November 02, 2003

Hypertext, Internet, and the Medium (as message)

I would like to do two related things in this post. First I would like to respond to Audre's response to my "Archeologies of the (Post-)modern Archive" post (see Literary Machine Blog, October 26, 2003). Second, I would like to suggest how these topics are tied to the issues of "hypertext" and "hypertext fiction" (that we will be discussing shortly).

In her comment, Audre asked about the idea of "internet-as-archive," and how this model suggests a move from "message" to "medium." What I had in mind in my initial post was that an archive contains historical documents (message or content), but that, from a historical perspective, the archive itself (medium or form) is an historical document. In a way, modes of classification might be more historically interesting than documents themselves.

So what does this mean for the internet as an archive? Well, my first instinct is to say that the information stored on the internet is not significantly different from information stored in a library, a research institution, or any archive. Rather, it is the medium (the winding labyrinth that is the internet) that changes with new technology. Thus, in order to study the history of technology or media, we must focus on the form in which information is stored and communincated. Furthermore, in a network where there is an overabundance of information, it becomes difficult (some, like 20th century French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, would say impossible) to make sense of those large quantities of information and convert them into meaning. Thus, we might say that the medium (of the internet) is all we have left of the message; the medium is the message.

However, this argument might oversimplify a complex situation. After all, a medium alters information or content (it does not simply overtake it). As an example, we might suggest a number of postmodern literary texts. One that comes to my mind is John Gardner's Grendel. Although the story is virtually identical to that of Beowulf, the meaning is altered (though it is not swallowed up) by the change in narrative structure and form. The same might be true of Christa Wolf's Cassandra (as a re-imagining of the Iliad and the Oresteia trilogy) and many other books.

So how does the medium of the internet affect the information that it stores? Obviously, I cannot address this question in a single post, but I hope that you all will take a stab at it. We might argue that the internet, unlike other mediums, is a true network in which everything is connected to everything else. However, I am hesitant in making this overly broad claim. I am not sure if this distinction between (for instance) the old, static print culture and the new, interconnected internet is fair and accurate. After all, a scholarly text may offer us many of those same connections even if the connections cannot be made instantaneously. A scholarly work may include footnotes, a biblography, further reading suggestions, and so on. Thus, we could start with one book that would lead us to others virtually forever (is this not what happens in Calvino's novel, If on a winter's night a traveler?). Does not a library offer similar (not identical) search features and intertextual possibilities as the web? (One possible and divergent way to answer this question: 'Absolutely not! A modern library actually incorporates the features of the web into its classification. It fuses with the new; it re-fuses to be replaced. What do we need a card catalog for if we have an online library catalog?!?').

Is there something about hypertext that constitutes a discontinuity between the world of the old-school archive and the internet (as) archive? (For a definition of "hypertext" and its connection to other words, go to the hyperdictionary). If there is not a major distinction or a historical rupture, do hyperlinks make us more conscious of our participation in a network of meaning?

Furthermore, how do hyperlinks change the way that we read and process information? I have not thought about this question enough to give a confident answer. However, speed might be one of the major ways in which the internet changes the way we read. With a plethora of hyperlinks on a page, we are less likely to read everything on that page or to linger without moving on to something new. But the interesting thing is that the internet might not simply affect how we read things on the internet. Perhaps, it also affects the way we read print fiction. Does it make us more likely to skim? Do hyperlinks affect our attention span? If hyperlinks do decrease our attention span then is "hypertext fiction" (like the work of Michael Joyce) a better way to write and read fiction in the current age of the internet? Why is hyperfiction far less popular than print fiction?

I am aware that I am throwing out more questions than answers, but I want to spur some more conversation (even though many of these questions are a bit leading). Please do not feel compelled to answer all or most of the questions. Just approach the issue in any related or digressive way that comes to mind. Thank you for the interesting question, Audre. I hope we can all discuss these questions in the coming weeks.

- Patrick

Posted by pjagoda at November 2, 2003 08:47 PM

I believe that hyperlinks help make information easier to understand. To be sure, hyperlinks allow us to find definitions of unknown words, place events in a historical context, &c. In an era where the intelligence of an individual is often times confused with his vocabulary or ability to recall mundane facts, the internet, via the hyperlink, fights back and levels the playing field by removing these roadblocks that can define even the most capable participant out of a conversation. Perhaps that is why the internet is Baconian. (If there were a hyperlink on "Baconian" you might be able to learn more about Francis Bacon's views of esoteric knoweldge in philosophy, but instead I may have just defined some of you out of a conversation that you are clearly more than capable of having). And sure, you could look it up, but who knows where you would have to begin. A hyperlink, ideally, takes you right to what you need to know to understand the author best.

Posted by: Eric Gehrie at November 3, 2003 03:31 PM | Permalink to Comment

Thanks for your response, Eric. I suppose that by addressing this comment to you I might be excluding other potential participants.

However, in another sense I might be branching out in different directions or building on your comment or spurring others to respond. My response would be impossible (or, at least, considerably more difficult) if I had just read your opinion in an article or a book. As you suggest, the internet and the greater availability of information (via hyperlinks, search engines, etc.) may level the playing field in some ways. The speed and ease with which I can respond may be unique to an open forum like a blog or the internet in general.

However, there are other ways in which internet participation might create new exclusions. A possible example is a web log like this one. Although this blog is open to comments from anyone (as your comment demonstrates), 'outside users' may feel excluded from our discussions. Many of the past posts have continued discussions that started in our "Literary Machine" class (Pomona College) without offering adequate context. While a number of the topics we discuss here may interest a wide spectrum of people, the presentation and the occasional use of specialized vocabularies may be a hindrance to making the internet (for lack of a better term) a truly democratic medium.

Of course, you offer a valid counterargument to this claim. Namely, a user could easily look up any specialized terms online, return to the blog, and respond in a more informed manner. Whether or not people tend to care enough to do this kind of research is another question. How can a blog (or this blog) be more or less exclusive? Should we avoid specialized vocabularies and "mundane facts" or, as Eric suggests, does the internet already make it easier for outsiders to adopt (or understand) such vocabularies.

Posted by: Patrick at November 3, 2003 05:34 PM | Permalink to Comment

I for one don't know what "Baconian" means, except that I've heard of him before... If this frustrates me, certainly I can go run a google search on "Bacon" or "Baconian."

But what will I find? We all know what searching the web is like. You end up in this labyrinth, following link after link and rarely, rarely, finding exactly what you're looking for. (And half the links themselves don't work, as Emily pointed out in her last post.) The accessibility of the internet (at least, as it exists now) is fundamentally limited by what is currently archived, and who has archived it, and for what purposes they've done so. (And of course, by who has access to the internet at all.)

I think to speak so generally about the internet as a whole as a means of removing roadblocks hides the fact that, in a way, the internet is made up of nothing but roadblocks. (Not that this is different from the search for information in 'real life.')

BUT Eric's point ("a hyperlink, ideally, takes you right to what you need to know to understand the author best") still stands. If there is some mythical super-informative webpage out there, titled, "Bacon and the Internet" -- the page that helped him conceive of the idea in his comment in the first place, well, he could link to this page -- and I could go to it, read what he had read, and, sure enough, we'd be a lot more equal right now in this conversation.

I'm reminded of V. Bush's technological dream of "trails of knowledge" -- trails that detail exactly how the scientist got to where he got to in his work, trails that can be recorded and then shared (via microfilm disc, or whatever) with others.

What strikes me most is the word "ideally" -- the dream that the internet/hyperlinks can make communication more effective, that it can make the passing of knowledge easier, and therefore increase the potentials of learning and the world.

(I used to dream that Napster, the music-sharing program, would change the world, but the Man got all up in that pretty quickly. Sigh.)

Posted by: Audre at November 6, 2003 08:47 AM | Permalink to Comment