Chapter 2 | Theory

I. The Ne(x)t Generation

     As film and television studies have carved out a place of legitimacy in higher education, so will hypermedia and cyberspace studies. They will find their niche in academe quite suddenly, however, as the phenomena of hypermedia and cyberspace are inherently academic. Unlike film and television, they were always already the children of academe, developed at actual universities by actual professors. And because of film and television, they will have a ready-made place in college and university English, communications and journalism departments. Despite the "high hopes for the instructional value" of film that Thomas Edison(1) held in the early 1920s, motion pictures or "movies" have been appreciated only relatively recently as a means of education (Heinich, et al 196). While the 35-millimeter standard for film made its use in classrooms cumbersome and expensive, the technical defeat was far more short-lived than the cultural defeat: the general belief among educators that movies were, essentially, a "low" culture entertainment and, therefore, of little instructional value.

     It was almost fifty years before film would come to be appreciated as a medium for "high" art. While a few scholarly journals, such as the Film Quarterly (formerly the Hollywood Quarterly), found their way into circulation in the United States as early as the 1940s, film schools did little in the way of business until the 1960s. Film, as a course of study, as a discipline unto itself, gained some popularity at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles and New York University, but it wasn't until 1969 that the Center for Advanced Film Studies was opened by the American Film Institute and, in the course of inaugurating itself worthy of study, became a real force and compelling subject area in higher education (Bawden, et al 249-250). What did almost as much for film as film itself, however, was literary criticism. Structuralist and poststructuralist critics, such as Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva, demonstrate an ardent fascination with film in their writings. By including film critiques and analyses in her collected essays on literature, Against Interpretation (1966), for example, Susan Sontag not only elevated the academic status of film in the United States but encouraged a continued academic inquiry; she did this in part because film called for the kind of aesthetic criticism she advocated. With its strong visual element, film required "more attention to form" and seemed somehow more resistant to the "arrogance of interpretation" (12). Yet Sontag's nod to film was also eminently practical. Noting the "accelerated tempo at which the arts move in our century," she viewed this "latecomer to the serious arts" as redrawing the boundaries of art and literature and, thus, to some extent, redrawing the boundaries of her profession. Film, she wrote in her essay, "A Note on Novels and Films,"

is in a position to raid the other arts and can deploy even relatively stale elements in innumerable fresh combinations. Cinema is a kind of pan-art. It can use, incorporate, engulf virtually any other art: the novel, poetry, theater, painting, sculpture, dance, music, architecture. (245)

     Digital technology was in its infancy in the mid 1960s. But Sontag's recognition of technology's expanding role in art and literature is nonetheless enduring, if not clairvoyant, commentary: "Art today is a new kind of instrument, an instrument for modifying consciousness and organizing new modes of sensibility" (296). Even though the technology of film was, then, patently analog,(2) she could imagine an art that might, some day, "raid," "incorporate," and "engulf virtually any other art." Such art would be less personal in "an era of mass technological reproduction" (297). Such art, she wrote, "with its insistence on coolness, its refusal of what it considers sentimentality, its spirit of exactness, its sense of 'research' and 'problems' is closer to the spirit of science than of art in the old-fashioned sense" (297).

     While Sontag is talking about the ethos of postmodern art and literature and, particularly, the motion picture's impact on that ethos, she is also characterizing a general shift in aesthetic constitution, which is not only open to science and technology but which actively evaluates and pursues its possibilities. What Sontag has said of film is even more true of hypermedia, the digital media that does "engulf virtually any other art"--including film. When the arts can be reduced to the symbolic code of zeros and ones, they take on a new, fluid and easily manipulated relationship. Digital technology allows for a more artful montage or, to borrow Marshall McLuhan's phrase, "a mosaic pattern of perception" (314). In fact, digital media allows for a mosaic of mosaics. Like never before the visual and literary arts can be wondrously juxtaposed and altered, re-juxtaposed and re-altered, asynchronously, synchronously, passively, actively. "The computer" writes Janet Murray:

presents us with the spatial mosaic of the newspaper page, the temporal mosaic of film, and the participatory mosaic of TV remote control. But even while it combines the confusing multiplicity of these mosaic media, the computer offers us new ways of mastering fragmentation. It gives us "search engines" and ways to "tag" the fragments so that we can find things that are related to one another. (156)

     Murray's view that the media will afford its own coping mechanisms, that people will learn to adapt to hypermedia as they learned to adapt to newspapers and film, is reassuring and optimistic. She points out that people are "now used to viewing the front page of a newspaper without being overwhelmed" and that "years of viewing films have allowed us to automatically assemble their discontinuous images into larger patterns of continuity" (156). The a priori assumption that people will continue to adapt to new technologies and modes of representation because they generally have always done so, however, is a hopeful vision that comes with a tendency to reinvest in science and technology--often in an effort to expedite humanity's adapting.

1. A Consensual Hallucination

     Though it may seem somewhat comically innocuous that Theodor Nelson, the Xanadu theorist and philosopher himself, relies so heavily upon a variety of recording technologies (note cards, tape recorders, video cameras, computers) to apprehend and manage his own thoughts, Gary Wolf's observations of his subject touch upon something deeper:

If he is stopped in the middle of anything, he forgets it instantly. Only by running his own tape recorder could Nelson be confident that his words would not float off, irrecoverably into the atmosphere. ("The Curse of Xanadu")

Despite his battle to remember this own thoughts--the ones assiduously verbalized as well as written down--Nelson's peculiar tendency is to create even more to remember:

For instance, Nelson's theory of language holds that every time a concept changes, the word to describe must change as well. There ought not be any "slippage" of one term into another. New idea, new word. Applied to the development process at Xanadu, this rule meant a constant stream of fresh jargon.... Working at Xanadu offered a constant flow of scholastic argument over throwing out names, switching names, and substituting names. ("The Curse of Xanadu")

That language--the systematic, applied science of human thought--can itself be construed as a technology is important to note; "it is language which speaks," according to Roland Barthes, "not the author; to write is to reach, through a preliminary impersonality...that point where not 'I' but only language functions, 'performs'" (50).

     In Nelson's vision, digital technology ultimately masters the most ancient of recording devices: the word. His "dream machine," the computer, and "hypertext," its interface, are designed to enhance a person's experience of language in a fashion that is at once more precise yet more exhaustively encyclopedic. The experience of language as mediated by the "improved" technology of the computer is something akin to the experience of driving a new car: the latest models, with their built-in satellite navigation systems, multi-passenger environmental controls, surround-sound stereophonics, and electronic roll-up, fold-down everything, are intended to enhance people's lives; not only are they meant to get people from "point A" to "point B" more quickly and efficiently, but they are meant to do so more comfortably and safely, and with more panache. However, the resplendent variety of options that comes with new cars nowadays can complicate the experience substantially, putting drivers somewhat ill at ease, if not making drivers, who can receive conference calls and send email at eighty-five miles per hour, somewhat dangerous.

     The imagery of human beings hurdling through space and performing an assortment of tasks at such rapid and ever-accelerating speed that it tends to erode their comprehension is a mainstay of cyberpunk fiction, a computer-oriented subgenre of science fiction that became popular in the 1980s. Unlike Nelson's utopic dream of a hyperspace or docuverse of instant, manageable information for one and all, William Gibson's technologically mediated spaces are, more often than not, dystopic in character. His description of Night City in the novel Neuromancer as "a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button" (7) is, in fact, a larger metaphor for the city's inhabitants: a people wholly immersed in technology, if not in part technological themselves:

Julius Deane was one hundred and thirty-five years old, his metabolism assiduously warped by a weekly fortune in serums and hormones. His primary hedge against aging was a yearly pilgrimage to Tokyo, where genetic surgeons re-set the code of his DNA.... (12)

     In Gibson's future world, technology has transformed the minds, bodies and souls of nearly everyone, from the rich and powerful who might elect to extend their lives and enjoy their amassing fortunes to the average kid on the block who might alter his appearance to fit in with the group:

[T]he Finn was a soft-voiced boy called Angelo. His face was a simple graft grown on collagen and shark cartilage polysaccharides, smooth and hideous. It was one of he nastiest pieces of elective surgery Case had ever seen. When Angelo smiled, revealing the razor-sharp canines of some large animal, Case was actually relieved.... He'd seen that before. (59)

Neuromancer's main character and hero-of-sorts is a special case. Aptly named, Case's body is free from any high-tech implants; as one character says of him: "Guy's a virgin" (49). Even more significantly, though, Case, at the novel's outset, has been ruthlessly disenfranchised from the technology he had regularly pervaded:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights receding.... (51)

After a forced surgical procedure that altered his brain in such a way that he could no longer "jack in" (37) to the system--connect his mind, literally, to the "fragmented mandala of visual information" (52)--Case spends his waking moments in search of a cure, a surgery or technology, a con or gamble, that might allow him to reconnect.

     For all the havoc modern technology has wreaked on the environment, the society and the individuals of Gibson's fiction, his characters nonetheless desire even more--more gadgetry, more computers, more access to virtual reality. Gibson's critique of this desire--to re-engineer the world and the self via technology--is, despite its position in the outsider subgenre of cyberpunk, rather legitimately timely. After all, the desire Gibson explores in his writing is hardly a futuristic fiction. In 1945 Vannevar Bush described concretely his vision of the memex in "As We May Think" as a PC-like work station of "slanting, translucent screens...a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers" (107), but his desire for a more perfect union, a more efficient and experiential man-machine interface was considerably less explicit and, quite unlike the majority of the essay, somewhat strangely, if not longingly, questioning:

All our steps in creating or absorbing materials of the record proceed through one of the senses--the tactile when we touch keys, the oral when we speak or listen, the visual when we read. Is it not possible that some day the path may be established more directly? We know that when the eye sees, all the consequent information is transmitted to the brain by means of electrical vibrations in the channel of the optic nerve. This is an exact analogy with the electrical vibrations which occur in the cable of a television set.... The impulses which flow in the arm nerves of a typist convey to her fingers the translated information which reaches her eye or ear, in order that the fingers may be caused to strike the proper keys. Might not these currents be intercepted, either in the original form in which information is conveyed to the brain, or in the marvelously metamorphosed form in which they then proceed to the hand? By bone conduction we already introduce sounds into the nerve channels of the deaf in order that they may hear. Is it not possible that we may learn to introduce them without the present cumbersomeness of first transforming electrical vibrations to mechanical ones, which the human mechanism promptly transforms back to the electrical form? With a couple of electrodes on the skull the encephalograph now produces pen-and-ink traces which bear some relation to the electrical phenomena going on in the brain itself. True, the record is unintelligible, except as it points out certain gross misfunctioning of the cerebral mechanism; but who would now place bounds on where such a thing may lead? (108)

     Who and where, indeed? The question is just as valid today, and just as unanswerable. Bush's agenda(3) that science and technology are essential to the increased prosperity and safety of the United States and, presumably, the "free world," is seriously critiqued by writers such as Gibson who can imagine the wholly autonomous progression of technological development in late capitalist nations.

     "Capitalism is necessarily technologically dynamic," writes David Harvey, "not because of the mythologized capacities of the innovative entrepreneur...but because of the coercive laws of competition and the conditions of class struggle endemic to capitalism" (105). With the competitive edge afforded by technology, it seems only natural for citizens in capitalist economies to invest in technology's continued development and application. For Gibson, such thinking gives rise to incessant growth and urbanization; "the Sprawl" is his vision of the North American megacity, "the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis" (43). Such thinking leads, also, to human re-engineering and the evolution of the cyborg.(4) By utilizing technology in their bodies as well as in their minds, the characters in Neuromancer posses the distinct advantage of a more seamless interface with their technological world: a quicker way to communicate and a more efficient route to commerce. As David Brande argues in an essay on Gibson's work: "the denaturing of the 'human' is the effect of yet another round of this revolutionizing of the modes and relations of production" (83).

2. The Struggle for Language

     Admittedly, the belief that the increased use of technology will necessarily lead to the nightmare visions of Gibson is a rather slippery slope. But it is really no more or less fallacious or logical than Janet Murray's dream of the ever adaptable human being who will learn to accommodate and appreciate the new technologies in life as well as the new technologies for narrating the stories of life. To a certain degree they are fortune telling, after all. What we do know is that technology, like language, has the potential to frustrate as well as empower, to complicate as well as clarify, to destroy as well as create. And like all things man-made, technology comes with its share of glitches and imperfections, at least one of which is a likely result of the contradictory "will-to-accuracy" or "desire for perfection." That is, necessary to the enduring desire for perfection is the enduring reality of the failed expression of that desire. That Nelson's complication of the language he employed to describe key concepts of Xanadu often led to confusion rather than precision is a case in point. Nevertheless, the inefficiency of ambiguity, of a less-than-meaningful articulation, of a thing without clear purpose has its own charms:

The other evening, watching Antonioni's film on China, I suddenly experienced, at the end of a sequence, the rustle of language: in a village street, some children, leaning against a wall, reading aloud, each one a different book to himself but all together...the meaning was doubly impenetrable to me, by my not knowing Chinese and by the blurring of these simultaneous readings; but I was hearing, in a kind of hallucinated perception (so intensely was it receiving all the subtlety of the scene), I was hearing the music, the breath, the tension, the application, in short something like a goal. ("The Rustle of Language" 79)

Barthes's "rustle of language" is, metaphorically speaking, the sound of desire, the unrealized goal of making meaning, of truly communicating.

     For all its failure, that desire is nonetheless a sweet sound to the ears of Donna Haraway, who, in "A Cyborg Manifesto," her 1985 critique of technology and postmodern culture, finds the prospect of human-machine hybrids compelling, if not inevitable, but is careful to acknowledge the potential dangers of achieving perfection, especially via technology:

Writing is pre-eminently the technology of cyborgs, etched surfaces of the late twentieth century. Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism. That is why cyborg politics insist on noise and advocate pollution, rejoicing in the illegitimate fusions of animal and machine. (176)

      The Haraway world is necessarily messy, ambiguous, unpredictable, de-centralized and imperfect. While the "denaturing process of science and technology, as well as those of recent theory and cultural postmodernism, vacate the space carved out by and for the Cartesian and Enlightenment versions of subjectivity," notes Brande, "they create multiple space for different forms of being--or rather, becoming in the world..." (82). Thus, individuality of thought and being ("Cogito ergo sum.") is not all together lost in the cyborg world but is only one of many modes of perception and representation.

     Haraway's vision contradicts the dystopic vision that to be cyborg means to buy into the total mechanization of self and world. Being cyborg does, however, change one's understanding of self and world:

Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein's monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden.... The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family.... Cyborgs are not reverent.... They are wary of holism, but needy of connection--they seem to have a natural feel for united front politics, but without the vanguard party. The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential. (151)

     If illicit and inconstant developments are essential to the humanity of the technology that is, as McLuhan understood it to be, an "extension of ourselves" (Understanding Media 7), then the Internet would seem to illustrate a remarkable cyborg achievement. The virtual world is sprightly with chatter, literature, commerce, galleries and pornography. And for all the talk of regulating it, the Internet, by its very nature, resists regulation. It was built, after all, to be resilient, to sustain communications even in the event of the most wanton display of power to date: that blaring means of silencing known as the nuclear attack.

     The metaphor of human existence the Internet is beginning to popularize is that of a distributed, decentralized network, which, while it respects individuality, abhors segregation. "In terms of the general shift from thinking of individuals as isolated from the 'world' to thinking of them as nodes on networks," writes Kunzru, "the 1990s may well be remembered as the beginning of the cyborg era" ("You Are Cyborg"). The extent to which people will use technology to think and be together and yet to share differences respectfully, comprehendingly, is anybody's guess. There is reassurance in the fact that people seem to take great delight in writing for the world via the World Wide Web and in interlinking their works with the works of others, sharing their texts as hypertexts, their media as hypermedia. Implicit in the tentativeness of the future is the role of human beings who have always had a penchant for humanizing their creations, however mechanical or technological. People have adapted to machines, yes, but people have adapted machines to themselves. "I am not sure why hypertext should be put under the category of technology (as opposed to literature for example)" (123), remarks Mireill Rosello, a professor of French who created multilingual hypertext versions of Roland Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text.(5)

     In her essay, "The Screener's Maps: Michel de Certeau's 'Wandersmanner' and Paul Auster's Hypertextual Detective," Rosello argues that "'technology,' like 'power,' tends to function like a transparent convention influencing the way in which we each make sense of our reality (that is, narrativize our problems)" (124). In the future that Rosello imagines, educators would have to explain "what it meant to 'read' before the times of hypertexts." So strange would this reading of linear texts seem in her future that instructors would have to provide the details of the "enormous amount of preliminary work and physical exertion" it required:

[A] reader would have to take a trip to a place called a library or to a bookstore, borrow or buy the book, or order it and wait, and might have to settle for a translation (for linguistic frontiers still very much coincided with national borders at that time). Then one would have to carry the object back home. Books were made of sheets of papers, called pages, that were turned over one by one to read them. Each page had a number, and it was more or less assumed that one would read the book from beginning to end. (121)

     Perhaps the description is somewhat belabored, but it reminds us that reading, as people read today, is a real skill. It requires a good deal of knowledge as well as a proficiency at operating the book technology, which most people take for granted. "I wonder," Rosello continues, "if the skills one needs to navigate comfortably within hypertext will soon become as necessary to one's social and professional survival as the enormous apparatus of transparent knowledge one requires to use books and typewriters or word processors" (Rosello 124).

     While it is unclear if competence with hypermedia and cyberspace is going to be "necessary," what is clear is that it is going to be common. Already, Don Tapscott is calling high-school- and university-aged students in the 1990s the "Net Generation" (1). In Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation (1998), he uses the term to describe a segment of the U.S. population that is not only "active on the Internet" but that has "some degree of fluency with the digital media" (3). Also significant is the size of the Net Generation, who, in 1998, comprise more than thirty percent of all Americans. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are now more "N-Geners" (2) than "Baby Boomers," the post-World War II generation who make up twenty-nine percent of the U.S. population.(6)

     Tapscott's thesis is that the Internet will be--and already is--culturally transforming. With the Internet "permeating U.S. households almost as fast as television did in the 1950s" (22), he is anticipating a digitally nimble era. As one might imagine, the era's inhabitants will not require advocates or apologists for hypermedia and cyberspace studies so much as they will need facilitators and guides.

II. Virtual Postmodernity

     While many English language, composition and literature professionals may not yet realize it, the majority of them have the training in linguistics, rhetoric and theory that is going to help them make sense of hypertext and cyberspace virtual worlds. In fact, as Landow has pointed out, the converse might also be the case:

I suddenly saw how good a lot of material, particularly byDerrida, was that I had not at first believed relevant or interesting. Many of my students who took my Hypertext class have toldme the same thing: they found the theory more accessible thanin the context of other classes. The theory and the medium areon the same wavelength; that is, there is a real convergence,even if it is not a total mapping of all theory to all technology.But hypermedia certainly is very useful in embodying thetheory just like the theory is very useful in intellectualizingand explaining the space. (Hubrich "Hypertext 2.0: An Interview with George Landow")

     Perhaps the simultaneous emergence of postmodernity and (especially computer) technology is more than a simple coincidence. Despite the ongoing debate about postmodernity's meaning, a postmodern ethos has nonetheless taken shape. A number of critics, philosophers and theorists have sought to define the term postmodern since it was first used, but, as Hans Bertens has observed, postmodernism "is not a monolithic phenomenon" (26).

     While there are few literary or cultural periods that really can be characterized as "monolithic," postmodern literature and culture can be characterized as decidedly more aware of its diversity. With such awareness in mind, "postmodernity," writes Madan Sarup, "emphasizes diverse forms of individual and social identity. It is now widely held that the autonomous subject has been dispersed into a range of plural, polymorphous subject-positions inscribed within language" (130). However tentative or fleeting the theory may sound, it is actually very easy to observe in college and university computer labs, where a student may be simultaneously writing an essay, lurking(7) in a chatroom under an assumed identity, and responding, ever so carefully, to an email from mom. The self who thinks at the computer cannot deny these virtual selves, which are constantly united and divided in the course of multiple tasks. The practice of computerized multitasking--of working back and forth between programs or engaging several programs at once--has become so common, in fact, that it is already the subject of a good deal of humor. For example, "multislacking" occurs, "when an employee has two browser windows open, a nonwork-related site on top of a productive one, and quickly clicks on the legitimate site whenever the boss is nearby" (Branwyn 52).

     In Life on the Screen (1995), MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle argues that computer screen windows "have become a powerful metaphor for thinking of the self as a multiple distributed system" (14). The self is thus comparable to yet another network of networks, and perhaps, just perhaps, more resilient in that self-knowledge. A widespread appreciation of such resilience may be more slowly realized than the resilience itself, however, as the idea of being cyborg, of cultivating a culture that accepts and assimilates technology, has its fair share of critics. "Technology," writes Robert Bly in his analysis of American culture, The Sibling Society (1996), "has destroyed interrelations in the human community that have taken centuries to develop.... We are drowning in uncontrollable floods of information. We are living among dispirited and agonized teenagers who can't find any hope." In Bly's view, technology is effectively fragmenting American society, and, in particular, the youth of American society, who, in his estimation, use digital technology to escape reality: "video games will provide fantasy death, and the Internet will provide fantasy friendships or fantasy sex" (169).

     Despite his back-to-basics political agenda, Bly's criticism is, like his poetry, honest in its feeling. He expresses as much trepidation as he does concern over the fact that our most powerful and complex technology--the technology that often confuses and overwhelms us--is widely accepted and assimilated by our children. Older generations should be concerned for their children, of course, but according to Turkle, there may be less to fear than to celebrate. Digital technology itself does not encourage or promote a schizoid perspective but allows for the conscious exploration of one's many selves; in addition, it provides children with the opportunity to test themselves and their ideas, to hone their communications skills, and to learn from their mistakes in a virtual space before taking on the space of the real world.

1. When Depth Gives Way To Surface

     Unlike Bly, I am anxious about this new wave of young people who are and who will continue to be my students (these "N-Geners," as Tapscott calls them) not because of their adept technological skill but because of my own relative lack of skill. I say "relative" because, to older, "Baby Boomer" colleagues, I am perceived around the office as some kind of computer disciple: the person who can help them recover their email attachments and install new programs. I am the person who is called upon to teach English courses via the technology of television and computer networks precisely because of my age, precisely because of my youthful "Generation X" status. But when I watch my students, when I see how unconsciously adept they are--in fact, how digitally they think--I feel very old at times and, at times, wholly defeated by the demographics of Boomers and N-Geners. I cannot help but wonder if there will be enough of my generation to go around.(8)

     In the United States, we are but a small sliver of the population; also known as the "Baby Bust" generation, we amount to a mere sixteen percent of Americans, crowded out on both sides by Boomers and N-Geners (see Figure 2-1). If we are, as Tapscott identifies us, "the oldest segment of the population whose computer and Internet habits resemble those of N-Geners" (20), there simply will be too few of us at institutions to teach the tide of computer users who, with each passing year, demonstrate such transparent facility with computing that they may feel somewhat alienated by the majority of their "low tech" professors. The fact that the job market has been so notoriously bad for college and university English professors in the past decade has certainly not helped the situation, as fewer and fewer Generation X professionals have been able to move into teaching positions.

     While computers have been and perhaps still are at the periphery of the thinking and planning of a number of English professionals, the Net Generation is changing that. When the computer is as taken-for-granted a tool for language as pen and paper are for writing it or as books and newspapers are for reading it, English professionals will have to re-think the means by which people are achieving (and not achieving) communication. For the means of communication is inclined to alter, if not transform, the nature of communication. As McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media (1964): "the medium is the message" (7); "it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action" (9). While Jay Bolter, the author of Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing (1991), shys rather conservatively from McLuhan's exuberant exhortations(9), he is often cited for declaring the later half of the twentieth century "the late age of print" (1). Bolter has seen the future coming for some time now, in fact. The "printed book," he argues from his perspective as a classics professor,

seems destined to move to the margin of our literate culture. The issue is not whether print technology will completely disappear; books may long continue to be printed for certain kinds of texts and for luxury consumption. But the ideaand the ideal of the book will change: print will no longerdefine the organization and presentation of knowledge, as ithas for the past five centuries. This shift from print to computerdoes not mean the end of literacy. What will be lost is not literacyitself, but the literacy of print, for electronic technology offers usa new kind of book and new ways to write and read. (2)

     However, there is one not-so-small problem: the "practical and cultural problem" which Stuart Moulthrop, a publications designer and professor of English, calls, "the disturbing presence of the past. Contrary to the testimony of the sixties," he contends, "print is not dead, nor is it merely sleeping." We are still living in strange times. Books are still written and read and reviewed; and they are still the central technology of knowledge and education. Thus moving on is more difficult than it seems, as moving on inevitably is. "The cultural complex of print," writes Moulthrop, "lingers on, monstrously transformed, haunting us in the dead of night.... The problem is that scholars, critics, developers, and designers cling desperately to the same old ways of doing what we do" ("Getting Over the Edge").

     Indeed, what we do with new technology is, more often than not, not all that new. This is especially true of readers and writers, for it is apparently a human habit to reinscribe old practices--old ways of knowing--upon new technologies, even when those new technologies portend new, perhaps even improved, epistimologies. It is one of the ongoing problems with being "post" anything: postwar, postmodern, poststructural, postcolonial, postindustrial. Despite the pervasive urge among European and North American artists and intellectuals to break away from the past--from the destruction of warfare, the elitism of modernism, the austerity of structuralism, the injustices of colonialism, and the hazards of industrialism--people are, as Yeats well knew:

sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal.... (21-22)

     To be postmodern is to be haunted yet hopeful, troubled yet thoughtful, to know that history repeats itself but differently. As Auden expressed it in 1939 "In Memory of W.B. Yeats":

The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living. (1.22-23)
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate.... (3.17-20)

     Sometimes the old way is not the better way, as familiar or desirable or inescapable as it may seem. But it is difficult to change one's habits, to be much more than an afterword or prefix, to do much more than ensue or prefigure (especially if one has grown accustomed to doing so). Inventing smart, new technologies is one thing, but inventing smart, new ways to use and understand them is another. "Even after we have given up on print," Moulthrop explains, "the majority of 'really electronic' text will be hopelessly contaminated with the old ways of knowing" ("Getting Over the Edge"). Of course, one might be wise to wonder about the converse: to wonder if the majority of this "really electronic" text hasn't already "hopelessly contaminated" the old ways of knowing.(10)

     One might also wonder if the overlapping and commingling of print media and electronic hypermedia hasn't somehow sustained and revitalized the art of communication, instead, and wonder if Moulthrop's use of the word "contaminated" isn't unnecessarily pejorative. Perhaps it is just the impatient, somewhat frustrated expression of a postmodern writer, who wants to make a clean break (from the linear media of print) and move on (to the hypermedia of computers). For even as he asserts "we are Gutenberg creatures no matter how hard we play at revolution," Moulthrop wants very badly to reinvent himself in a postGutenberg world; despite his talent for writing the well-wrought, well-organized, highly traditional academic essay, he longs for the day when he can "stop writing along the boundaries" and "step off the edge and onto the shifting surfaces" ("Getting Over the Edge").

     For Michael Joyce, an English professor and creative hyperfiction writer like Moulthrop,(11) the surfaces have begun to shift. In his book, Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics (1995), Joyce writes that the "nomadic movement of ideas is made effortless by the electronic medium that makes it easy to cross borders (or erase them).... At each crossing a world of possibility can be spewed out in whole or in kernel, like the cosmogronic dragon's teeth of myth" (3). Despite its book form, Of Two Minds is not quite linear, nor is it completely Joyce's. Some chapters include essays in reversed order and feature a pastiche of academic criticism and creative work; others include the critiques and creative contributions of friends, family, colleagues and students. The book illustrates or embodies Joyce's consciousness of what hypertext is rather than explains consciously what hypertext is about. It darts back and forth between a variety of topics, playfully, ironically. The essays, Joyce says himself, "are less a collection than a concoction" (5); readers are left with the sense of having navigated rather than having read, of traversing rather than penetrating. "When depth gives way to surface," note Taylor and Saarinen, "under-standing becomes interstanding. To comprehend is no longer to grasp what lies beneath but to glimpse what lies between" ("Interstanding" 1). For Joyce, the most desirable place to be--"a space" he believes one virtually can be--is in the "surf." In his alluring characterization of reading as swimming, he notes that, while readers are habitual divers, the murkiness of depth is hardly their preference; when we read, he suggests in the following conceit,

we find ourselves at the page bottom almost childishly contrite. We launch across the abyss with a quick recital of the last line or two, a hold-your-nose paternoster attempt at memory.... We pray that what we momentarily imprint upon the consciousnesswill hold in the whispery chant of memory and that memory,in turn, will transubstantiate it into a pale version of the now closed page. We pray to surface. (228)

     For Vannevar Bush, the ever amassing pages of human record required a memex, a machine that would augment memory as well as provide a more efficient and reliable means of accessing memory. Theodor Nelson's interest has been somewhat more personal; "Nelson," according to Wolf, "records everything and remembers nothing. Xanadu was to have been his cure" ("The Curse of Xanadu"). Perhaps it is a feature of the great postmodernist contradiction to assert that the remedy for a faulty (or overwhelmed) memory is a technology that relieves people of the need to remember. The feature does fit in well with what Linda Hutcheon describes as the "contradictory, resolutely historical and inescapably political" (244) tendencies of postmodernism. The record of human memory is becoming increasingly less human as it becomes more mechanical; and, in the same vein of contradiction, it is also becoming more easily manipulated by human beings, especially in its digital form.

     It makes sense that the subdisciplines of English that utilize computers and hypermedia interfaces more readily and more often are those areas which are perceived to be more predominantly mechanical or technical or information intensive. In the field of English language acquisition (as well as in foreign language acquisition), for example, the computer has been a dear old work-horse of a friend. Its talent for perfect, redundant simulation has been instrumental, making it possible for students to acquire language via a kind of virtual immersion: the repetitious experience of seeing, hearing, speaking, reading and writing language, of seeing, hearing, speaking, reading and writing language, in fact, until it is assimilated successfully by the learner. Hypermedia has also proven to be a valuable tool in language acquisition in that it can provide students with the experience of Taylor and Saarinen's "interstanding," of appreciating the fleeting interrelationship of meanings, rather than understanding, of knowing, profoundly, what something or someone means.

     Hypermedia is inclined to teach the skill of quick negotiation, a talent that is essential to all language users but especially important to those who must have ready access to any critically significant information language might convey. For this reason, hypermedia, and particularly the HTML-based hypermedia of the World Wide Web, has been breathing new life into business and technical communications courses, which make up the vast majority of the courses in English departments that address hypermedia document design issues as well as teach students to write for and publish to the Web. Recognizing that hypermedia, the electronic media of the Internet (which includes the Web as well as an assortment of email programs), is fast becoming the preferred method of communications in the real world, business and technical communications instructors have been among the first to regard seriously the relatively sudden changes that have occurred in the way people are managing, disseminating, acquiring and using information.

     Computer networks, including the Internet, intranets and extranets, have become a more common topic of conversation in these courses, as the documents of business and technology have been migrating from print to electronic media since the early 1990s. For business and technical writers who are adopting--who have little choice but to adopt--electronic media, it is very important to understand something about the nature of networks, how information is distributed across them and how people typically use them to access information. For a knowledge of networks translates into much more than a knowledge of networks; it gives writers of electronic documents the rhetorical advantage of knowing how to exploit the electronic system(s) which facilitate as well as dictate the means of information acquisition. Readers will benefit, too, of course, in that they can be more consciously critical of the media of hypermedia. In addition to learning more about computer networks, a number of business and technical writers are beginning to see the advantages of acquiring certain computer programming skills, as the electronic page, unlike the printed page, can manage a good deal more than text and images--more than audio and video, in fact: the electronic page can execute any number of computer applications.

     While a facility with hypermedia, computers and computer networks is certainly required more of those who study, work and teach in areas that call upon various and adaptive technical skills, such facility will eventually be incumbent upon those in the subdisciplines of composition, creative writing, literature studies and critical theory. The cyberculture of N-Geners, the digital practices of companies (and particularly publishing companies) as well as the instructional technology trends in higher education, I think, all but guarantee it. In his book, Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing (1987), Michael Heim, who recognized the word processor's power to render writing less authoritative and less personal, was already intimating at where the digital machinery of computers, common to writers and writing centers alike, would take us:

The distinctive features of formulating thought in the psychic framework of word processing combine with the automation of information handling and produce an unprecedented linkage of text. By linkage I mean not some loose physical connection like discrete books sharing a common physical space in the library. Text derives originally from the Latin word for weaving and for interwoven material, and it has come to have extraordinary accuracy of meaning in the case of word processing. Linkage in the electronic element is interactive, that is, texts can be brought instantly into the same psychic framework. (160-61)

     The psychic framework of writing, of disseminating information in electronic form becomes, in turn, the psychic framework of reading, of acquiring information and, in the case of literary studies, acquiring creative and critical writing. The numbers of online creative writing and literary criticism journals, such as Arachnion, Gravity, Hyperizons, Enterzone, Coven Pride, NWHQ, are on the increase, and many well-established print journals are beginning to see the merits of inhabiting cyberspace as well: The Mississippi Review, The Lion and the Unicorn, Stanford Humanities Review, Critical Mass, The Metropolitan Review, Postmodern Culture.(12)

     The great swirl of literature and literary criticism available online is spicing up the digital soup; as much a feature of the Internet as pizza delivery sites, customizable porn and Al Gore, the literature on hypertext--the literature that is hypertext--has given us a good deal to think about.

2. A Rich Means of Testing Them

     Thinking about hypertext is what George Landow and his students have been doing at Brown University since the 1980s. And with the advent of the Web and Landow's many books on hypertext (notably Hypertext and Hypertext 2.0), much of their thinking is being more widely disseminated.(13) For Landow, hypertext intersects with literary studies very naturally; there is, as the subtitles of his two of his books on hypertext suggest, a "Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology." However, that subtitle can be somewhat misleading. What Landow is


saying is that contemporary literary theory has somehow cultivated or is necessarily explanatory of hypertext. "What is perhaps most interesting about hypertext," writes Landow cautiously, "is not that it may fulfill certain claims of structuralist and poststructuralist criticism but that it provides a rich means of testing them" (Hypertext 11, Hypertext 2.0 36).

     Landow's critical agenda is distinctly postmodern; "its spirit of exactness, its sense of 'research' and 'problems' is closer to the spirit of science than of art in the old-fashioned sense" (Sontag 297). What is important is that hypertext can help to flesh out literary theory in a fashion similar to the way in which a CAD program(14) might help an engineer or architect to visualize construction plans. If the analogy holds, hypertext and hypermedia may well become as much the tools of the trade for literary studies as the tools of the trade for teaching literary studies. In the case of literary and critical theorists, such as Roland Barthes, Mikhail Bakhtin, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and Julia Kristeva, hypertext modeling helps readers and writers to visualize key theoretical concepts. The concepts most often selected for hypertextual study are those concepts generally associated with postmodernism or poststructuralism: Barthes's "writerly texts" and "lexias," Bakhtin's "multivocal" or "polyphonic" narratives, Derrida's "deconstruction," and "assemblage," Foucault's "hidden networks," Deleuze and Guattari "nomads" and "rhizomes," and Kristeva's "intertextuality" and "signifying practice."

I. Nomads, Networks and Intertextuality

     First and foremost, the virtual reality of cyberspace is a nomadic virtual space. Only space allows for nomads; otherwise the nomad could go nowhere: otherwise the nomad would be a devoted citizen. "The nomadic trajectory...distributes people (or animals) in an open space," (380), write Deleuze and Guattari. Nomads are fiercely independent wanderers, but they nonetheless have a vast assortment of habituated routes. While nomads hardly seem the type to form relationships, the truth is that nomads form relationships continuously, for it is their relationships that, in part, enable their nomadic lives.

     The fact is that nomads rely upon networks, favoring those of a highly decentralized, distributed ilk. The more decentralized and the better distributed, the further a nomad may roam. After all, space is everything to a nomad. Space is also a vital feature of networks, which are, by definition, "crossing each other at certain intervals, and knotted or secured at the crossings, thus leaving spaces" (Webster's). It makes some degree of sense that the term "netizen"(15) never quite caught on, that Internet and Web users prefer to describe themselves as "surfers" and their activity as "surfing the Net." Surfing, the sport that would be entertainment (or the entertainment that would be sport), is necessarily individualistic yet tribal, and while it features numerous intervals of crossing (of leaping over and beyond the watery trajectories of strangers), it requires that people spread out and keep a friendly distance from one another.

     The metaphor of the nomad is not only an appropriate characterization of the user of hypertext and electronic media--the figure who, in his or her own time, traverses the Net or Web--but the metaphor is an excellent means by which to visualize "packet switching," the technology by which Internet data is transmitted across a multitude of fiber-optic cable. In cyberspace information is itself nomadic; as programmed, digital information will split up into small groups (or "packets") to avoid a constricting environment, take a less traveled path, and reassemble itself at its final destination. "Each package is numbered and labeled.... If a packet runs into a cut line or downed computer it moves along another path and, in most cases, finds its way to the proper computer" (Goldman "Packet Switching"). The electronic media is, thus, "naturally" intertextual, sharing space in the digital world until their paths cross, until they are momentarily linked and then, as momentarily, not linked together.

II. Multivocality, Polynarratives and Assemblage

     In the intertext, as on the Internet, narratives are unending. Like Bakhtin, who experiences the polyphony of narrative as "constructed not as the whole of a single consciousness, absorbing other consciousness as objects into itself, but as a whole formed by the interaction of several consciousnesses, none of which entirely becomes an object for the other" (18), the hypertext reader is also involved in the "interaction of several consciousnesses." According to Landow, the hypertext reader makes sense of them in the solipsistic fashion of reading one's own mind but with the self-consciousness that one's consciousness is "distilled from the combined experience of the momentary focus, the lexia one presently reads, and the continually forming narrative of one's reading path" (Hypertext 2.0 36). The idea is reminiscent of Barthes's "writerly text," which effects the kind of reading that demands a certain readerly skill but also renders "the pleasure of writing" (S/Z 4). "Has it ever happened, as you were reading a book," writes Barthes:

that you kept stopping as you read, not because you weren't interested, but because you were: because of a flow of ideas, stimuli, associations? In a word, haven't you ever happened to read while looking up from your book? ("Reading Writing" 29)

     In hyperlinked and otherwise programmed hypertext or hypermedia, readers gain an understanding--or, better yet, interstanding--of multivocal or polyvocal narratives via their own self-conscious writerly readings but also via a text that makes literal in its preprogramming many of ideas, stimuli and associations affecting the reader. This kind of narrative, which Janet Murray calls a "multiform story" (30), is video game-like in terms of its interactive conditions. Players of the literature-like video games Myst and Riven know instinctively what it is like to navigate the catwalks and pathways of strange new environments, as they likewise know the joys of writing their own readings (see Figures 2-2, 2-3, 2-4 and 2-5).

     Not only do these games require people to "look up" from the text--or "away from" the screen--in order to assimilate, interpret and negotiate what they have just experienced (both games use animated and still images, audio and video as well as text), but readers must "look back" in a fashion that is somewhat more complex than returning to the activity of reading a book. When readers gaze back down at the page of a book, they generally continue along a linear path, that is until they look up again. When readers of hypertext and hypermedia look back at the screen, they are generally confronted with the decision of where to go next. In Derridean terms, such readers enjoy explicitly the mosaic of "assemblage" (Hypertext 2.0 34), an assembly of possibilities, alternatives and contradictions that come together at one instant only to be reassembled.

III. Deconstructing, Decentering and Rhizomatic Growth

     "To the filmmaker," writes Michael Joyce, "the visual dissolve signifies the ellipsis of the historical present, the shift of tense to time passing. Electronic text is, instead, the constantly replaced present tense, the interwovenness, the interstitial, which the dissolve, rather than signifying, enacts" (233). When Riven players or readers advance through the multiform story of Riven, they are forever reorganizing and renegotiating their experience. This happens at the moment one computer image dissolves into another, at the moment the hypertext seems to advance but is merely replaced. Deleuze and Guattari would call such an occasion a "smooth space" (478), a space that is, as Moulthrop argues, "a structure for what does not yet exist" ("Rhizome and Resistance" 303).

     Quite unlike linear texts, hypertext and hypermedia can actually reveal, though in a fleeting moment of virtual simulation, a smooth space. The shimmering point at which most anything seems possible is objectified. As far as narratives go (multiform or otherwise), this smooth space is where "de-centering" ("Structure, Sign, and Play..." 226) begins, where stories take fantastic, deconstructive turns and where readers, in a constant struggle to reorient themselves, "desire for the center" ("Structure, Sign, and Play..." 225). That the desire is real even though the center is not is a contradiction that can exhaust the pleasure readers experience, especially in the case of those readers who have not yet come to appreciate some of the alternative concepts and metaphors of reading.

     Joyce's argument that electronic text is "constantly replaced present tense" in which readers do not move forward but merely experience the illusion of doing so is conceptually close to Derrida's distinction between reading (of experiencing illusion) and of reading deconstructively (of resisting illusion). "Deconstruction," writes Derrida, "does not consist of moving from one concept to another but of reversing and displacing a conceptual order as well as the nonconceptual order with which it is articulated" (qtd. in Culler: 141). For Deleuze and Guattari the metaphor of "the tree" (5), the single structure from which other structures branch off, advancing upward and growing outward, is as outdated as it is misleading. Instead, they find the wildly growing and ubiquitous grass-root, "the rhizome," more applicable:

Let us summarize the principal characteristics of a rhizome: unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states. The rhizome is reducible neither to the One nor the multiple.... It is composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions of motion. It has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle (milieu) from which it grows and which it overspills.... Unlike a structure, which is defined by a set of points and positions, with binary relationsbetween the points and biunivocal relationships betweenpositions, the rhizome is made only of lines.... In contrast tocentered (even polycentric) systems with hierarchical modes of communication and preestablished paths, the rhizome is anacentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without aGeneral and without an organizing memory or centralautomation... (21)

     For Stuart Moulthrop, who finds Deleuze and Guattari's "rhizome-book," A Thousand Plateaus, a kind of "incunabular hypertext" ("Rhizome and Resistance" 300), the rhizome metaphor is, in light of distributed computer and hypermedia systems such as the Internet and the World Wide Web, more useful than most. Rhizome-like the Internet and Web continue to grow, as much in theory as in practice, spawning, as Deleuze and Guattari remind us is characteristic of rhizomes, in various forms, including "the best and the worst: potato and couchgrass, or the weed" (7).


1. 17 Edison's inventions of the "kinetograph" (a camera that used film roles) and the "kinetoscope" (a peep-show device) were fundamental to the development of motion pictures.

2. 17 The term analog is used in reference to a type of data or equipment. According to Richard Brennan, analog means "analogous to or representative of some reality, as opposed to digital, which means having to do with numbers. Analog information is continuous, as in a standard radio or TV signal--a waveform, as contrasted with discrete groups of information broadcasts by satellite earth stations in a digital communication system" (8).

3. 17 The agenda was published in Science--The Endless Frontier (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1945).

4. 17 The "cyborg" is one of the end-products of cybernetics--the study of electronic computers and the human nervous system. While science fiction has popularized the notion of cyborgs as literal human-machines (i.e. The concept of 'the Borg' on Star Trek: the Next Generation), Donna Haraway calls the "hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction" (149). "Being a cyborg," writes Hari Kunzru, "isn't about how many bits of silicon you have under your skin or how many prosthetics your body contains. It's about Donna Haraway going to the gym, looking at a shelf of carbo-loaded bodybuilding foods, checking out the Nautilus machines, and realizing that she's in a place that wouldn't exist without the idea of the body as high-performance machine. It's about athletic shoes" ("You Are Cyborg").

5. 17 Rosello used the hypertext software programs HyperCard and Intermedia.

6. 17 Tapscott identifies the "Baby Boom" generation as people born in the United States between the January 1946 and December 1964, a total of 77.2 million people. The "Net Generation" segment of the population was born between January 1977 and December 1997, a total of 81.1 million people. See Growing Up Digital, pages 20-21.

7. 17 "Lurking" describes the virtual behavior of an individual who, while he or she is present in the chatroom, does not engage in conversation.

8. 17 "Generation X" is identified by Tapscott as made up of people born between January 1965 and December 1976; the "Baby Boom" generation is composed of those born between January 1946 and December 1964; the "Net Generation" includes people born between January 1977 and December 1997 (21).

9. 17 Two of my favorite examples come from The Gutenberg Galaxy. In his introduction McLuhan declares that "the technology of electric circuitry represents one of the major shifts of all historical time" (8); later in the book, he announces that "with [the] recognition of curved space in 1905 the Gutenberg galaxy was officially dissolved. With the end of lineal specialisms and fixed points of view, compartmentalized knowledge became as unacceptable as it had always been irrelevant" (302).

10. 17 J. Hillis Miller has consistently argued this point. See the discussions of his essays, "The Ethics of Hypertext" (Diacritics 25.3 [1995]: 27-39) and "What Is the Future of the Print Record?" (Profession 95 [1995]: 33-35), which appear in chapter three of this text.

11. 17 Michael Joyce is the author of the hypertext story Afternoon, released in Storyspace (Cambridge, MA: Eastgate Systems, 1990). Stuart Moulthrop is author of the hypertext Victory Garden, also in Storyspace (Cambridge, MA: Eastgate Systems, 1991).

12. 17 Arachnion <>, Gravity <>, Hyperizons <>, Enterzone>, Alt-X <>, Coven Pride <>, NWHQ <>, The Lion and the Unicorn <>, Stanford Humanities Review <>, Critical Mass <>, The Metropolitan Review <, Postmodern Culture <>.

13. 17 See Brown University's The Storyspace Cluster at

14. 17 Computer-Aided Drafting (CAD) programs are used to draw complex structures (including two- and three-dimensional illustrations) with great accuracy and detail. Two CAD pioneers, Ivan Sutherland and John Walker, are intriguing figures in the history of the Internet and hypermedia. Ivan Sutherland, who was the second director of ARPA's Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO), developed "Sketchpad," the first computer-drawing program; John Walker, who founded Autodesk, the makers of the premier CAD program, AutoCAD, invested millions of dollars into Theodor Nelson's Project Xanadu.

15. 17 The Netizen was an online publication created by HotWired to "explore political issues and media" during the U.S. Election year of 1996. In "Birth of a Digital Nation," John Katz explores the Internet's role and potential roles in civic administration. See Wired April 1997. <> (2 March 1998).