<--Word Circuits ---->Information about CyberMountain Colloquium and the corresponding MOO

Cybermountain logoIn The Matrix

"I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives."--Leo Tolstoy  

"The fact that I  

am [not] writing to you  

in [hypertext]  

already falsifies what I  

wanted to tell you.  

My subject:  

How to explain to you that I  

Don't belong to [hypertext]  

Though I belong nowhere else."   --a modified verse by Gustavo Pérez Firmat who didn't belong to 'English' though nowhere else.        

As a teacher and author of interactive prose writing the past three years, I've asked myself repeatedly why it is I do this thing called hypertext. Many of my students, about half each semester enroll in my classes without any idea what hypertext is--;they suspect just some creative writing classŠeasy. When I sit down every few months to learn the new HTML or the new version of Macromedia Director, which normally takes a few months to learn, I have to say to myself "This is time that could be spent writing." Instead, I spend that time learning programs that will be outdated within a year and scripting languages soon to be rendered obsolete by Pagemaker-like programs that code Web pages for us. I 'waste' my time teaching these new technologies to students as well. I 'waste' that time creating and teaching people to create narrative hypertexts that in all likelihood will not run on computers in the very near future. Portal, perhaps the first hypertext novel constructed in 1986 by Rob Swigart, was designed for the Apple Macinotsh by Activision and marketed as a game. The Apple Macintosh was superceded several months later by the more sophisticated Macintosh SE, a system that could not run Portal. Hence, the very first hypertext novel, in its true incarnation, has been erased. The Web browsers of the future will no doubt look quite different from the Netscape and Internet Explorer we know today--;if you don't believe me crank up one of the early Mosaic browsers or even Netscape 1.0 to see how far we've come already. And it's doubtful current Web hypertexts will function as they're intended or at all in these new systems. Hyperfiction is the penultimate disposable fiction, because, like the software program or scripting language it was created in, when a work of hypertext debuts, it's always already obsolete. Perhaps that is why I am doing this. I seek to be disposed of, and remembered. A writer and mentor of mine, Padgett Powell, used to tell his class that you will know for sure which writers are good when they're being read 20 years after their death. While the number 20 and the word 'good', I'm sure, are subjective, there is a certain truth in this statement that I find applies quite nicely to hypertext fiction: you cannot be read 20 years after your death so you better be 'good' now.

But there are scads of problems when one tries to write hypertext that might be evaluated as good today. While the word 'hypertext' has become increasingly recognized in the past several years in academic circles, the average reader still hasn't even heard about it and if they have, only very publicized works such as Mark Amerika's "Grammatron" which was reviewed in the New York Times and Wired or various CD-ROM titles by Eastgate. Reading off a screen hurts people's eyes. The discomfort with a borderless, nonlinear text. Reconciling words and multimedia elements as 'reading'. Understanding how 'reading' influences what's being read. These are the problems wary readers and even gung-ho students associate with going after the elusive hypertext. The response I get to "Grammatron" from beginning students in hypertext semester after semester is disappointment. Yet I defend it. I cite "Grammatron" as the model that they all should work toward in terms of conception. The "Grammatron" starts off with a sequence of pushed pages on bright red background with no 'reader' interactivity, a Realaudio acid-trance soundtrack, textual thoughts on a technology-mitigated power revolution and various images juxtaposed obliquely in connection to the words. Amerika refers to this section as "Interfacing". Then "Grammatron" falls into what I'd call a typical, but huge, section of standard hypertext narrative: words form the linking mechanism to tangentially connected textual spaces. The students find a multitude of problems with it in that there's no end, yet there's a clearly defined beginning, and the text, they say, fulfills none of their expectations of fiction. I tell them it is so bold because it is a writer writing into a space people don't yet know how to read in. It is so bold because he is boldy writing in that space with clearly defined sections like the 'interfacing' that performs a different role than other sections within the piece. Work on figuring out the rules, I say, and read it again. It still doesn't work and we move on, but they know, hopefully, that the way to venture into the land of hypertext is to experiment and see what kind of narrative effect can be achieved.

The problem superceding even this reconfiguring of reading as we know it, is the problem surprisingly expressed by a number of writers who wouldn't be called traditionalists. Avant-garde fiction writer Mary Caponegro in the Review of Contemporary Literature writing against hypertext:   There is something to be said, is there not, for a sensuous reality. There is something to be said for the tactile availability of the letter, an envelope, perhaps with beautiful foreign stamps, within which is sequestered someone's elegant hand scrawl, at least signature, a letter you can open, unfold, read half of and tuck in your pocket, hide in your drawers to savor later, or of a book you can read out loud to your partner at night, put a bookmark inside of, feel the weight of in your hand, smellŠOr a voice on the phone even the voice that you keep hearing on your answering machine representing the person who perpetually eludes you, because it's at least animate, and thus antithetical to the qualities of a world gone ON-LINE. I have no affection for information per se, and consequently no desire to encourage or participate in its apotheosis. I care and passionately, about a different line; I feel its autonomy must be defended, preserved.    

Caponegro makes the strongest argument that exists against hypertext, I think. That of the semiotic, romantic attachment. I mean, for those of us who love to read, we grew up with these things. We learned math out of text books. History from history books. We learned about computers from books--indeed! But perhaps more importantly with regard to electronic literature, many of us learned a lot about the world and human life from works of fiction and non brought to us via the medium of the print book. Also in the Review of Contemporary American Literature, Curtis White, when asked via an email interview with Mark Amerika about the possibilities of hypertext says:

Hyperspace is full of intriguing possibilities, and it is itself a metaphor for what writers like Borges, Beckett, and Rabelais have been trying to write about for the last five centuries, but it's never going to have the sort of warmth we associate with books and--;lord save and protect us!--;what it has meant to be human to this point. I think that it offers far more danger to further intensify instrumental rationality and further distance human consciousness from a world worth living in that it offers opportunities for enlarging human capacity, creativity and CARING. Hypertext does not encourage us to actively participate in the maintaining of a human relation with a world that transcends the human. Hyperspace is way Kantian: it is locked into the description of the labyrinthe organization of an internal space. It is not enough Hegelian or even Hedeggerian: concerned with how a world presents itself and is lived.

By my estimation, White is expressing the same semiotic attachment to books as Caponegro. It is an attachment borne of countless nights reading in bed. Borne of authors who remember fondly the distinct smells of their first hardcover editions. Readers who've been struck by Salinger's or Tolstoy's or O'Connor's stories, all of which spoiled pages between covers. The first thing I say to my hypertext prose students on the first day of class is "Why do we read from books?" Since no one has yet to answer I do so myself: for no other reason than they're there and we've never conceptualized any other interface (except for Vannevar Bush's as of yet unrealized "Memex"). This I've found to be a quite useful question. It is a good icebreaker for delving into the reconfiguring of the author, reader, and of narrative, because there may be no good answer for why we read from books. Umberto Eco suggests revisiting the lesson Plato ironically portrays in the Phaedrus, when Thoth or Hermes, the inventor of writing, presents his new invention to the Pharoah who debunks writing since it will render thinking or memory obsolete. Plato intended the Pharoah's response as naieve and, according to Eco, "on the contrary they [books] are machines which provoke further thoughtsŠ[and] after the invention of writing they had also to train their memory in order to remember books. Books challenge and improve memory. They do not narcotize it." First and foremost books are information delivery systems--;how romantic is that? They've been bastardized into an art form however. (Is the Bible information or is it art?) Another useful question is: How does memory function? Via electronic synapses in the brain that store and retrieve data at varied and simultaneous rates much like the processor in your home computer. Memory and stimuli associate other memories building chronological story lines that differ with repetition making the mind a hypertextually functioning organism. I ask again: Why have we always read from books? Because we didn't have computers and true hypertext. Perhaps the powerful influence of hyperspace will win back for Marshall McLuhan the content of the message and the art form borne of the message's medium.  

I must immediately qualify myself. So far I have not seen a hypertext including my own that I would prefer to a good collection of short stories or novel. And I'm in the matrix. This is my humble position and my students without fail, each semester generally agree with me. It can be illustrated in the bizarre fact that, when I teach them HTML each semester and show them a wealth of URLs with the best instruction on the Web's scripting language, more than three quarters of them, without fail, buy books on the subject. Hypertext authors, write not for the people who read us today but for a breed of human that will one day inhabit the world, a person who has not been brought up reading out of textbooks, who didn't first eroticize the sexual act over pages from a dirty magazine, someone who might never have received a letter or a Christmas card, might possibly never have held a dollarbill. (Incidentally the Turner Diaries suggest we lose our freedoms when we're no longer tangibly holding our cash. What might this suggest for the right-wing in terms of literature.) This person was raised in an environment of screens. We need to create intuition with regard to hypertext and the first step is erasing the kind of romantic attachment we feel to the book. This will happen. It is already happening. How long will it be, really until schoolchildren carry DVD-ROM's back and forth from school to home rather than textbooks? I suppose that really depends on economic issues, but it is certainly not far off. CD-ROM Encyclopedia's ranging from the well known Britannica CD, Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia, Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Microsoft Encarta, Encyclopedia World Book to the more obscure CD-ROM Encyclopedia of Quaker Genealogy and Kadokawa's Comprehensive Geographic Encyclopedia of Japan have all but erased the typical stacks of encyclopedias from libraries across the country and redefined a whole industry. I can't help but predict text books are next. But this is not a pitch for The End Of The Book. I don't believe that will happen, ever, nor do I believe that it should. I think literature, however, should take steps into the new medium and bastardize it for art's sake. Those steps necessitate authorial changes in conception and execution that are not, it seems, for the tried-and-true literati.

Genre fusion is one real sticking point with many writers regarding hypertext. For me, to be successful, hypertext must absolutely embrace, integrate, and use multimedia: video, images, audio. In hypertext, I refer to all of these things including blocks of text or words as the 'textual objects' of the hypertext which should be manipulated and built into the structure of the piece just as hard brown nut-like words are in traditional writing--;presumably words or narrative text is the skeletal foundation of a text-based hypertext. This necessity for multimedia comes from the empirical tradition of what the screen is used for, which makes a good place to argue against myself for the reconfiguring of the screen as well as the reconfiguring of the writing. But my stance is that the transference of literature to the screen is a mighty hurdle, and, for literature to achieve success in an already claimed medium, it must conform to a degree. "What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations," Lewis Carroll's Alice says before tumbling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. TV cannot exist without images or sound and while right now hypertext runs on computers, with the advent of digital televisions in the next five years, it is not a far cry to fathom hypertext as something we might 'do' from the couch in our living rooms. While I strongly encourage my students to find ways to integrate multimedia into their projects (including collaborations with artists outside the class) I make certain that each individual project absolutely necessitates that multimedia. I force them to argue ostensibly for it, or else it must be cut. For those who fight me on the multimedia issue, I always recall D.H. Lawrence saying "Movies will never have sound."

Mark Amerika calls for collaborations, giving up the sacred autonomy of the writer and calling authors of hypertext and their cohorts "Digital Artists". In the future hypertext casts will probably read something like movie credits. This is a major problem with authors--as might be expected when something evolves from a profession that threatens to change it forever. But with regard to some of the more exciting prospects of hypertext, achronological structural and the potential for multiplicity, the primary difficulty lies with the reader. Upon exposure to hypertext the first thing everyone likens it to is Choose Your Own Adventure books, which hypertext resembles some. But linking strategies, rather than asking the reader to choose what happens next, can become part of the experience, in fact rarely can hypertext succeed in linking textual objects together by literal connections without appearing gimmicky--Rick Pryll's "Lies" is the only exception to this I've seen. So no longer is the physical action of turning the page merely a way of coming to the text, in hypertext the navigating of the text is part of the text. And multiple storylines in hypertext have the potential to offer more than just different outcomes. Multiple storylines can alter and assume new voices, new narrative techniques, and, in conjunction with previous and post readings generate, new conclusions or disruptions effected by the very cohabitation of those readings. Keep in mind I'm not necessarily talking about reading once through and coming back to the beginning for another reading if you're operating inside a borderless text.

The 'reader' also may be the most important presence in hypertext. Interactivity is the key. In print text the reader certainly interacts with the text. I do not refute that. And I would agree with Robert Coover that we have texts that don't read the same way twice, but whether that is an effect of the text or of the mind reading it is an issue. Literally, the text itself IS the same each time it is read in a print text and this is not the case in hypertext. In Janet Holloway's "Hamlet on the Holodeck" she suggest the future of literary narrative is interactive textual landscapes not unlike the Star Trek Holodeck. Chaos theorists suggest that this is not a highly improbably likelihood at all and that these kinds of machines in theory could be run off fractal engines whereby 'readers' input certain variables and the fractal spins it into an infinitely created landscape. Fractals are perfect for this sort of artistic endeavor if Mr. Powell was indeed correct in saying that all good art is is good repetition: "All you have to do to write well," he said, "is repeat yourself well." Maybe fractals are representations of nature's true artists. The Holodeck concept takes the boldest step toward interactive narrative, however, by reconfiguring the concept of the 'reader' or 'viewer'. With the exception of art installments, art in general, narrative art specifically has always been a process of viewing. Hypertext is the first form to integrate the reader in the construction of the work. This requires the construction of a methodology for reading and writing evolved from the one we already know. By all rights hypertext might function as a Chaos system whereby the author(s) creates a miniature universe and watches it evolve. The reader interaction provides changes in this feature or that whereby changes in the universe result.

We nevertheless, however, run into the problem: will people get it? Will they even give it chance enough to get it? And I think video games are the empirical proof that at some point they will. What are video games but simple, machoist, interactive texts? I remember my own personal absorption in the Atari 2600 with Pac Man, Asteroids, Space Invaders. And nowadays videogames are one of the hottest new technology markets. So what if hypertext functioned in a sense like video games? An article from the Seattle Weekly on the problems of narrating through a computer program has Mark Long and Joanna Alexander, the founders of Zombie Virtual Reality Entertainment in Seattle , call the current generation of video games primarily simulations of a: "hybrid design grammar [that] will allow designers to create compelling narratives in realtime games." They criticize the "Doom Engine"--a term in the game industry named for the most-popular first-person shooter game, Doom--on which virtually all mainstream computer-games now function. Long and Alexander are looking for more artistic meaning and narrative in their products. They site Interplay's Redneck Rampage as a game on its way to achieving narrative. In this game the player is a drunken redneck scouring the Texas landscape shooting everything and in search of beer, which provides him with more energy. But the more beer he drinks the more distorted the screen becomes and the more haphazard the player's controls over the redneck become. Soon when the player commands the redneck forward he moves backward. Not exactly Ulysses, I know, but ask anyone familiar with a computer if they would rather spend an hour with that or Michael Joyce's Afternoon--;a text based hypertext written with Storyspace and recently touted in TIME as the seminal work of hypertext--;and the drunk redneck wins hands down, at least in my classes. Long and Alexander give an example of the problems facing a narrative designer by showing how a computer would process a simple "expositive device" in the Wizard of Oz, that of making Dorothy notice and interact with the Munchkins:

The player is Dorothy. She opens the door to the house. The Door_object sends message to color all polygons that are not inside the house_object. The Dorothy_object sends message to Munchkin_objects--;Dorothy_object is in walking state. Munchkin_objects Check their tables:

If Dorothy_object is walking, and no collision detection, count 12 secs then go to Dorothy_object. If Dorothy_object collides, change to giggle state. If giggle, remain in that state.

Zombie Entertainment is focused on a market similar to that of action movies. But they are making headway. I saw a video game on the Sony Playstation the other day which was not only an interactive VRML type game it had a 3D navigation map the user could toggle back and forth from at will. That, as an attractive and navigable mapping system, absolutely destroys the cluttered, nonsensical, rectangular maps we currently associate with hypertext. My guess is if we can get the creative writing and artist world into synergy with computer programmers like Long and Alexander, we'll be getting very close to hypertext that people will read.

So if I've begun sounding like some pointy-headed techno let me return to my initial position on the romantics of the book. I don't feel it for the screen (though I am faithful this is due to historically-based proclivities to print and the absence of a 'successful' text). That is not a theoretical statement. It's an aesthetic call. In the novel I'm currently finishing up which is nowhere near avant-pop not even avant garde, I struggle nightly with my complicating of the old human condition. And that is what I strive for and see the current state of hypertext in dire need of. The current body of hypertext on the Web and for the most part on CD-ROM or disc bores me. I can say for myself that I give every new hypertext I come across the benefit of the doubt, but most hypertext has one particular facet that's valuable while the rest fails and detracts from it. Many times the individual components of hypertexts, the textual objects, are not in and of themselves up to snuff, making a mess out of a hypertext that, with some polish, might have achieved something. Blame for this rests partially with the Internet, which has allowed self-publishing of hypertext without the editorial screening which is obviously advised in many cases; partially with editors of online magazines including myself who have published less than stunning hypertext just to be publishing hypertext; partially with the leading publisher of hypertext in the country Eastgate, a company that should be commended for regularly publishing hypertext titles but almost 100% of those titles are manufactured in the hypertext authoring software Storyspace, which Eastgate Systems Inc. manufactures. I see this is a glaring conflict of interest that obviously gives preference to hypertexts authored with its own software package as opposed to other programs such as Macromedia's Director--I say this while biting my tongue since at this very moment my latest not-wholly-successful CD-ROM hypertext is sitting on the desk of Mark Bernstein, Eastgate's president. The advantage Storyspace maintains is that it's designed for hypertext writing and maps out the hypertext as the user constructs it--unfortunately the entire setup is not very responsive to the user and the map it creates is a visually distorted representation and simply confusing. In comparison a more complex program like Director, which easily supports multimedia and is itself a nonlinear authoring package makes for a hypertext environment which takes advantage of the entire monitor and is dictated more by the author than the software designer. The burden of hypertext in the future is that unless digital artisits function with programmers, hypertext will always be dictated by the software leader of the moment.

Curtis White comes back to say, against his earlier comments: "But what I just said didn't make hyperspace go away, did it? I thought not. That being the case, I guess the best thing to do is get in it, colonize it in the name of the imagination and whatever other human qualities we can fit into RAM." I will continue to go to bed every night with a book. And everyday I will scour the Net and the world of electronic publishing for hints on bringing it all together.