Skip to main content Skip to navigation

The Hypertextbook.

The Hypertextbook.

John Pickering
Psychology Department
Warwick University

Originally published in Paradigm: The Journal of the Textbook Society, 1994, No. 15, pages 23 - 34.

Texts are Tools.

When technology extends our senses a new translation of
culture occurs as swiftly as the new technology is interiorised.
Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962.

Tools are objects fashioned for a purpose. Texts are fashioned. Some, like workshop manuals, are born purposive. Some, like the Declaration of Independence, achieve a purpose and become thereby a symbol of national identity. Others, like Twelfth Night, have purpose thrust upon them by being co-opted into the curriculum. Texts, which can have purpose in some or all of all these ways are thus clearly tools too.

Thus, texts are cultural tools, part of the symbolic resources available to people to carry out their lives together. Cultural tools whether they are objects, practices, ideas or texts, help to create and to support human consciousness. As McLuhan pointed out, when the technology that produces these tools changes, human consciousness changes with it.

Contemporary educators are produced by, are producers of and are participants in a culture of textuality. The tools of this culture include reading skills and habits, books, journals, newspapers, textual icons like the Lord's Prayer and the Bible, which simply means "book". The authority of text is shown in phrases like: "Get it in writing" and "Going by the book".

A culture of textuality means that almost all forms of education, at some stage, involve a written text. Hypertexts will perform a similar function for a culture of hypertextuality. Now, since texts and hypertexts are tools and since tools tools have evolved, what is meant by hypertextuality may be clarified by putting both it and textuality into a common evolutionary perspective.

The slow, Darwinian mode of biological evolution is now virtually imperceptible when placed beside the far more rapid Lamarkian mode of cultural evolution. Cultural evolution is the accumulation of practices and knowledge that accelerate the growth of human consciousness far beyond the biological norm. Looking at the evolution of textual tools, this acceleration is clear.

About fifty thousand years ago tool culture took a sudden leap forward, although tools had been made for perhaps two million years. One of the reasons for this was the emergence of orally transmitted culture,textuality carried by discourse. About five thousand years ago written texts mark the start of textuality proper. About five hundred years ago the Gutenberg Bible ushered in textuality as popular written culture. About fifty years ago meta-textuality appeared as textuality became reflexive with the appearance of such works as Sassure's Cours de linguistique générale, Derrida's Of Grammatology and Foucault's Archeology of Knowlege. Meta-textuality is founded on the recognition of two complementary semiotic production. Texts are products of human consciousness. Consciousness, to close the loop, is produced within a culture of texts. This circuit, revolving and evolving in the space of reflexive cultural discourse, leaves as a material trace the tools and practices of textual culture.

Each phase in this evolution of textuality appears ten times more quickly than the last. Continuing with this acceleration, as media technology approaches, surrounds and then enters education, hypertextuality is perhaps five years old. Unlike metatextuality but like Gutenberg, hypertextuality is a technological rather than an intellectual revolution; but, as McLuhan demonstrated, the one becomes the other in time.

By hypertextuality is meant the transformation that media technology will make to the textual basis of contemporary culture. Hypertexts integrate written text with speech, images, sounds, the voice, and virtual worlds of embodied experience. Hypertexts are interconnected, dynamic, changing with the wishes of the user. Note "user" not "reader". A participant in metatextual culture is still a reader, albeit a sceptical one. A participant in hypertextual culture will not only be a reader but also an explorer and creator.

Hypertextuality is not coming, it came.

Hypertextuality is part of a media technology explosion that began quite a while ago. As anyone in contemporary education will know, there's no shortage of opportunities to find out about such things as: Multimedia; Hypermedia; Virtual Reality; the Information Superhighway; Internet; Janet; Bitnet; The Worldwide Web; CD-ROM's; Online databases; Electronic Mail (email); Electronic Journals; Electronic Bulletin Boards, Gophers, FTP's .... and yet more. The tide of jargon bears in upon us, new, rapidly changing and, to lovers of old style textuality at least, faintly threatening.

We have the sense that an immense change may have begun. We may also feel scepticism too since as well as hypertext, there's hype. So many loudly-trumpeted displays of media technology make a dramatic entry but then fade away. Who now remembers the new Domesday project? Others make a more modest appearance but eventually bring about a major transformation. Word processors are not just intelligent typewriters. They offer tools for text production like line and section numbering, cutting and pasting, footnoting, inserted graphics, tables and charts, spelling checkers and syntax checkers.

Skilled use of the hypertextual tool kit is changing the way work is written and how it is that students have anything to write in the first place. Essay writing with references and bibliographies is now done to a generally higher technical level, partly because automated searches for combinations of names, dates, titles, subjects and, more subtly, for citations, are becoming standard study skills. Lectures are finding, with mixed feelings, that students can often provide more up to date references for a topic than those given out in lectures. Automated access to vast and constantly updated bodies of reference materials is now a commonplace. These skills in hypertextual scholarship are rapidly becoming part of the resources that students are expected to bring to university education.

Hypertextuality is not just the existence of hypertexts but the cultural production of skills to use them. With hypertextual culture will come the hypertextbook. It is in fact prefigured in current educational infrastructure, where materials are passing at an increasing rate into an arena of electronic texts and images accompanied by electronic means to have access to them. It is within this powerful and rapidly growing arena that the hypertextbook is taking shape. The next section traces this shape without the mundane constraint of realism.

Janet learns about Criticism, John walks about the Brain.

Criticism, as well as other discourses, cannot assume that its province is merely the text. It must see itself as inhabiting a much contested cultural space in which what has counted in the continuity and transmission of knowledge has been the signifier as an event that has left lasting traces upon the human subject.
Edward Said, The Problem of Textuality, 1978.

Janet's hands move between keypads and an array of sensitive screens. On them pictures, symbols and words come and go while snatches of music and voices are heard. In the middle of the array, a newspaper-sized screen shows the Penguin edition of Leavis' D.H. Lawrence: Novelist. Janet is reading, on page 219, Ursula Brangwen description of Hermione Roddice as: " ... a tall slow, reluctant woman with a weight of fair hair, and a pale long face. ...". Janet touches the bottom of the page. It turns over. She reads Leavis' opinion that " ... Hermione's presence and her manner are as vividly evoked as those of any character in fiction." To one side of the screen "Professor Grieve's comments" is written in orange. She touches it. Phrases in the text go orange, including "vividly evoked". Janet touches that and another screen lights up. From it Ted Grieve, the author the hypertext Twentieth Century Criticism, looks at and speaks directly to Janet. He discusses Lawrence's and Leavis' treatment of visual imagery. He illustrates what he has to say with snippets from various film versions of Women in Love and with recordings and pictures of Leavis himself. His point is that for critics and writers of nearly two centuries ago, visual imagery may have had a different narrative force than it does now. In a time of multimedia art, different sensibilities are brought to the written word.

After a few minutes, Janet cuts off Prof. Grieve's comments but leaves a marker to show where he'd got to. She returns to the book and turns back a page or so, she wipes her finger along the description of Hermione. A variety of things appear: one is a box displaying comments made by other students, others are pictures of the Roddice character in films, others are paintings by Lawrence himself. She touches one and it changes into a short passage by Leavis on Lawrence as a painter. She goes back to the student's comments; one is about the word "reluctant", which was what drew her attention to the sentence in the first place. It directs her to passages elsewhere in Women in Love and in other works by Lawrence. She types a few instructions, and a list appears showing places where Lawrence used "reluctant" and cognate words like "disinclined" "unwilling" "averse" and "loath", to qualify an animate noun. She looks at a couple of them, leaves a few remarks of her own in the comments box and then closes Leavis' book. All the things on the screen that had appeared while she was reading it close too. She surveys what's left. She notices that a red icon, a mouth and an ear, has appeared. She collects her thoughts for a moment and then touches it. Prof Grieve appears again and asks her a question. These un-announced viva voce examinations are his speciality. She thinks his question over, replies and what she says is stored for Grieve to hear later. The red icon goes away.

She types a few notes, reads and sends some email and then looks at her clock/diary/timetable. It's time to go home. She closes down the various screens. One shows the map-like index of "Twentieth Century Criticism . Names, icons, pictures and text are linked into a web. Some of the web is green, some red. She sighs. Red means still to do, and there's too much of it. Still, she has a copy of The Common Pursuit in her bag, she can read it on the bus.

On the way out, she stops by the door of the VR unit. Inside, John has just climbed to the top of the superior colliculus. "Colliculus is Latin for little hill" Guider's voice reminds him. From where he stands, he can see the base of the hippocampus. He slowly scans it, and runs his hands over its surface, feeling for the minute ridges the brain atlas had said would be there. "Where's the amygdala?" he asks. "Down and to your left", replies Guider. "I'll light it". A portion of the surface to his left slowly pulses with blue light. "OK, now if I go straight ahead do I get to the third ventricle?". "That's right". John walks carefully, feeling the slight incline.

As the ventricle comes in sight it appears like a narrow corridor with irregular walls, some five times taller than he. He walks forward, looking for where he'd left a marker earlier in the session. He finds it and stops for a moment to settle down in his memory the journey he's just taken. He prods the wall. "It feels firmer here than on the cortext" he says to Guider. "That's because this is white matter. The cortex, being made of grey matter, is more fluid"

"I'm closing now" he says to Guider. "OK, goodbye". In front of him, the inner walls of the brain fade and are gradually replaced by a rather featureless room in which there is a consol of screens and keypads and in the middle of which John is standing on a low platform. Another voice, the Librarian, tells him: "Wait for the signal before removing your gear". After a few seconds a chime gently rings. Taking the VR helmet and gloves off, John gets down from the platform and goes over to the consol. He moves the neuropsychology texts to one side of the screen and expands a three dimensional atlas of the brain. Through its translucent surfaces he sees a winding blue thread. It is the trip he's just taken. After a few minutes rotating the atlas, he closes it and adds his comments to the project report his group is writing. Bringing up the map-like index of "The Compleat Brain Explorer", he notes with satisfaction that nearly all of it's green now. Even better, there's a note from Jane saying she's waiting for him outside.

Nothing is true, everything is possible.

Back to reality, of which these virtual vignettes are not yet a complete part. However, every detail from which they were composed presently exists. Communication by electronic mail grows apace. Systems for combining images, voices, sounds and texts are commonplace tools of industrial and commercial practice. Virtual reality is used in entertainment, the military, industrial design and academic research.

Chemists build molecules by picking up groups of atoms and feeling how they might fit them together. Architects take their clients into the buildings they are designing to see if things are satisfactory. If they aren't, they can be altered, there and then. On leaving virtual space, the architects know that they will find that, back on the drawing board, the design will have changed accordingly. This is happening now. If resources were made available, media technology like this could be in use in education within months rather than years.

They will not be available; industry and the military will have first call. But once systems have been developed there, they will begin to percolate out into other areas of culture which will gradually be able to afford them. The percolation may be more rapid than in other cases of technology transfer. Every five years the same amount of money buys ten times the computing power; power being related to how much memory a computer has and how fast it runs. Of course, power is nothing without software, but here too, the means to create software are themselves increasing in power year on year.

Media technology is well past the development phase. Hypertexts like those imagined in the previous section are feasible now. The only question is how quickly they can become affordable. An interesting issue here is obsolescence. Like cars, computers are replaced by new models very quickly. However, computers don't wear out as quickly as cars. New versions of software appear even more rapidly and software doesn't wear out at all. It becomes obsolescent by becoming too difficult to integrate with new systems, but if it is to be used on its own, it remains useable indefinitely.

Powerful computers are replaced long before they become unuseable, and powerful software is replaced by newer versions, at which point copyright protection tends to lapse. In the next decade or so, remarkable amounts of computing power could pass down the education system as affordable used systems become available. This pump priming will see increasingly sophisticated expectations and skills passing up the educational system as learners have access to training And, perhaps more imortantly, merely have the opportunity to play and gain implicit skills greared to powerful computing resources. These skills and expectations will create a demand for media technology at a time when the educational system may increasingly be able to afford it.

Madness in the Library and the Fate of Paper.

A text is an object-event that copies itself, fragments itself, repeats itself, simulates itself, doubles itself and finally disappears ....
Foucault, Madness and Civilisation, 1965.

But there is a text called Women in Love. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. We know who wrote it and when. Many of us have copies of it. Equally, there are critical appreciations of Lawrence, created just so that the quality and stature of a great writer might be recognised and so endure. Why, then, should a text disappear?

Some cultures are said to be wary of photography. They feel that something that can give such a lifelike image of a person may take something lifelike away from the person to do it. We don't feel so protective of the texts that hold our culture, but perhaps we should. Like any text used in university teaching, Women in Love is subject to a Foucaultian reproductive madness, mimeomania, that breaks out in libraries as the examination season approaches. The photocopying machines run hot and mountains of paper are used as the vivid presence of Ursula Brangwen and Hermione Roddice becomes an object-event that copies itself, fragments itself, repeats itself, simulates itself, doubles itself.

Perhaps it could it disappear. Aided by hypertextual skills learned in primary school, the writers of the early 2000's will compose postmodern narratives interwoven from original writing and ironic quasi-quotations of other novels. Such novels will be treated within the hypertexts of the 2100's. In them, Women in Love, by then found in paper as frequently as Beowulf, may have all but vanished.

Perhaps it will not be necessary to wait until 2100 for this Foucaultian disappearing act. When media technology has become central to educational practice, say in twenty years time, paper texts will have been marginalised. Textbooks will have been the first to go. Although paper textbooks presently remain the backbone of most pedagogy, there are numerous signs of the approach of paper-free hypertextuality. Paper textbooks are often accompanied by electronic media which offer tests, backup materials, demonstrate effects, offer programs and provide data. It is not hard to see this trend increasing to the point where the electronic media hold the text as well. Very few textbooks are so big that they couldn't be put on one of todays compact disks. Future compact media will hold a library.

Students are increasingly equipped with media technology skills that downgrade paper, such as word processing, electronic communication, data retrieval and the ability to write programs. Paper journals are being supplemented by electronic ones. Books and articles are circulated in electronic form before publication. Indeed, some authors now make the entire text available electronically. New ways for creating texts are emerging as electronic mail passes in an ever denser cloud between academics, students, researchers and the business community. Out of this cloud condense special interest groups whose communications, collectively edited, occasionally turn into books or articles. These embryo hypertexts have many authors and arise from dialogue rather than being a monologic narrative. Paper texts are monologues, solos while hypertexts will be dialogues, choruses.

There are new ways too, to read such texts. Linear access is only one of many options. There may be many entry points. It is easy to search text, indexes or section headings for words, phrase or other targets. As mediatech hots up it may become poswsible to search for ideas, images, voices, pictures and actions. Hypertexts will not so much be read as explored. In their exploration, hypertext readers could write comments, respond to the comments of others, place pointers, put in links, add, delete or re-group material. Reading, responding, speaking, listening, pointing, drawing and writing become mixed together. The next edition of a hypertextbook could compose itself by being used.

With such a blossoming of the means to read and produce texts, many questions are raised. For example, who owns what text? Automated citation searches mean that student essays can now refer to more recent sources than lectures. Lecturers raised in a culture of academic oneupmanship may find this difficult. Hopefully they will not fail to recognise, eventually, a co-operative means to keep courses up to date. The textual base of a course is no longer the exclusive property of teachers.

Students have always shared ideas; that's good. They may also share notes, that's allowed. Sharing essays is not allowed. Unacknowledged sharing of text with sources is plagiarism. With the growth of hypertextual skills like word processors, optical character recognition, cutting and pasting, the boundaries here have become blurred. It gets harder to decide whose work is whose.

Hypertextuality poses many challenges for conventional textual culture. Authenticity and stability of texts as well as the originality of responses to them are the stuff of life for the way we educate now. After a century of growth at the pace at which media technology is currently growing, the way we educate will be very different.

Over the Horizon

At their blandest and dullest, predictions about media technology are that it will merely amplify current pedagogy. A few innovative practices and resources will appear here; some ink on paper will convert to images on screens there. Some teaching methods may be broadened by electronic communications. And so on. Despite this tinkering, the conclusion is that the basic image of pedagogy will remain the same: a teacher who is in some sense in charge of a text guides students through that text in a roughly linear fashion.

This conclusion would be the natural reaction to some of the hyperbole about media technology. Although scepticism is justified, experience with previous extravagant pronouncements about the impact of technology shows that the conclusion is probably wrong. The claims made for Artificial Intelligence have not come to pass. Computers do not have the vote, make legal judgements, write creatively or have feelings, although all this was predicted to have happened by now. However, what has emerged from trying to make these claims good has proved to be enormously important. Computers do most of the translation in the European Commission, they land jumbo jets with hundreds of souls on board and they are eliminating jobs at an accelerating pace. Likewise, even if speculations about media technology prove to have been overblown, what will come from trying to turn them into actualities will even so have an important effect on education.

At its wildest and most exciting, media technology will utterly change economic, social and intellectual life. The impact on education will be greater than the invention of movable type that liberated the culture of the text. The Gutenberg Galaxy will stand revealed as merely a local province in the intergalactic empire of cyberspace. Instead of linear texts owned and doled out by authoritarian teachers, future pedagogy will deal in parallel hypertexts obtained, explored, played in and organically assimilated by participatory, autonomous life long learners.

Once the glowing clouds of such rhetoric disperse, there is likely to stand revealed a more middling state of affairs. Nothing is going immediately to blow away the familiar tools of textuality. Books, textbooks, journals, newspapers, libraries, marginal notes and a pleasant read in the open air are with us for many decades, perhaps for ever. But seeing past the hype about hypertextuality reveals enough to make us realise that change is on the way. Media technology will not just alter the way we will carry out what we already do; it will bring about fundamentally new modes of pedagogy.

McLuhan pointed out that technology extends the senses and changes consciousness as it is interiorised. Interiorisation proceeds apace. Over the past century or two, technology has approached, surrounded and then entered the body. In Cervantes' Sad Knight fought a technology which, driven by the wind, was placed quietly in the countryside. The heat engines of Hard Times are in noisy factories into which people must go tend the technology. Now, the hybrid cyborgs of cyberpunk are actually stalking our streets and seminar rooms. The next few decades will see nanotechnology used to build organs which will not so much be attached to but will rather be assimilated by the body. Already, walkmans are practically organs of the adolescent body and many academics are virtually unable to function if their laptop computer breaks down.

Technology does not need to enter the body to enter the mind. Hypertextual skills are learned earlier and earlier in the curriculum, and why not? Media technology is in the primary school. Soon it will be in the cradle. As hypertextual culture is absorbed earlier in life it will become a deeper and deeper part of human consciousness. What MacLuhanesque transformation will then have happened? The extension of human condition into cyberspace is multisensory. It does not so much extend a particular sense as amplify our sense of self. By changing our sense of what we can do, what we can know and what cultural structures surround us, we transform our experience of the boundaries and the potentialities of the human, or posthuman, condition.

Textbooks as they evolve into hypertexbooks will be a dialectical part of this change. How knowledge is stored, displayed and explored will have been utterly transformed. The linear textbook as we now know it seems to be a necessary entailment of human consciousness. The parallel multi-dimensional hypertextbook anticipates what human consciousness is to become.


Much of what has been laid out here has been fanciful and mock-portentous. However, although we cannot be certain how media technology will transform education, it is certain that eventually it will transform it, and transform it radically. What is also certain is that those of us who have grown up with ink on paper textuality will not find the transformation sympatiche. For the tools and skills of information technology to feel as natural as those of textual culture presently do, they will need to be learned young, perhaps very young. Contemporary educators are creating the gateway into hypertextuality, but it is those whom they educate who will enter and live there.


There is now a journal entitled HYPERMEDIA. It is published by Taylor Graham.

Ambron, S. & Hooper, K. (1990) LEARNING WITH INTERACTIVE MEDIA. Microsoft Press.

Baird, P. et al. (1990) HYPERTEXT AND HYPERMEDIA. Library & Information Briefings, number 18. From Library & Information Technology Centre, 235 High Holborn, London WC1V 7DN. Tel: 071 430 1561.

Crane, G. (1991) Composing Culture: the Authority of an Electronic Text. CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY, 32: 293 - 311.

Cumming, G. & Self, J. (1990) Intelligent Educational Systems. INSTRUCTIONAL SCIENCE, Vol. 19, pages 1 - 17.

Deegan, M et al. (1992) HYPERMEDIA IN THE HUMANITIES. A report obtainable from CVCP, Tel: 0742 725248.

Delany, P. & Landow, G. (1991) HYPERMEDIA AND LITERARY STUDIES. MIT Press.

Feldman, A. (1993) VIRTUAL REALITY INTERNATIONAL. Mecklermedia, UK.

Heim, M. (1993) THE METAPHYSICS OF VIRTUAL REALITY. Oxford University Press.

Helsel, S. & Roth, J. (1991) VIRTUAL REALITY: THEORY, PRACTICE AND PROMISE. Mecklen, London.

Jacobs, G. (1992) Hypermedia and discovery based learning: a historical perspective. BRITISH JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL TECHNOLOGY, Vol. 23, No. 2, pages 113 - 121.


Larijani, L. (1993) THE VIRTUAL REALITY PRIMER. McGraw Hill, USA.

McAleese, R. (1989) HYPERTEXT: THEORY INTO PRACTICE. Blackwell Scientific.

McKnight, C. et al. (1991) HYPERTEXT IN CONTEXT. Cambridge University Press.

Nielsen, J. (1990) HYPERTEXT & HYPERMEDIA. Academic Press.

Pimental, K. (1993) VIRTUAL REALITY: THROUGH THE NEW LOOKING GLASS. Windcrest, London.

Rheingold, H. (1991) VIRTUAL REALITY. Simon & Schuster, New York.

Rheingold, H. (1994) VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES. Secker & Warburg, London.

Sutherland, K. (1990) Hypertext: an Overview. COMPUTERS & LITERATURE, 2: 6 - 7.

Tiexeira, K. & Pimental, K. (1994) VIRTUAL REALITY, 2nd. edition, McGraw Hill.

Wenger, E. (1987) ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND TUTORING SYSTEMS. Morgan Kaufman, Los Altos, California.

White, B. (1993) Thinker Tools. COGNITION AND INSTRUCTION, Vol. 10, pages 1 - 100.


Wooley, B. (1993) VIRTUAL WORLD. Penguin.