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Hypertext and George P. Landow

It was probably late and we had certainly been drinking. The conversation turned to – guest stars from M.A.S.H.? One-hit wonders of the 80s? The fictional biography of the Fonz? The actual biography of Henry Winkler? Something. This was the mid 1990s, and we could, in theory, have dialled up and posted a question on the Usenet, maybe even consulted the Internet Movie Database, a resource that came into being just a little before the first web browser was launched, but none of us even thought of that. What we thought of was ringing Pete the Hat, on the landline. Except we didn’t call it the landline, then, we just called it ‘the phone’. Plumbers and real estate agents had mobile phones, but all you could do with them was make telephone calls.

The phone was on top of a bookshelf in the lounge room. It was cream with grey buttons, flattish, squareish, a bit bigger than an iPad. It did not need to be recharged, but it did need to plug into a socket installed by the phone company. Someone had Pete’s phone number, written down or memorised, so another flattish, square-ish, plugged-in-to-the-wall phone made it’s urgent-sounding noise somewhere in Pete’s house, and Pete was home, and he picked up. I’m not sure that he was pleased to be getting a phone call at whenever it was about whatever it was. But he politely answered the question, in a sober, restrained tone, and the matter was resolved. Before texting and the world wide web Pete probably received these kinds of phone calls at regular intervals.

One of the reasons I got interested in hypertext was because the books about it looked so good. George P. Landow’s Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, first published in 1992, was fluorescent yellow with enormous fluorescent pink text on the front cover, like a brainy WHAM! t-shirt. And I knew what he was talking about, sort of, because when I was supposed to be studying French by correspondence in Year 9 I spent a bit of time fiddling around with an Apple Mac that had HyperCard on it, so even though the process of reading the actual words on the page in that book was like a flailing kind of swimming, I felt like an initiate. I have the book beside me now. The text on the spine is so faded that you can barely read the title, but the words inside are also less opaque, I am relieved to discover.

Hypertext performed what now seems like the very simple act of linking one text directly with another. For some theorists, and perhaps for just a moment, it looked like poststructuralism instantiate, rhizomic textuality made tangible. Perhaps I was attracted to the prospect that tech-utopian dreams of a textual egalitarianism would somehow leak out of the screen and into social relations. Perhaps it was the fun of tinkering, the pleasure of playfulness on a page, text circled, layered, linked, knit together with radiating lines. Perhaps it was the desire to know new things, interesting, bright and lively things, no more than the attraction of novelty.

George P. Landow was the co-editor, along with Paul Delaney, of a collection called Hypermedia and Literary Studies. First published in 1991, this book described how, for a reader in a hypermedia environment, where writing could link to other writing, but also to pictures, sounds and video, a novel or a poem could open out into explanations of allusions made in the text, contextual information and critiques. A reader would have immediate access to a world of scholarship surrounding, say, a novel by Dickens or a poem by Yeats. A digital text in a hypertext environment is also searchable. With very little effort, any word or phrase can be used as a search term, any word or phrase can become a kind of DIY hyperlink. While this aspect of the technology was obviously useful, in 1991 the transformative power of the search was yet to be realised.

My son started school this year. The kindergarten teachers held an information session for parents so we could find out how our kids are taught to read, and how to help them at home. I don’t mind if I never visit Machu Picchu and I sincerely hope never to go bungy jumping, but listening to a five-year-old tackle their first book is a genuine thrill. There’s something mysterious about the complicated visual/aural/cognitive process of reading. At the information session, we learned that kindergarteners are taught to sound out words they don’t know, but they’re also taught to ask themselves ‘what word would make sense here’, or to look at the picture and use what they see to work out what the word they are trying to read might be. As a high school student in a country town, I was doing the same thing, for different reasons. I could read alright, but some of the books and magazines I found in the library were dotted with cultural references that were, for me, vague and mysterious.

Readers of Woman’s Day know the names and faces of the Kardashians, readers of The Monthly will probably recognise South Australian premier Jay Weatherill, and if you are a regular reader of the Financial Review, you will likely know already that Warren Buffet is a famously successful investor, and that Rio Tinto and Morgan Stanley are not the names of people. Depending on which of these three publications you happen to have selected from the newsagents, you might find words like ‘leveraging’, ‘infrastructure’, or, ‘brangelina’. Of course, readerships cross over. A person might read the Australian Financial Review on their commute each morning, and relax on the way home with Woman’s Day. If you’ve seen the movie Working Girl you’ll know that the key to protagonist Tess McGill’s business success was just this kind of eclectic literary taste. However fluid, a readership is a cultural entity in itself, a group that, even if only temporarily, share a place in the culture. Even a resistant reader requires familiarity with the language and references used.

But sometimes, readers come to texts without that kind of assumed knowledge. So what happens if you’ve never heard of Morgan Stanley, or have no idea who the Kardashians are? What if you’re don’t who the Andrew Sisters were, what happened to the Big Bopper, and who lived at Gracelands? What if you don’t know whether Leopold Bloom is a character or an author, or if you’ve vaguely heard of Virginia Woolf, but not of Vita Sackville West? No biggie, anybody with a fast reliable internet connection can find that kind of stuff out in seconds. If there’s a reference I don’t understand, a name I don’t recognize, a historical event I know little or nothing about, it takes less effort to pause and search the internet than it would to mark my place and look up an end note in a printed book.

So what happened if you hadn’t heard of Morgan Stanley, the Andrews Sisters or Leopold Bloom, and it was 1987? If I came across a reference I didn’t understand in 1987, I could ask somebody older or better read, if I happened to have someone like that handy. Some words and expressions could be found in the dictionary or thesaurus, and some things could be looked up in an encyclopaedia. Otherwise, you either got it, or you didn’t, and if you didn’t, you could go and do something else, or you could do what the kindergarteners learn to do, and try to figure it out as best you could from the context and the pictures, then keep reading, and hope that eventually the pieces would come together and it would make sense to you. To track down a reference in 1987 would have meant access to specialised publications or a pretty good library and some research skills – how to use card catalogues, the Dewey decimal system, microfiche.

Now that I can search the internet, I have almost forgotten what it feels like to read something that feels like it was written for someone else. If there’s a word or a phrase that baffles me, I can look it up. The results of the search might not be detailed or scholarly, or even accurate, but they’re good enough to clue me in to what is going on. I don’t need to try and work things out from their context. But while I’m doing my thing, working the algorithms to get the information I want, those algorithms are working right back at me, collecting whatever information they can glean – perhaps my location, IP address, the software and hardware I’m using, and the searches themselves. For all the excitement that blossomed around the ability to link texts together, it is the links we make for ourselves via our ability to search the internet that have been the most powerfully transformative, in ways that work out well or badly, moment to moment. It’s not just our reading that is connected now, but our very thoughts.

As a reader, I now frequently pause to look things up, to check on the meaning of a word, to find out more about some passing reference made in a novel, to discover more about an idea that interests me, to compare what I’ve just read with other opinions. As a writer, I should be aware that readers do this. And perhaps more than that, I should take some time to think about whether there are places I can offer to send them, links I can make that offer insights beyond what comes up on the first page of a search engine’s results.

There are practical difficulties – links break as online resources change address, or disappear, or I might lose my reader if the stuff I’m linking to is more interesting than what I’m saying. I don’t want to have to endlessly return to fix the broken links. But maybe it’s worth the risk of distraction and frustration. The results that come up when words are entered into a search engine also have a kind of authorship. The way that the search algorithm deals with data is not random, and must serve the interests of the search engine’s paying clients, the advertisers and data miners, as well as us, the searchers, pumping in our secret fears and wishes alongside our postcode and shoe size. Should I, as a writer, think about whether I can offer to send you somewhere, to read or listen or watch something you might never bother looking for, if it weren’t for me?

George P. Landow has persisted with his interest in the possibilities for scholarship offered by hypertext. His current project, The Victorian Web, is a hypertext that sits online, but, as Landow makes explicit, rather than making use of the search function as the driver for seeking out information and textual experiences, carefully selected resources to do with ‘literature, history and culture in the age of Victoria’ are arranged in a hypertext that accords with Landow’s own description,

Unlike the static form of the book, a hypertext can be composed, and read, non-sequentially; it is a variable structure, composed of blocks of text (or what Roland Barthes terms lexia) and the electronic links that join them. Although the conventional reading habits apply within each block, once one starts to follow links from one block to another new rules and new experience apply. Instead of facing a stable object – the book – enclosing an entire text and held between two hands, the hypertext reader sees only the image of a single block of text on the computer screen. Behind the image lies a variable textual structure that can be represented on the screen in different ways, according to the reader’s choice of links to follow. Metaphors that can help us to visualize the structure “behind” the screen include a network, a tree diagram, a nest of Chinese boxes, or a web.

The Victorian Web is very much an authored entity. The links and the architecture are not haphazard, but have been carefully thought through and designed. The textual material included in the resource has been provided by acknowledged experts, the overall editorial decisions based on a deep understanding of both the subject and the ways in which information can be structured in a hypertextual environment. The Victorian Web does not encourage the reader to look things up in a search engine. It is a cohesive, authored network, a contained space written and edited by experts. It feels curious at first that someone has worked to create a hypertext environment that is the result of careful thought, something that consciously addresses the possibility of the form. To encounter The Victorian Web in the midst of social media, online shopping, and internet searches is like unexpectedly encountering an elaborate formal garden. Perhaps it is possible to look back to the beginnings of hypertext, to discover an approach that focuses on readers and what they experience when they encounter a text, rather than what is looked at, for how long, and how that attention can be monetised.