Screens, Research and Hypertext

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Technology Shapes Rhetoric

There's nothing natural about the way we write.

For content authors, systems like Storyspace and Intermedia provided sets of tools for creating context. These were tools built specifically to create and deliver complex, interlinked hypertext.

The web … not so much.

The early days of the web were a nightmare of text editors and hardcoded content. (I hate that this sentence reminded me of the existence of Dreamweaver.) Web 2.0 — first blogging tools and later social media — democratized the web, but did so by introducing authoring environments that mimic word processors or lightweight email clients. Tools for writing books or letters.

The make the web like print paradigm is so dominant that it’s tempting to think that writing and writing for books are extensionally equivalent.

But as Tom McArthur reminds us in Worlds of Reference:

The structuring of books is anything but ‘natural’ — indeed, it is thoroughly unnatural and took all of 4,000 years to bring about.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the social sciences, where IMRAD and its attendant passive voice verbs are regarded as the sine qua non of research outputs.

Consider something as “normal” as the alphabetized lists found in a book index or a dictionary. For a medieval Scholastic, such a list would have been unthinkable — their groupings were always thematic. McArthur goes so far as to suggest that to the Scholastics, alphabetization was an offense to their entire worldview.

It [Alphabetization] must have seemed a perverse, disjointed and ultimately meaningless way of ordering material to men who were interested in neat frames for containing knowledge.

Imagine what Scholastics would make of a world in which Charles DickensHard Times, David Lodge’s Nice Work, Thomas Carlyle's letters and John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism were found in radically different parts of a library.

Our conventions of reading and writing are shaped by the media in which we read and write. There's nothing natural about linear documents. They exist because physical media are limited to linear structures.

For more context

What are Storyspace and Intermedia?

What to read next

What would a nonlinear essay even look like?

Other items of interest

Why would Dickens, Lodge, Carlyle and Mill be found in the same section of a library?

Blogging may have democratized the web. But it also crippled hypertext.

Treating the web like print is like tearing the wings off a 747 and using it as a bus.