Word Circuits


Forepaper by Deena Larsen
for Messenger Morphs the Media 99

Can you get there from here?

The question that has underlain my work is, quite simply, "Why Hypertext?" The first thing I hear from family, friends, other writers, and even hypertext readers is: "When will it come out in print?" My best writing friend and confidante has insisted for over a decade that I am dead wrong about this hypertext obsession, and laments my choice of writing as deeply as if I had chosen not to write at all. So I have a very personal stake in defending my decision. 1

But there is much more at stake. If we are going to throw literature classes, citations, and even reviews into mass confusion (no more turning to page 21), we'd better have a good reason why. If we are going to ask readers to take an active role in searching for text, making connections, understanding links, and finding structure, we'd better make the trip pay off. If we could get what we were looking for in a simple, straight-forward text, we'd be crazy to spend about ten times the effort to plan, write, link, and program a hypertext.

I'd like to limit this discussion to the simplest form of hypertext :2 nodes with text in them and links between these nodes. Hypertext has two things linear text does not: nonlinear structures and links.3 Are these features enough to compensate for the extra trouble they cause? This question is misleading. It assumes that the features themselves are the rationale for writing hypertext. Yet writers have managed to get multiple voices, multiple perspectives into a book with page numbers (As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner comes rushing to mind.) Writers have managed to show connections within the same constraints (Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters is my favorite example of this).

Rather the question should be: What does it take to use these features to add extra dimensions of meaning that cannot be gleaned from linear text? It is easier to experiment than to speculate. My works look at links AS meaning-from links as connections between characters (Marble Springs, Eastgate 1993), shadow stories forming an under-dimension (Samplers, Eastgate 1997), and running commentary on a text (Stone Moons, Eastgate, forthcoming). I have also worked on structure AS meaning. I want to show that not only is structure an additional element of meaning, it can be the major element. Ferris Wheel is an unpublished work. (Parts of the draft will be available at http://www.chisp.net/~textra until Feb 26, 1999.)4 Ferris Wheel has two main parts to it: a circular poem that can be read from the center out and a story using each of the poem's words as the title for a node. The relationship between the poem and the story is strengthened by the story's circular, ferris-wheel-like structure. This shows up as the navigation bar on each page, and permeates the work. Ferris Wheel is a slice-of-life story at the moment a man proposes and a woman decides to accept the proposal. But the circle structure provides a look at the cycle of their lives and shows that this moment is not isolated but is merely one turn of the wheel. None of this shows up in the text--but is abundantly clear in the structure. These ineffable elements could not be obtained in a linear, page-by-page view.

At the Hypertext Writers' Workshop, "Messenger Morphs the Media," I'd like to explore these issues with other readers and writers. Indeed, this question has too many facets to cover in one day. However, a start would be:

  • Is it important to try to convey meaning in elements other than text? What does this add to a hypertext that we can't get elsewhere?
  • Will readers want this and be willing to spend the effort to uncover these meanings? What is the pay off for readers?
  • How can we convey meaning in hypertext elements such as links and structure?
  • What interfaces between the reader and text are needed to convey these meanings?
  • What techniques can we use to make these meanings consistent and clear? How clear can we make these meanings?

1 As I write this, I have toyed with the idea of putting my paper into hypertext. Why not? Because in this case, I want to set up a rhetorical tautology to one foreordained conclusion.


2 The discussion of what sight and sound bring to words on the screen is incredibly important, but I want to boil this down to what I see as the fundamentals of hypertext.


3 This seems to be self-evident from the definition. There are probably more features, but let's keep it simple for now.


4 I would like to keep this up for a while, but the publishing and copyright notices are so flexible on the web that it is impossible. Just another one of those issues we will have to confront--but not here.






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