possibilities, a web of reading experiences. Hypertext is like life itself, full of choices and consequences, full of forks in the road. Hypertext is the language of exploration and discovery - and therefore is the perfect language to become the mother tongue of the Information Age. For writers and readers alike, hypertext may well define what it means to be literate in the 21st century.