Screens, Research and Hypertext

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Space, Time, Rhetoric and Hypertext

Hypertext problematizes the metaphors that shape print documents.

In those early, freewheeling days of hypertext, scholars like George Landow had a tendency to push the decentered metaphor too far, often arguing that arrangement—one of the central canons of rhetoric—is meaningless in hypertext.

It's true that hypertext is decentered, and that traditional notions of arrangement—before and after—are less meaningful in hypertext. But what this analysis misses is that the physical centeredness of traditional print text is (mostly) a proxy for temporal order. That is, in physical media, Chapter 1 appears first because the things printed in Chapter 1 take place prior to the things printed in Chapter 2. For a piece of fiction, this means that actions in the first chapter normally happen at an earlier time than those of the second chapter. For nonfiction, it means that the arguments of the first chapter are logically prior to those of the second.

To put the point another way, print texts display temporal arrangements spatially. In an unopened book, the earlier arguments appear on top, with later arguments appearing in pages that are stacked under the first. Open the cover to the first page, and the first argument is once again on top with the second argument starting below that one on the page.

The printed document turns temporal relationships into an explicit spatial relationship—a sequential one that is made transparent directly in the media itself.

Hypertext is a decentering of the spatial metaphor. But its more transformative decentering is temporal.

As Collin Gifford Brooke points out, "one of the accomplishments of [hypertext] has been to problematize" the time-as-sequential-space metaphor of print. Hypertext offers multiple paths through a text. Its metaphor is not the earlier-then-later/above-below of print.

Lev Manovich suggests a different metaphor:

It is perhaps more accurate to think of the new media [hypertext] culture as an infinite flat surface where individual texts are placed in no particular order.

Of course, the fact that they are placed in no particular order doesn't entail that there is a lack of order. Arrangement still has a place. But that order lies in the arrangement of links. It's writing as creation and curation. It's building links that communicate relationships more complex than before-and-after.

Hypertext is a move from sequence to pattern.

For more context

What does it mean to call a text decentered?

What to read next

Hypertext liberates authors from temporal arrangements. Blogging reimposed it.

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