Rate of Change: Hypertext 101

Rate of Change: Hypertext 101

Rate of Change: Hypertext 101

by Ray Deonandan

Feb 24, 2002

This article originally appeared in Paragraph Magazine (Toronto), #19, 1996, and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. Since it concerns the World Wide Web, much of its content is now obsolete, and some of the links may be broken.

Everyone and his grandmother is on the Internet nowadays. Indeed, my sexagenarian parents –neophytes to VCRs and microwave oven clocks– have just received their first e-mail account courtesy of community-oriented costless Internet providers called “Freenets.” Daily, thousands of people sign up with Freenets or with commercial providers whose costs are dropping steadily, challenging statisticians in their attempts to estimate the total complement of Internauts. In this way, with a proliferation so sudden and so deep as to rival that of the printing press in impact and relevance, the establishment of the ‘Net has had profound implications for all manner of communication, including literary modes.

Complete novels are available free of charge on-line, though legally only those whose exclusive author copyrights have expired. This is made possible mostly as academic exercises and by philanthropic individuals and institutions, as in the case of Michael Hart’s “Project Gutenberg” whose mandate is to reproduce classic text on-line. Hart’s 1971 premise, now a truism, was that “anything that can be entered into a computer can be reproduced indefinitely,” making the cost of operating such an electronic printing press almost trivial once the initial input has been achieved.

So-called “listservers” automatically e-mail basic text versions of on-line publications to an unlimited host of subscribers, again free of charge to the recipients. Big name print magazines like MacLean’s have rented bandwidth to post scaled-down electronic versions of their fare on the World Wide Web (WWW), while smaller endeavours, like literary journal Blood & Aphorisms, ethnic venue India Currents Magazine and trendy consumer quarterly Onset, use their sites to advertise upcoming issues.

Using the WWW to whet customers’ appetites has often been praised by the Wall Street Journal as an effective marketing approach. However, more corporate-minded publishers, like Encyclopaedia Britannica, use an on-line registration system to ensure that users are paying to browse Britannica Online.

Most exciting to many in the publishing and writing industries is the emergence of “e-zines” — electronic magazines– with complete visual and audio enhancement to rival the traditional print magazine in beauty and accessibility. One would expect e-zines to be limited by the demographic specificity of their potential audience: all computer users; hence the preponderance, though diminishingly so, of e-zines disproportionately laden with science-fiction and horror, long known to be taste characteristics of the computer-savvy population. Yet e-zines also brandish that same tempting lure to those already in possession of the appropriate level of Internet access: costlessness!

But with the removal of prices comes something not entirely surprising: the dilution of quality. Compared to similar physical productions, e-zines are practically resource free and potentially devoid of administrative production barriers, thus encouraging an ocean of pale attempts in which a truly novel idea is in danger of drowning. According to the on-line newsgroup dedicated to their development, there are about 500 independent “small press” e-zines currently indexed, with a dozen more popping up every month. In many ways, the notion of hypertext — hallmark of the e-zine– can be its own undoing.

The World Wide Web is the most popular incarnation of Internet because its format, called “hypertext,” raises the organization, comprehension and accessibility of Internet information to a level sufficiently integrated to attract the bulk of the population. Hypertext is simply the linking (or “hyperlinking”) of arbitrary words, pictures or icons in a given text to different, and supposedly relevant, WWW locations. The term was coined, legend has it, by author Theodore Nelson in 1987 to describe “non-sequential writing.”

For example, if one were reading E.M. Forster’s A Passage To India in hypertext, and came across the highlighted words “New Delhi,” one could conceivably use the mouse to click on those words, and instantly access a separate related document with information about the Indian city.

This is accomplished through the use of “Hypertext Mark-Up Language,” or HTML, which allows a programmer to assign Internet locations –or URLs (“Uniform Resource Locators”)– to selected text. Hypertext has since been adopted by CD-ROM developers and other computerized information servers who have no connection to the Internet. Hypertext is, at present, the most bankable future for publishing in the next century.

The true power of such a system isn’t readily obvious to the uninitiated: you don’t have to personally create a document in order to provide a hyperlink to it. This means that the person who provides the hypertext for A Passage To India need not develop a special information page for New Delhi. All he need do is link the words to someone else’s existing URL, perhaps to the India site maintained by the Central Intelligence Agency’s popular Internet branch. No one can know how many links have been made to a given URL.

The tangled web of undirected text begins to be revealed.

As a research tool, hypertext is incomparable. There is nothing in history approaching the WWW’s sheer volume of material, timeliness nor ease of navigation. For example, Toronto artist Vera Frenkel has recently garnered attention for one of her virtual projects. If one wished to know something about her, a quick query of her name to an on-line search engine, like those offered free of charge by the American companies Yahoo and Lycos Inc., would reveal hyperlinks to a variety of sites, including this paragraph from York University:

B.A. (McGill)
Professor: Interdisciplinary Studio

Professor Frenkel is an internationally recognized artist and video producer. Her installations, videotapes, drawings, graphics, and performances have been presented in major festivals and galleries throughout Canada and in many of the world’s leading art centres. A major survey of her work was mounted by Canada’s National Gallery in 1985…

Both the search engine and York University would provide direct hyperlinks to other sites associated with Frenkel, including her major on-line work titled The Body Missing.

But what of credibility? With increased accessibility for both writers and readers, at what point does information become misinformation? There is little accountability in Internet publishing. Perpetrators of fraud, slander or copyright infringement are almost impossible to identify if they are clever enough to erase their electronic trails; and the law is quite overwhelmed and unprepared for the consequences.

Hart’s virtual engine of indefinite reproduction may sound death knells for a writer’s legal control over the redistribution of his work. But this control has, for years, been rapidly ebbing with every advance in photocopier technology, and in some circles is considered only a formality. It should be pointed out, though, that many “small press” style on-line publications do embrace the established legal protocols. The Morpo Review, one of the most respected and well read e-zines, is such a publication. But more relevant to writers and readers alike is the ‘Net’s facilitation of the work of rumour-mongerers and other purveyors of misinformation.

The secret to authentication, as in all manner of research, is to depend only on reliable sources. York University, for example, has a vested interest in presenting only truthful information. Therefore we must accept with adequate confidence that York’s data on Vera Frenkel is accurate. Often, a fan of an artist’s work will post, in his personal space, his own data about the artist, and such data may or may not be accurate. Just as one would be less likely to trust a manifesto published from someone’s basement photocopier than from the engines of a reputable printing house, the verification of on-line information is best achieved through assessing reputation.

Oddly, the roguish, sexless, raceless anonymity engendered by the basement photocopiers and e-zine publishers alike can be innately appealing. These are traits that have for decades attracted dangerous outsiders to poetry, philosophy, art and other avenues of extreme thought. At this stage in its evolution, Internet fiction attracts people distrustful of the publishing establishment. Berkeley’s Enterzone e-zine even maintains a section proudly dedicated to violence, its creators evidently trying to steer clear of the mainstream. Its contributors are often the pioneers, the raw and the fearless. But not necessarily the most talented.

With a potential readership of 40 million –and growing!– a lot of writers want in. However, many writers of hyperfiction clearly have not given the medium sufficient thought. Most fall prey to what Sarah Auerbach calls “advanced footnoting.” Like the New Delhi example above, advanced footnoting simply offers extra information about certain characters or places within a hyperstory.

Auerbach points out that reading this kind of fiction is often like reading an academic assignment. The reader gets bogged down in extraneous information, and any pretence toward literary consistency or thematic viability is lost. For an example, Auerbach names an hyperstory called “Under The Ashes” by Gavin Inglis in which every character’s name is an hyperlink to a page about that character, and every place name is a link to a history of that place.

On the other hand, theorist Jurgen Fauth sees a valuable role for advanced footnoting. Supplemental information, when added artfully and appropriately, can substantially enhance a work. He draws as an example the director’s cut of the movie Bladerunner in which 30 seconds of additional footage serve to significantly alter the film’s resonance and meaning. In a similar way, goes Fauth’s argument, text can be significantly improved by additional information, such as sound clips of a character’s voice, animation of poignant actions, or still shots of particularly vivid scenes.

Another popular mode for hyperfiction is a format much like that used by certain children’s books in which the reader must make decisions that determine which alternate plot-line is followed. This is what Gareth Rees calls “tree fiction,” a virtual manner of re-creating Borges’ garden of forking paths.

Tree fiction quickly becomes less of a literary exercise and more of an adventure game. The reader decides what outcome he wishes to read about, and will make decisions accordingly to achieve that outcome. Some have taken to calling this “user-centred literature.”

Some hyperwriters have attempted to poeticize the process, forging hyperlinks from words that have no obvious decision attached to them. Whether one selects the highlighted words “sun” or “he goes” determines the unfolding of the plot. The decision, then, yields more to feel and mood than to pre-set desires and tastes.

Forking plot-lines may issue forth a new era of virtual oral culture. Many have likened such hyperfiction to live storytelling, or a puppet show in which the performer must alter his story in real time to respond to his audience’s cheers or boos. But an HTML program is not a sensitive or aware storyteller; it may allow a knowledgeable and easily bored reader to consume greater quantities of information, but will deprive him of the storyteller’s artistry.

There are few new threads to be found in tree fiction’s methods beyond the very technology used to create it. Since the reader is an end-user instantaneously selecting plot-lines, the final hyperplot is a series of linked linear texts. Several straight lines joined together are still a straight line, and for hypertext to earn its name, it must be more than linear text.

Perhaps its evolutionary impact is to be found in the manner in which it is processed by the human brain. Certainly, much has been said of the influence of word processors on written thought. Typewritten or handwritten text has long been considered to be more tightly structured and unimaginative than word-processed text. This is due, it is said, to a word processor’s ability to make changes easily. In the words of Tina Cassidy, “writing longhand…forces one to think about what to say before putting it on the page.” Word-processed documents, the theory goes, are a holistic product forged more from mood and emotion than from reason and forethought. In updated McLuhan-ese, the medium affects the message.

In a similar way, hypertext may affect the texture of a civilization’s written work.

In an intriguing on-line essay, Stuart Moulthrop claims that the contribution of hypertext will be to remove the need for metaphor, since all other writing becomes present with the activation of a hyperlink. Hypertext, he argues, forces us to re-evaluate our notions of definitive discourse.

It seems unlikely that Moulthrop’s evolutionary conclusions will come to pass quickly. It should be pointed out that the medium has yet to be adequately explored. At such a young stage, its practitioners are still revelling in its distinguishing characteristic to the exclusion of all else: hyperlink ad nauseam!

This is a phenomenon that Fauth likens to the “poles in your face” aspect of 3-D cinema. The actors are so obsessed with the fact of 3-dimensional filming that they poke poles toward the camera incessantly, allowing the special feature of that medium to eclipse its subtler and more traditional qualities.

When the flurry of advanced footnoting dies down, perhaps some will find the artistry of balance to know when to provide a hyperlink, and when one would be detrimental to the literary flow. At that time, a broader issue may begin to be addressed: the role of our phonetic language in a logical, computerized society better served by the parsed and subroutined languages of computer programmers. Already, Asian alphabets, like Chinese and Japanese Kanji, whose characters are based as much on holistic meaning as on symbolizing a sound, tend to be co-opted by the phonetic Latin alphabet for use on a computer keyboard.

It’s remarkable that this development, beginning with the development of Romanji –Latin script for Japanese– has been observed in a single lifetime. Language must evolve, as do the artforms that rely on language. But the rate of change of both language and literature, by virtue of the technopolis we’ve chosen to build, may be faster than many had anticipated.


  1. Sarah Auerbach, “Hypertext Fiction: A Literary Theory.” URL – http://www.amherst.edu/~sbauerba/hy-lit.html
  2. Tina Cassidy, “The perilous decline of penmanship.” The Boston Globe.
  3. Electronic Text Repository, URL – http://miso.wwa.com/~boba/etext.html
  4. Enterzone, URL – http://enterzone.berkeley.edu/enterzone.html
  5. Jurgen Fauth, “Poles In Your Face: The Promises and Pitfalls of Hyperfiction.” URL – http://sushi.st.usm.edu:60/~barthelm/06sept/06-junge.html
  6. Gavin Inglis, “Under The Ashes.” URL – http://www.tardis.ed.ac.uk/~krynoid/ashes/ashes.html
  7. The Morpo Review, URL – http://morpo.novia.net/morpo/
  8. Stuart Moulthrop, “In the Zones: Hypertext and the Politics of Interpretation.” URL – http://www.ubalt.edu/www/gcla/sam/essays/zones.html
  9. Project Gutenberg, URL – http://gagme.wwa.com/~boba/gutenberg.htl
  10. Alex Swain, “E-Zines: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)” URL – ftp://ftp.etext.org/pub/Zines/WheteverRamblings/publish.txt
  11. York University Fine Arts, “Vera Frenkel.” URL – http://www.yorku.ca/faculty/finearts/faculty/profs/frenkel.htm

Ray Deonandan’s personal website may be found at www.deonandan.com.