Screens, Research and Hypertext

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The Decentered Text

Books have an obvious beginning. Hypertext, not so much.

Early hypertext theorists — yes, that’s a thing — worried about the lack of a center in hypertext.

Consider a book. Pick it up and open to any random page. You know exactly where you are. You immediately know that all the pages before that one are necessary for understanding the page currently in front of you.

The centered-ness of print texts is grounded in a particular metaphor, one which sees writing as a type of container. Indeed, the metaphor of text as container is so pervasive that we rarely even pause to consider it. Here’s Darsie Bowden:

Writers “gather” ideas to put “in” the paper. Writers “shape” or “recast” the paper in order to make things fit, and, in so doing, give the paper more substantive boundaries. When things fit properly, the paper is well organized. Writers “add“ things to the paper, butting elements into it, and “cut” by removing elements from it.

When the text is a physical object — the Text As Container metaphor reified into a book, a magazine, a printed report — the literal space the artifact occupies “presents the illusion that the full meaning of [the] text can be captured in linearity,” as Collin Gifford Brooke puts the point.

That’s not the case for hypertext. It can exist in multiple pieces, combined only by sets of links. When you arrive at a piece, you have no obvious way to know whether it is the entire text or part of a set of texts—and if the latter, whether it’s the beginning, middle or end of the set. George Landow sums the problem:

One experiences hypertext as an infinitely decenterable and recenterable system, in part because hypertext transforms any document that has more than one link into a transient center, a partial sitemap that one can employ to orient oneself and to decide where to go next.

Interfaces like the one from the Victorian Web existed to solve this problem. Open a text and you can immediately see where it sits in relation to all the other texts in the set.

For more context

Hypertext is much older than the web.

What to read next

Hypertext disrupts the fundamental spatiotemporal metaphor of print.

Other items of interest

Metaphors—both conscious and unconscious—fundamentally shape how we interact with the world.

A growing movement seeks to unmoor hypertext in both space and time.

Yes, we publish a lot of HTML. But very little of it is hypertext.

Referenced in

On Reading and Scholarship

Research is decentered in exactly the way hypertext is meant to be.

Linear Thinking

The more time I spend on the web, though, the less sure I am that linear is a compliment. The internet—the hyperlink—enables forms of writing that just aren’t practical on the printed page. The internet is unbounded. Decentered. The death of the author writ large. It moves the nonlinear essay out of the realm of stuffy academic discourse and onto the tiny pocket computers we all carry around.

Space, Time, Rhetoric and Hypertext

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.

The Digital Ship of Theseus

It's contextless. We find stuff by way of Google. We’re not going to homepages. We look stuff up by typing in some keywords and going directly to content pages.