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Hypermedia: When Will They Feel Natural?

Hypermedia: When Will They Feel Natural?

John Pickering

Psychology Department

Warwick University

Preamble: a Conversation.

As the culture of the book mingles with the new culture of hypermedia, conversations like the one below can be overheard. Acolyte (A), a PhD student, is talking to two professors. One is Bookdon (B) who, while a kindly, authoritative figure, nonetheless clasps his copy of The Uses of Literacy with an air of defensive uncertainty. The other, business-like and briskly confident, is Cyberdon (C), who divides her attention between the conversation and her laptop computer. The latter, from time to time, emits a soft electronic clang to indicate the arrival of another communication from the Internet.

A: I would like to know why Whitman called that poem I Sing the Body Electric. I mean, why Electric? What did he know of electricity in 1855?

B: Hm, interesting. Not my area of course, but I think I'd start by by looking at a good biography and then perhaps try Killinsworth's Whitman's Poetry of the Body. You could also look at who was writing near his time on scientific things. Beaver's The Science Fiction of Edgar Allen Poe and Marx's Machine in the Garden could both be useful in a general sort of way. You might have a chat with old Tomefondle. I think he did something on machine images in poetry once, or was it ships? I forget .....

C: Email Max Modem at San Diego, the address is Got that? Ok. He may not do much on Whitman now, but he can bounce your message on to someone who does. He'll probably mail you back some grad course notes and stuff like that. In fact, I think he's got a hypertext web on his public access file that deals with American poetry of that era. It's neat, movies and all, comes up really well on Netscape. You could download that so long as you've got the right URL tools. I'd use Fetch, Mosaic is too slow. What sort of machine do you have?

A: Well, at the moment I've only got an old PC, but there's a really good Quadra in the department that I can use. I hope to be getting a laptop of some sort and I might just be able to afford a CDROM drive, but then I'd have to do with less RAM. It's hard to know the best options ....

B: Excuse me ......

C: Well, whatever you do, make sure it's got the 486DX4-100 processor and at least eight megabytes on board so you can have a really meaty cache memory. Anything else and you can't get on because the disk keeps on kicking in and out .....

A: Yes, and when Janet clogs up, well, you might as well forget it.

C: Right, working online with the Internet can be a pain. If traffic gets too heavy I just logout and do something stand-alone. That reminds me, I've come across this really neat hypertext tool, Networx or something like that. It needs a reasonable platform mind you ....

B: Er ... excuse me ... Whitman? How about looking through recent numbers of American Literary Studies? There's usualy some good stuff in it, though where it's got to now they've moved the journals to make room for those wretched computer thingies I've no idea.

A: Oh, yes, well, first I think I'll do a search on the LITFAX database. Some keywords like "Whitman", "Body" and "Electr-" with a wildcard. If there's too much I'll sort it by date and work back from the most recent entries. They're more likely to be downloadable in any case. How does that sound?

C: Sharp!

B: Incomprehensible. (This is said, softly and sadly, as he fades into the computer-free zone of his study).


While this vignette is a caricature, it is now a commonplace suggestion that hypermedia are the coming vehicle for literacy. It is proposed we are in a state of transition, where the torch of literary culture is being passed. The passing generation are those who feel most at ease with ink on paper, libraries, and marginalia, the homely low-tech culture of the book. But these aimiable dinosaurs, it seems, are about to be engulfed by a new culture of electronic textuality with its jargon of hypermedia scholarship. The Internet, the World Wide Web, URL tools, and hypermedia all promote the rapid movement of texts and the interpretation and responses to those texts. This, it appears, is to be the stuff of a new academic culture as, in the postmodern condition, it participates in a mobile and fluid play of signification that is part of what Baudrillard has called the 'ecstasy of communication'.

This essay is a brief inquiry into some consequences of the new culture. After a introductory observation on cultural evolution, it will deal with the interaction between hypermedia and book culture and with some changes that this interaction may bring, particularly to what feels authoritative. One conclusion that will be drawn is that there are limits to these changes. These limits have to do with the nature of narrative.

On evolution.

The explosive growth of information technology over the past few decades is part of an acceleration of cultural evolution. While it is more usual to think of evolution as progressive biological change in plants and animals, human evolution is now more a matter of cultural change. Cultural evolution has to do with the progressive development of tools and practices and, more centrally to what is being dealt with here, with the interior trace that accompanies these technological developments and which modifies human consciousness. This trace may have deeper roots that even McLuhan suspected in saying 'When technology extends our senses a new translation of culture occurs as swiftly as the new technology is interiorised'.

In fact, recent developments in evolutionary theory suggest that as well as being genetically programmed, complex creatures like human beings are far more open to environmental shaping during their development than previously thought. Since human beings also modify the environment, adapting it to their needs by purposive action, the succesive generations who develop within this adapted environment thereby receive both a genetic and a cultural inheritance. Human evolution, far from being the mere survival of accidents, is also, somewhat as Lamarck and Bergson surmised, a matter of self-creation through purposive action.

Human adaptive modification of the environment occurs on a massive and problematic scale. Human beings develop within a cultural environment which is a human creation and from which they assimilate fundamental aspects of their psychological makeup. The human condition is thus self-produced within a reflexive semiotic system which encompasses cultural and biological levels of order and which blurs the boundary in the process. This system embraces tools as well as genes, skills as well as reflexes, and beliefs as well as instincts. The mind is not an absolute of nature, but a process supported by a system of mutually evolved relationships. Human mental life, with its skills and values, is not fixed or predetermined but is reformed again and again as the tools and practices of the cultural milieu are assimilated by successive generations.

Now cultural evolution has accelerated to the point where biological change is, on the human timescale, practically irrelevant. In very rough terms, the time between significant milestones in human cultural evolution is about a tenth of the previous one. Thus, while tool culture is known to be well over five hundred thousand years old, about fifty thousand years ago there was a marked jump in the sophistication and diversity of tools made, which may well have been associated with developments in cultural transmission. Writing appeared about five thousand years ago and, in the West at least, Gutenberg makes the textual foundations of common culture only about five hundred years old. The remarkable technological innovations of the last fifty years or so have transformed these foundations, making them hypertextual, mobile and malleable.

This technological acceleration of cultural evolution, has a culmination of sorts in the postmodern condition. With the end of modernity and the unifying project of the Enlightenment, our cultural condition is one of fluid and mobile signification. There is a sense of collapse where cultural systems that seek to finalise this or that aspect of reality, such as modernism, Marxism or science, have suffered a deconstructive reappraisal. Instead of theoretical or stylisitc purity, we find eclecticism, plurality and ironic juxtaposition.

Cyberspace, hypermedia and the transformation of traditional practices all areas of culture all participate in this condition. The technology of simulation has made the textual base of culture virtual and fluid. This fluidity now conditions the sensibilities of those who develop within it to the point that, as Baudrillard has argued with respect to the media and advertising, what now counts as reality is what can be simulated. Mechanical mimesis, the technology of simulacra, a cultural movement whose beginnings were detected by Benjamin, has rendered the condition of post industrial culture one of reproduction on the grand scale. Presently, in what Lyotard calls the libidinal economy of post industrial culture, this mimesis is imploding, rendering the present condition one of quotation and eclecticism. Sign value, as Jameson has argued, has come to dominate both use and exchange value as the economic basis of society. As a direct effect, human sensitivities and desires are more malleable and hence are changing more rapidly, than ever before. Hypermedia are now in primary schools and will soon be in the cradle. The generations that will develop within a technology of simulacra will experience a world where boundaries previously taken as fixed and patent will weaken and become more negotiable. The natural and the artificial, the original and the derivative, the real and the fictional, the spontaneous and the contrived will blend as never before. Some comments from Vaclav Havel touch on these themes:

Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on its way out and something else is painfully being born. ... the distinguishing features of such transitional periods are a mixing and blending .... a tendency to quote, to imitate and to amplify, rather than to state with authority or integrate. New meaning is gradually born from the encounter, or the intersection, of many different elements. ... this state of mind or of the human world is called postmodernism.

Postmodernism as a conceptual tool for understanding cultural change is useful to the extent that developments in different areas can be shown to be part of an underlying movement. A bridge between disciplines is formed if, say, in the humanities and science such common patterns of change can be found. In fact, as Charles Jencks and others have shown, in many areas such shifts have been a feature of Western culture for decades now. They have to do with the new fluidity and mobility of signification. They also have to do with the debate between advocates of stylistic and theoretical unification and advocates of pluralism.

Now the mixing and blending of book culture with hypermedia touches on just these issues which, as George Landow points out, challenge assumptions of ownership and authenticity, both of individual texts and of the meta-narrative of disciplines as a whole. Hypermedia also challenge how texts are presently written, how they are read and edited, and how critical reactions to them are developed. These practices are presently oriented towards the values and sensitivities of the printed page. As hypermedia appear in all these practices, cybernetically oriented sensitivities and values will be created. Here, perhaps, is an example of the intersection of many different elements that Havel has in mind. What new meaning will be gradually born of this encounter cannot presently be known. However, the encounter is certain to leave a trace in human consciousness having to do with what feels natural as a vehicle for discourse, narrative and criticism. This is not only a matter of cultural theory but also something with very practical consequences.

Postmodernism and practicalities

Postmodernism is not so much a condition as a direction. It is a cultural shift that not only promotes change in the theory but also in the practice of many disciplines. Changes to the textual basis of culture are part of this shift towards a greater mobility and fluidity of texts. These changes will perhaps be most keenly felt in the humanities because here the text is in some sense more sacred than it is in, say, science. As media become hypermedia they are ceasing to be localised ink on paper, but are distributed and electronic. There is a shift from isolated linear texts to interconnected web-like hypertexts. Libraries are less like storehouses and more like nodes in an information retrieval system. There are corresponding changes to how texts are produced and used. Books invite systematic reading, although they can be explored and browsed. Hypertexts on the other hand invite exploration, although they can, with effort, be systematically read. While books have readers whom the author has cast in the role of audience, hypertexts have users who are participants since they may also become authors, depending on how the system has been put together by its originators. Pedagogical texts are structured by teachers, hypertexts are structured by teachers and users together. As a result pedagogy shifts from instruction and memory to discovery and search skills. Competence which used to be assessed by the capacity for recall and critical analysis shifts towards performance and ironic collage as the essay becomes the composition.

This shift is not occurring in a political vacuum. In the United Kingdom we are still in an era of a massive and under-resourced increase in student numbers in higher education. Despite heroic efforts it has not been possible to maintain the quality of teaching not of the resource infrastructure that supports it. While information technology is sometimes represented as a way to repair the damage, it is just as, if not more, likely to be the means to make yet further bogus economies. More computers mean fewer teachers, distance learning via the Internet, lectures enhanced by hypermedia given to massive audiences dispersed in space and time, and distributed textual resources on a pay-to-use basis. All these things share in the logic of late capitalism. The theoretical vocabulary of post-Fordist economics applies to the Academy too. Not only corporations but also universities face downsizing and a shrinking unit resource, the commodification of information and access to it, and performance related pay based on quantitative indicators.

These trends already affect teaching, learning and how academics present their work to others. Although most lectures are still largely the traditional arrangement where somebody speaks to others who are physically present, the thin but bright edge of the hypermedia wedge already can be seen. Lecture notes can be retrieved from a computer system, video projections appear on screens which may be linked to computers the other side of the globe. Conferences too now often involve a type of performance academia where animated data displays, videos, computer graphics, and sounds accompany or even comprise what it is that the lecturer has to say. Hypermedia are now tools for the communication of textual culture at the highest level.

At what might be called an entry level, students are encouraged to develop their writing skills helped by the reactions of those who teach them. But whose work is here in question? Texts are increasingly prepared and presented electronically . Word processors have spelling and syntax checkers that work in real time and are customised to the idiosyncratic shortcomings of individual users. Texts can be writen, edited, copied, enhanced, and circulated as never before. Bibliographic and reference materials come not just from reading lists, but from automated searches of databases using sophisticated tools. Locating, collating, and combining relevant materials have become electronically enhanced. This fluidity and mobility of texts and critical responses is part of the cut and paste culture of the Internet. If hypertextual scholarship promotes the reading of original texts while speeding up and amplifying critical responses to them, then there has been a quantitative gain. If it does not, then the price of the transition to a new style of academic work appears to be a loss of quality to do with originality and individual responsibility.

If large, even exhaustive, lists of relevant references can be found with smart database tools then lecturers will increasingly find sources being quoted that they will not have read. Given the time to follow things up, this is an advantage rather than anything else. But as staff student ratios slide, it will become more and more difficult to check whether items in bibliographies and references actually exist, let alone whether they have been correctly used or whether they have actually been read or not. But as for students, so for teachers. The resources of hypermedia scholarship work for everyone and if students use spelling and syntax checkers, and why should they not, then perhaps lecturers may expect cybernetic assistants who survey text for poor structure and plagiarism while at the same time checking the accuracy of bibliographies and references.

As hypermedia tools and practices take hold, they will inevitably change the sensitivities of lecturers and students to what counts as the textual basis of their subject. The book may well undergo something like the modulation of authenticity that Benjamin forsaw for works of art as mechanical means for reproduction took hold. As the cultural milieu is shaped by powerful tools and practices that radically accelerate the creation and distribution of meaning, this will create new values and sensitivities. The transition from books to hypermedia will profoundly effect what 'feels right' as a vehicle for textual culture.

Such transitions happening all the time and are charged with value. For instance, when paperbacks first appeared they had a rather downmarket feel and there was quite a sharp reaction that this was somehow devaluing the status of the book. Now, after a generation or so of cultural conditioning, this feel is gone. The values involved in the coming trial of strength between book and electronic culture are equally charged. Already it is clear that hypermedia attract the same sorts of critical reactions that books do. Students will talk about how easy to use this hypertext is or how user friendly that system feels. Similar critical responses to authorial styles cannot be far away.

Hypermedia are already well entrenched and with this comes a change in what Bourdieu calls the habitus of academic culture. The habitus is a set of dispositions, tastes, practices and values that are developed, shared and transmitted by a community of practice. When there begins to be a feel, a distinctive set of values, to the new tools of a discipline, then a habitus has emerged. One way to track this is via the sense of personal value invested in the material resources of a discipline. The value placed on personal copies of beloved novels is clear, but the emotional significance of books that are actually textual tools can be under-rated. Their role in the rites of passage of academic life links them in a very deep way to personal identity. Such a lot can be invested in the tattered copy of Brown's Freud and the Post-Freudians or the compact, comforting and densely annotated copy of Hart's Organic Chemistry: a Short Course, that were these books to be lost, an important part of the owner's history would go with them. Now, for all that they compact texts so wonderfully, could the shiny CDROM ever have the same emotional charge or homely feel? If it does this will be a signal that hypermedia will have become integrated into cultural transmission in a deep and significant way.

Again, there may well be a difference between disciplines here. In science and technology, the nature of their practice being what it is, hypermedia may fundamentally change what counts as the authoritative statement. Already, the proposal has been made that scientific research should not appear in paper journals, but instead be circulated on the Internet as a refereed discourse. This, it appears, would bring about an overnight transition to a post-Gutenberg era of scientific discourse. There may indeed be something about science that lends itself to communication via hypermedia. Advances in physics or biology, although they may be expressed in formulae and diagrams, are often closely tied to dynamic images. Texts that can display these underlying images will offer a mode of communication that, as part of the postmodern challenge to boundaries and the blending of traditions, combines the scientific method with the textual traditions of the humanities.

The Nerve Bible, a work by the performance artist Laurie Anderson, begins and ends with the image of a burning book. Throughout the concert, a cascade of cyberspace icons poured from the vast on-stage screens and even the written program was thick with Internet and World Wide Web addresses. Anderson is sponsored by a US publishing house called Voyager. In the theatres where the Nerve Bible is presented, there are displays of Voyager's publications many of which are by authors with international academic reputations, like Marvin Minsky and Donald Norman. These publications cover music, the visual arts, history, biology, and psychology. All are on CDROM. What counts as the textual base of science and technology, albeit in popular form, is changing fast.

But these hypermedia and the academic momentoes mentioned above are secondary texts or textual tools, and predominantly scientific ones at that. What of the book itself, the primary textual vehicle of the humanities? Will this ancestral vehicle of textual culture be consumed in Anderson's transforming fire? Perhaps here the case is different; perhaps the book is fire proof.

How it feels.

John Updike, to whom neither science nor technology is alien, celebrates the book in sharp and dismissive distinction to hypermedia. What he celebrates, however, is the book's aesthetics :

.... the charming little clothy box of the thing, the smell of the glue, even the print, which has its own beauty. There's something about the sensation of ink on paper that is in some sense a thing, a phenomenon rather than an epiphenomenon. I can't break the association of electronic trash with the computer screen. Words on the screen give the sense of just being another passing electronic wriggle.

Now why is the book celebrated in this way? Obviously, books are beautiful in ways that hypermedia may never be, but why are screens felt to display mere passing electronic trash? Perhaps the stimulus for this dismissive reaction is a challenge to the habitus of the literary establishment. The habitus is not merely the private language of an inward-looking subculture; it bears signs of authority and power into the wider cultural arena. Possibly Updike and other celebrants of literary sensitivities feel that their habitus has the authority that Shelley gave to poets. For the unelected legislators of mankind, what feels right and beautiful does not so much symbolise what they do, it is what they do. The aesthetics of the book participate in the wider practice of literature, the disclosure of the human condition through narrative. The beauty of the covers has meaning within a narrative practice which normally entails a beginning, an end and an effort after felicity in between. Even typefaces have meaning. What is typographically appropriate for a romance by Scott may be quite wrong for a brutal, spare tale by Hemingway. The way books are encountered, what they present to the eye and mind together, has meaning within a larger practice of narrative.

Aesthetics are thus a pointer to fundamental questions. Will what lies beyond the book create new sensitivities and values concerning discourse? Will the advent of hypermedia bring new ways to present a narrative and to frame a critical response? If hypermedia are merely a means to transmit textual culture and if that culture, especially its narrative elements, has an internal logic dictated by how the mind works, then the answer is no. Hypermedia may expand and change the habitus of literary culture, but nothing in the fundamental experience of a narrative will alter.

Time, space, and the human mind being what they are, narrative is a matter of structured progression. The challenge of hypermedia is said to lie in their web-like interconnectivity and dense cross-referencing. But how deep is this challenge really? From Tristram Shandy through Ulysses to Catch 22 it is clear that well before the era of hypermedia literacy, books presented narratives in hypermedia fashion. The reverse case, while possible, is less interesting. Hypermedia are powerful means to enhance secondary textual resources, but to present a novel in hypertext form adds little to what the book already does and might even be a distraction.

Of course, it is not the advent of hypermedia alone that has raised the question of how technology will change textual practice and sensitivities. This question has been about for decades in education. Teachers and lecturers have long suspected that television has changed habits of attention and expectations about how an argument is presented and illustrated. Perhaps hypermedia are set to make similar changes in how the textual basis of a subject is encountered by learners and teachers alike. The skills of reading, for example, may change to reflect the habits of attention that develop in exploring hypermedia. Books, and textbooks in particular, may come to feel restrictive to students used to surfing the Internet. Part of the glamour of hypermedia stems from the participatory role of the user. Perhaps it is for this reason that the aesthetics of hypermedia, at present at least, are more functional, having to do with how elegantly or naturally the user is able to get from one part of the text to another. Eventually, merely reading a book may feel passive by comparison.

However, hypermedia can also appear bland and uniform, reflecting the constraints of the authorware rather than the subject being displayed. This problem can be aggravated if no extended passges are offered. Merely skipping between textbites can be oppressive if users are not able to add links of their own. Authors slip from authority to authoritarianism if they control too closely what secondary linkages are added to the primary text. This amounts to a form of thought control in comparison to which the homely virtues of the book seem both liberating and liberal.

Hypermedia seen in this light are almost parasitic, like jackals around a kill that the lions of deconstruction have already made. After Derrida chokes the narrative voice and Foucault attacks the text, what's left is yet further dismembered. But then, magically, it is re-membered with the electronic wizardry of hypermedia. The text is rebuilt as a hypetext with powerful ways of getting around the new structure. A remarkable transformation, but can the book as the vehicle for narrative survive such treatment?

Why the book is basic.

Much depends on the book in question. Most books are not a vehicle for a literary narrative. Rather, they are reference works, textbooks, manuals, and lists. These are the tools and general habitus of literate culture. In the more specialised arena of the humanities, dictionaries, concordances, materials for language teaching, catalogues, and the like are powerfully amplified by being transformed into hypermedia. As such things are used earlier and earlier in intellectual development, so they will become to feel natural. A consequence of this internalisation of technology, as McLuhan pointed out, is that consciousness changes. As the tools and practices of postmodern culture are internalised, so will the sensitivities and values that are brought to a text change.

Heidegger has explored the consequences of technology and concluded they are profound. Human consciousness, he argues, has been transformed by the huge explosion of technology during the modern era. The world seen by the presocratics is not where we live now. What to Heraclitus was an ever flowing creative advance, we now experience as a standing resource for human action. Heidegger also considered how tools participate in the habitus of technological culture. Tools disappear from consciousness as they are naturalised, although they change it in the process. Heidegger distinguished the 'present-at-hand' from the 'ready-to-hand', identifying the former with what feels artificial and the latter with the natural and unconscious. So long as a tool is working properly, it disappears into the action for which it is being used. When it is unfamiliar or when it malfunctions, it reappears in consciousness.

When hypermedia tools disappear from consciousness in this way they will have undergone a McLuhanesque internalisation. But what in the habitus of textual culture will have changed in the process? Will then the book feel un-natural, present-at-hand, an obstacle to really engaging with the text? This is much the way that hypermedia feel now to the dinosaurs of book culture. The question is, can there be a reversal such that books will come to feel the same way to the community of hypermedia scholarship that is so rapidly taking form?

The answer is no. Despite the radical claims made for hypermedia it is likely that only tool-like texts will undergo this assimilation into the habitus of hypermedia scholarship. Such texts will be enhanced by hypermedia since they lend themselves to the rapid shifts of view or to the location of particular items that is their use value. But books that offer a narrative or a sustained critical argument will not be enhanced. Linearity, for all that it may seem old fashioned, is a property of narrative and of consciousness, of Bergson's dureé.

Hypermedia will transform some bookish practices and will create some entirely new ones, but the effects, powerful as they may be, will not fundamentally change the book. This is because what counts in narrative is what the human mind does, not what technology can bring about. As we move into the era of hypermedia, what lies beyond the book will remain book-like. What constitutes a text will remain grounded in human capacities for producing and understanding discourse. Of course, as technology changes there will appear new ways to practice bookish traditions. As these develop, the human capacity for discourse will change accordingly. However, pace McLuhan, such change has limits. While the sense of what constitutes a narrative and a critical argument may be amplified here or modulated there, it will not be fundamentally altered.

Thus, overnight transitions as a result of hypermedia will only occur in specialised areas like scientific publishing, if they occur at all. Hypermedia will bring new tools and practices to certain communities of practice. But these communities and their culture are forming above rather than beyond the book. In a conservative but non-prescriptive way, the book in its present form will remain the foundation of the humanities. It is a cultural tool of resilient and enduring character, even though that character will be expressed in a different way as technology evolves. Many new modes of presenting texts will appear and many books will be transformed into hypermedia. Even so, the nature of narrative will not change. What the book already offers is a vehicle for this universal feature of human discourse at an appropriate level of technology. As a vehicle for the narrative voice, the book cannot be bettered.