Some part of that naïveté arises from the term’s very indication that we have not yet found the net-native structure that will be as flexible and inviting to individual readers as the codex has been. The absence that the “e-book” highlights is not the means of moving from imprinting ink on paper to arranging pixels on screens, but the means of organizing and presenting digital texts in a structural sense, in a way that produces the greatest possible readerly and writerly engagement, that enables both the intensive development of an idea within the bounds of the electronic text and the extensive situation of that idea within a network of other such ideas and texts. Developing this format is of vital importance, not simply because the pleasure it can produce for readers will facilitate its adoption, but because it promises to have a dramatic impact on a wide range of our interactions with texts. As Roger Chartier has argued,
If texts are emancipated from the form that has conveyed them since the first centuries of the Christian era – the codex, the book composed of signatures from which all printed objects with which we are familiar derive – by the same token all intellectual technologies and all operations working to produce meaning become similarly modified…. When it passes from the codex to the monitor screen the ‘same’ text is no longer truly the same because the new formal mechanisms that deliver it to the reader modify the conditions of its reception and its comprehension (48-49).
Those conditions of reception and comprehension, and the intellectual technologies that will be put to use in the production of further, future texts, are the true stakes of imagining new structures within which new kinds of digital texts can be published.
Hypertext is one of the few modes of radical experiment in textual form to which the digital has thus far given birth. This networked data structure, the invention of which is generally credited to Ted Nelson and Douglas Englebart, created the possibility of dramatically reorganizing text in networked ways, de-linearizing and interlinking the text both within its own boundaries and in relation to other such texts. Numerous literary authors and critics saw the future in early hypertext publishing, envisioning a means of creating a new, more active relationship between the reader and the text. On the one hand, such thinkers pointed out the ways that hypertext’s technologies succeeded in making manifest what had always been latent in the reader’s encounter with print: “Hypertext only more consciously than other texts implicates the reader in writing at least its sequences by her choices” (Joyce 131).[3.10] In this, hypertext became the fulfillment of the ideal form of the codex. On the other hand, however, hypertext also promised a radical restructuring of worldview, of “intellectual technologies,” as Chartier suggests, by lending its readers a new set of metaphors through which to build a whole new epistemology. Thus, J. David Bolter suggested early on that hypertext’s structure might affect not just the ways we understand texts, but the ways we understand the world in its entirety:
There is nothing in an electronic book that quite corresponds to the printed table of contents…. In this sense, the electronic book reflects a different natural world, in which relationships are multiple and evolving: there is no great chain of being in an electronic world-book. For that very reason, an electronic book is a better analogy for contemporary views of nature, since nature today is often not regarded as a hierarchy, but rather as a network of interdependent species and systems (Writing Space 105).
In leaving behind the codex, in eliminating the “great chain of being” enforced by the book, such critics suggested, hypertext would enable a new enlightenment to dawn, resulting in, among other things, the leveling of the previously hierarchical relationship between author and reader, elevating the reader to full participation in the production of the text’s meaning.
But — and this is one of the dirty little secrets of electronic textuality, one that doesn’t get spoken terribly often — hypertext can often be difficult to read. And to teach: the vast majority of my students have visceral reactions against hypertext every time I introduce them to it. Some of what they hate, of course, may be attributed to the general appearance of datedness that most of the classic hypertexts now have, given that the most crucial StorySpace-composed texts haven’t been ported to OS X-native formats, thus requiring that they be run in “Classic” mode, a mode no longer available under OS 10.5 and one that was clunky even when it was available under OS 10.4 [see screenshot 3.1].[3.11]
But when pressed to think beyond the slowness, the small window, the pixelated fonts, what my students most often voice is their sense of disorientation, their lostness within the world of the text. They stab randomly at it, trying to find their way somewhere; they wander aimlessly, trying to make sense of their paths; they finally give up, not at all sure how much of the text they’ve actually read, or what they should have taken from it. As critics including Christopher Keep have pointed out, the disorientation produced by hypertext’s apparent immateriality can have powerful physical and metaphysical effects; as Keep argues, “Hypertexts refigure our perception of ourselves as closed systems: sitting before the computer monitor, mouse in hand, and index finger twitching on the command button, we are engaged in a border experience, a moving back and forth across the lines which divide the human and the machine, culture and nature” (165). This “back and forth” cannot be experienced neutrally, as it suggests a profound dislocation of the self in the encounter with the machinic other.
The negative response to hypertext among contemporary students often gets dismissed as a kind of reactionary technophobia resulting from tradition-bound understandings of textuality, and not without reason; we’ve taught them, and they’ve learned well, to value the organizational strategies of the book. Students of mine, in fact, who’ve been willing to rough it through the confusions of a text like Gravity’s Rainbow have felt stymied by Afternoon, unable to discern from the text the most basic rules for its comprehension. But I’m unconvinced that the problem that this generation of students has with hypertext is entirely a retrograde one; one of the other issues that they point to, in their complaints about the hypertext form, is feeling manipulated. Hypertext isn’t really interactive, they argue; it only gives the illusion of reader involvement. And certainly only the illusion that the hierarchy of author and reader has been leveled: clicking, they insist, is not the same as writing. In fact, hypertext caters not to the navigational and compositional desires of the reader, but to the thought processes of the author. Hypertext, after all, was originally imagined in Vannevar Bush’s classic essay, “As We May Think,” not as a technology through which readers would encounter a single text, but as a means for researchers to organize their thoughts about multiple texts, and to share those thoughts with other researchers. Similarly, Ted Nelson describes “the original idea” of his Xanadu project as having been the production of “a file for writers and scientists” (84). The “we” doing the thinking in both Bush’s and Nelson’s visions was the author and his descendants, not average readers. Insofar as hypertext attempts in its form to more accurately replicate the structures and processes of human thought, it is the processes of the author’s thought that are represented, often leaving the reader with the task of determining what the author was thinking – thus effectively reinscribing the author-reader hierarchy at an even higher level. Given this focus on authorial desires, the languishing of Eastgate’s titles in a now-obsolete “Classic” mode begins to suggest the possibility that while readers who found themselves compelled by early “interactive fiction” titles such as Zork and Adventure included a number of technologists who produced a variety of emulators that have kept those texts alive through a wide range of platform changes, few readers felt themselves quite so included in the production of these StorySpace texts as to put their own labor into updating them to contemporary standards.[3.12]
Experiments in hypertext thus pointed in the general direction of a digital publishing future, but were finally hampered by these difficulties in readerly engagement, as well as, I would argue, by having awakened in readers a desire for fuller participation that hypertext could not itself satisfy. For this reason, I want to suggest that if we are going to make any real headway in bridging the gap between our evident abilities with respect to arranging pixels on screens and the difficulties that remain with organizing texts in digital environments — in moving away from thinking about electronic publishing as a problem revolving around the future of print and instead thinking of it as a problem related to the future of the codex — we need to think differently about the networked relationships among our texts, and among the readers who interact with them. Enormous amounts of research have been done on the means of situating text within a digital network — on making text transmissible, comfortably readable onscreen, and so forth. All of this is of course necessary, and no doubt a necessary precursor to the problems on which several contemporary projects are focused: the need to situate text within a network that is not just digital but interactive, fostering communication that is not just one-way, from author to reader, but multi-directional, from reader back to author, among readers, among authors, across texts. This network is fundamentally social in its orientation; as John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid have convincingly argued, the ends of information are always human ends, and thus the communication of that information must always follow social purposes; similarly, Johanna Drucker reminds us that the book is not, and has never been, separable from the interactions we have with it.[3.13] In building the scholarly communication network of the future, a network that can foster the discursive exchange and development of ideas amongst peers that is ostensibly the purpose of all scholarship, we need to create structures that foreground those social interactions that we have with and through texts.