Introduction | What Hypertext is Not Bound to Do


1. Dizzied and Wondering

    Like a number of other texts, this one has come about as much by accident as by choice. It was not supposed to be a text about hypertext but a text about autobiography. I knew something about autobiography, and the genre certainly compelled and sustained my interest; my proof was a good, solid introductory chapter on the subject which found a place of prominence on my desk. But something happened a few years ago that caused me to put the chapter on autobiography away (at least for awhile). In 1994 I discovered an unfamiliar icon on the desktop of the instructor's work station in my department's computer lab. I remember glancing around, and while my students toiled away on their essay assignment, I "double-clicked" something called Mosaic. I will not attempt to describe the experience that is so utterly taken for granted today. I "surf the Net" regularly now (with Netscape's grown-up version of Mosaic, Communicator), and, in retrospect, my initial excitement about the World Wide Web is somewhat difficult to explain.

    My colleagues and students worried that I spent too much time in front of computers. They had seen the Web, too, and found it (as it was in 1994) rather useless. But I found myself attracted to the Web not for its content. Call me superficial, but I was interested in its unusual good looks. The Web was my first real experience with hypertext, which, I have discovered in the course of my research, is akin to saying the audio cassette was my first real experience with recorded music. Hypertext, like recorded music, as been around for some time, but it wasn't until it appeared to me in a form that made sense--a form that was affordable, transportable and customizable--that I took an interest. After several months of staring into the virtual world facilitated by Mosaic, I wanted to know all about hypertext, which took me in quite a few directions. The hypertext that fascinated me most was on the Web, the global hypermedia system which displays and interconnects an infinite variety of texts, graphics, audio, video and computer applications via the Internet. To know and understand something about the Web meant knowing and understanding something about the Internet as well as its popular interpreter, the Web browser. Fortunately, the history of hypertext and its more evolved cousin, hypermedia, was not too far flung. Even though a number of hypertext systems, such as HES, FRESS, Guide, Notecards, Intermedia, HyperCard and Storyspace, were developed as free-standing systems (as company or institutional PCs were free-standing in the days before networking), their origins are intertwined, if not linked inextricably, with those of the Internet.

    In the meantime my colleagues and students were starting to worry again. And, I worried a little, too, for my interests, it seemed, were leading me farther and farther from my academic discipline, my chosen field: English. Fortunately, Michael Joyce, an English professor at Vassar Collage, had recently published Of Two Minds: Hypertext, Pedagogy and Poetics (1995), which featured a marvelously consoling introductory chapter: "The Comfort of Knowing We Are Not Lost." Joyce, who is also keen enough on autobiography to use it in his introduction, recounted his experiences with his computer and how those experiences have been life changing:

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    The perspective shift that Joyce describes is an important one, I think, for it is happening all over, whether people realize it or not. In fact, my theory about why more people fail to notice the shift is that its effects, at present, are mostly mildly dissatisfying, something like turning down an unknown street in an otherwise familiar city. The turn does not seriously undermined our confidence about where we are so much as it trifles with that confidence. The feeling that we might actually get lost someday is real albeit triflingly fleeting. And because we do not acknowledge our fear, we tend not to notice it; most of us are "left dizzied" according to Joyce, "and wondering how to use what we know in order to make our way" (2).

    Making our way (out as well as in as well as around) may depend upon trying something different, however, taking new turns, finding new paths. What hypertext itself facilitates is change; what it represents is the possibility of a variety of new paths. The underscored, highlighted, hyperlinked word on the Word Wide Web can take us anywhere, anytime. What I have learned from studying hypertext is that there are no narrow fields of study; my profession will be affected by hypertext, and like all the other professions, it will have to make its way.

2. Study the Effects

     The primary aim of On Going Hyper is to provide English language, composition and literature professionals with a critical history and analysis of the trends in hypertext and electronic media that will likely have--indeed, are already having--a profound impact on research and teaching in general but on reading and writing more specifically. Its secondary goal is to disseminate information that will assist professionals who are converting reading and instructional materials or who are planning to convert these materials from print media to electronic media and/or hypermedia.

     In wholehearted agreement with J. Hillis Miller's proclamation that "the MLA needs to make every effort to study the effects of the electronic revolution" ("What Is the Future of the Print Record?" 95), I have, in addition to documenting and interpreting many of my own experiences with computer-assisted teaching, research and distance learning technologies, witnessed the pedagogy of a number of professionals (many of whom are English professors) currently experimenting with technology-assisted teaching and hypermedia. Examining how instructors and students are affected by online research, reading, writing, text delivery, and communication systems (including email and television) and examining how these systems affect teaching and learning is vital to any legitimate critique of electronic media, and especially vital to any critique which ventures professional guidance.

     While my aims might at first seem a bit disparate, I believe there is a special need in the English professional community for studies that focus more on the relationship between electronic media and hypermedia theory and electronic media and hypermedia practice. To date, the vast majority of publications on hypermedia are--sometimes quite cryptically--theoretical. And with all due respect to literary critics and theorists, there is a certain logic to this development. As Brown University's George Landow notes in his introduction to Hyper/Text/Theory, "[e]lectronic linking, which provides one of the defining features of hypertext, also embodies Julia Kristeva's notions of intertextuality, Mikhail Bakhtin's emphasis upon multivocality, Michel Foucault's conceptions of networks of power, and Guilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's ideas of rhizomatic, 'nomad thought'" ("What's a Critic To Do?" 1). That is, many literary critics and theorists--and especially poststructuralists--have already presupposed a text that finds itself well outside the bounds of the canonical or hierarchical forces of print media.

     The literal arrival of this presupposed text, though, still seems a bit fantastic to the average English professor. Precisely because it is outside the bounds of print media, many ignore or reject it as inconsequential, and do so with a kind of "it's not my department" attitude that, while common, is hardly practical, if not ultimately harmful. The injury English professors may do themselves when they casually denounce the Internet as "junk filled" or "worthless" is fraught with the kind of irony an English professor might ordinarily relish. We are, after all, the very people who could use our knowledge of language, our creative instincts, our interpretive abilities and our editorial skills to improve the Internet; we are the very people who could, by adapting hypermedia to serve our needs, make degrees in English far more robust and marketable.

     A new crop of Internet-related jobs is emerging for talented writers and communicators. Somewhat unusual for the computer and software industry, many of these jobs speak to women. As a group, women are especially poised to enter higher-paid "technology-assisted" or "online" careers in instruction, writing and management. Their traditional success in fields such as education and communications combined with the attitudes of a younger, far more "feminized" group of Internet developers and aficionados makes for what Working Woman's Magazine has already called an "ideal environment" (37).

     Of course, when anything sounds too good to be true, caution is usually warranted; and by this rationale, the Internet's great success should inspire, among other things, a good deal of scrutiny. Many of the members of the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of the Print Record, which was established in 1993 as an advocacy group for the preservation of primary records, have already migrated from the topic of books to that of electronic media and hypermedia; already, they have established themselves in positions over the new genre(s) as "watch dogs" of various ilk: some dubious, some faithful, some rabid. In order to clarify what these members have been "watching," Chapter 1 of this text, entitled "History," chronicles the development of the Internet and hypertext and focuses on the social and political ramifications as well as the technological applications of importance to the English professional community. Without attempting to be comprehensive but, instead, representative, this history examines the origins of the Internet and hypertext, explaining the basics and critiquing the rationale behind the implementation of certain representative systems and projects.

     While the focus of Chapter 1 is primarily historical, Chapter 2, "Theory," considers hypermedia criticism, philosophy and theory and, particularly, how such criticism, philosophy and theory, to use Landow's term, "converge" (Hypertext 2.0 2) with certain theories of technology. Anticipating that hypermedia studies will find a respectable place in English departments, as film and television studies did in the 1960s, Chapter 2 inspects a range of philosophies and theories that predict fundamental changes in the literary humanities and view technological advances as precipitating these changes. Postructuralist literary critics, such as Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes; postmodern philosophers, such as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari; science fiction writers and cyberpunk theorists, such as William Gibson and Donna Haraway; and English professors, such as Janet Murray and George Landow, are especially enlightening and informing. Their ideas and arguments, all of which articulate the growing force of technology in and on Western culture, are essential to understanding the contradictory nature of hypertext and the utopian/dystopian ethos of hypermedia studies in the context of postmodernism.

     That these contradictions find their way into the uses (and abuses) of real, present-day electronic communications systems and hypermedia projects, is one of the main concerns of Chapter 3, "Practice." Drawing from my own experiences with teaching distance learning composition and literature courses via the Georgia Statewide Academic and Medical Systems (GSAMS) television network and Peachnet, the state's wide area computer network (for which I have developed a good deal of Web content), I contend that the "access" and "democracy" claims of institutions and organizations implementing and augmenting television-based and computer-based learning systems can be erroneous and merit the close scrutiny of anyone who is truly interested in effective education. Because, as Robert Markley comments in his introduction to Virtual Realities and Their Discontents (1996), "[t]echnology never escapes politics"(4), it stands to reason that the applications of technology are going to be affected as well. Without television networks, for instance, there is no televised distance learning; without Web service there is no online hypermedia. Though online hypermedia has become far more electronically rambunctious and far less expensive to disseminate or acquire, it is still more or less subject to the control of the commercial and/or academic powerbrokers of telecommunications and computer networks. Thus the prevalent theoretical commentary on electronic media and hypermedia, which often underscores the remarkable "freedom" these technological applications allow us, needs some grounding in the real world.

     Certainly some of the "freedoms" of distance learning are already being realized. Instructors and students no longer have to travel great distances to teach or to take their courses. They are free to stay at home or at the home office or classroom. The immediate result is that they have more free time on their hands. However, the eventual reality is that they are going to have to work harder to pay for the technology that allows them this free time. In addition, it has already come to my attention that instructors and students involved in distance learning may be putting themselves in a situation that actually diminishes far more important freedoms: their academic and constitutional freedoms. Recording and monitoring technology make all of this possible. The legal questions about what constitutes a classroom and, therefore, what constitutes "fair use" of copyrighted materials in the classroom are still in dire need of answering; far too many instructors (and students) are unaware of their legal rights in the distance learning environment. Concerns about professional and institutional copyright and the violation of privacy and academic freedom that can occur with recording and monitoring devices are especially compelling. For example, is it appropriate for a third or "executive" party to view or record a class without the knowledge or permission of the instructor and students in the class? And if it is not, why do so many telecommunications and distance learning systems feature third-party monitoring and recording equipment?

     Whether or not such questions are ever sufficiently answered, the implications of such questions are tremendously important for instructors (and students) to understand. Chapter 3 is, therefore, as much an account of useful technological applications and pedagogical strategies as it is a kind of cautionary tale. It addresses the need for a greater understanding and appreciation of the complex and dynamic rhetorical strategies that instructors must develop when they teach courses or produce informative materials that are technologically mediated, especially when instruction and/or information is mediated in an environment or via a system that is not yet aware of or not yet working to guard against the potential for abuse.

     My hope is that this text provides useful information that demonstrates the means by which more beneficial relationships can be fostered in an electronically mediated environment. When instructors who desire to teach or who are required to teach via a televised distance learning network or online via the Internet, they will need to think about how their courses will change. They will need to consider the most effective pedagogical strategies for accommodating that change. Before learning how to change, however, technological mediation must be examined carefully, for the course becomes the mediation and the mediation becomes the course. That is, the English professor is no longer the professor per se just as the course is no longer the course per se; instead, he or she is the professor-on-television or the professor-online teaching or facilitating the course-on-television or the course-online.

     Where the new instructional and information technologies are taking our institutions of higher learning and our English departments, and how we can manage to use and accommodate them in good conscience is the fitting subject matter for my conclusion, which speculates and is necessarily open-ended. Nevertheless, the conclusion of On Going Hyper investigates some of the tougher, basic questions. While an "electronic education" is becoming entirely feasible, for example, will and (perhaps more importantly) should it be accepted and respected as more traditional education is accepted and respected? Can a liberal arts education--can degrees in subjects such as English language, composition or literature--be obtained at a distance, via a succession of electronic "stand ins" for human communication and interaction? And, if this can happen (as it certainly is already happening), what might that mean to English professionals? If they decide that such technology may be counterproductive to a humanities education, will they be replaced by other, more adept, more charismatic (and maybe less scrupulous) virtual instructors? Because the answer to this question seems to me a likely "yes, they probably will be replaced--slowly though steadily," my conclusion is not without a plan of action.


Notes

1. Joyce quotes from "Buzz-Daze Jazz and the Quotidian Stream," a paper Guyer presented at the Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention in New York in 1992.