Hypertext '97

Hypertext '97

1997-04-20

John Cayley reviews the Hypertext ‘97 Conference, which brought together representatives from corporate and academic sectors.

Apologies: This is not a ‘balanced’ review of the Hypertext ‘97 conference, but only, as Ted Nelson would put it, one particular, packaged, ‘point of view’. I haven’t named all the names I should have or even many and I have not explicitly acknowledged the herculean efforts of the many organizers. Readers are referred to the full published conference proceedings, The Eighth ACM Conference on Hypertext, edited by Mark Bernstein, Leslie Carr, and Casper Osterbye (New York: ACM, 1997). My perspective is that of a practitioner of literary cybertext. This piece was written quickly as a draft towards a (probably shorter) review of the conference which is to be published in the UK-based periodical (presently a quarterly newspaper) of ‘digitalartcritique’ entitled Mute.

“The King is dead, long live the King,” was the challenging title of John B. Smith’s opening keynote address at Hypertext ‘97. It was especially contentious given the animated and perpetually stimulating presence of Ted Nelson, uncrowned Emperor of an expanding (ballooning?) Docuverse. From April 6-11, the University of Southampton, where there is a strong tradition of hypertext research, hosted the eighth international conference of the hypertext research community since its first official meeting ten years ago, chaired by this year’s opening speaker. The conference convenes under the auspices of the ACM, or Association for Computing Machinery, a no-nonsense umbrella organization offering support and accreditation for the activities of over 80,000 IT professionals and students worldwide. The papers given were strictly refereed, yet there was an air of openness, excitement, and innovation, which may be a function of hypertext’s substantive engagement with intellectual and cultural ‘emergencies’(its apparent structural homologies with critical theory, for example), or more practically, because the conference proper had been proceeded by open workshops and tutorials, or because there were live demos of new systems, or because there has, traditionally, been a strong literary thread to hypertext programmes, or simply because those visionary ironies instilled in us by a certain living ‘literary machine’ have not faded.

Clearly, Smith, from the University of North Carolina, was primarily concerned with the relationship between the hypertext (research) community and the parallel or splintered groupings more recently clustered around the World Wide Web. The great irony is, that if the (non-specialist) wired masses recognize the word ‘hypertext’ at all this is because the Web has popularized an actually existing technology which realizes vital but limited hypertextual potentialities, whereas, historically, many of the concepts underlying hypertext were outlined by Vannevar Bush in 1945, while the term itself was coined by Nelson in the 1960s, and the latter’s only half-mocking view is that even hypertext researchers are now working on conceptual problems that were essentially solved twenty years ago. But as Nelson put it succinctly in his only formal contribution to the conference - a hilarious and thought-provoking after-dinner speech - we were all, including even Bill (Great-Satan or Road-Ahead) Gates, ‘blind-sided by the Web.’ He’d rather thought that he, Ted Nelson, would be taking over the world, sending forth his cohorts from the heart of Xanadu….

Nonetheless, it is a fact that the hypertext community has developed working systems and concepts to go with them which would allow us far richer, more varied and extensible models of the new information culture than those which are provided by today’s Web technologies. Taking just one example, 3W links are uncomplex, unidirectional, unintelligent, and unmanaged (unmanageable?), while the links of many true hypertext systems-mostly locked away in computer labs or tied to barely accessible ‘platforms’-are richly structured, communicative, open, and extensible. They offer a great deal to future content-providers but seem only just beginning to be able to supply. Meanwhile, most of the bells and whistles on the ‘cooler’ pages of the Web are cosmetic rather than substantive add-ons to its largely passive, if immense and tangled, structures. Today’s Web interaction is invariably, perhaps inevitably, ‘kludgey,’ and sometimes it is positively ‘foobar’.

One message underlying the conference proceedings seemed to be: the Web is not (true) hypertext (as it could and should be) and the Web needs true hypertext (even if it doesn’t yet fully realize this or even remember what exactly hypertext is). Meanwhile the sixth conference of the 3W research community was meeting concurrently in Santa Clara, CA. It was impossible to be in two places at once, except intermittently via the magic of video conferencing. For one important session, a live link was established, despite inevitable technical challenges and apparently avant-garde hypertextual and audiovisual fragmentation. At HT ‘97 we audited Howard Reingold’s largely anecdotal ‘ain’t it a miraculous community-generating technology (so don’t worry about the corporations?)’ keynote for WWW6. This was followed by a live discussion, with alternating transatlantic questions and answers, as the hypertext node struggled to hold down its bitternesses and the Webspace admirably suppressed a ‘where-it’s-at’ smugness. On the hypertext side the panelists were: Ted Nelson, Cathy Marshall (Xerox Corp., closing keynote speaker and an important voice of truly imaginative sense), and Daniel Meadows-Klue (CEO of the Electronic Telegraph, and, perhaps, HT’s commercial accreditation). In the 3W corner: Reingold, Robert Caillaiu (a colleague of Tim Berners-Lee), Terry Winograd (Stanford), and Ira Goldstein (Hewlett-Packard).

The wickedly explicit theme of this session, proposed by the chair of WWW6, was, ‘Why bother with research?’ Riding the waves of a Web-centric Internet, caught up in the surfing high, many companies, institutes and individuals are indeed happy just to ‘make things work,’ to build and use anything that will let them beat the tide or enter that crystal tube. But this is not the first time that effective, albeit mediocre, technologies have triumphed by default - because they were there, and sometimes for the very reason of their simplicity or ‘slowness’: the tortoise, the qwertyuiop keyboard, DOS. The Web was a brilliant innovation, but it took over at least in part because it was a protocol that was ready to provide transparent information exchange within an existing narrow bandwidth. Now the corporations want to ‘push’ higher-bandwidth content while the hypertext community still dreams of enriching our structures. The good news is that the research will continue and there will also, I believe, be deep cooperation on both ‘sides’ of this particular divide. As John Smith suggested, what the public and the user community sees and talks about will be one thing - an evolving ‘Web,’ apparently the same Web we already know and love - while behind the scenes the actual structures supporting that interface and its environment may change radically, and incorporate important contributions from hypertext research.

Indeed, even those technical papers which were not explicitly categorized as dealing with ‘Web Integration and Application’ frequently addressed 3W-focussed issues or saw the Web as a potential or actual site of implementation, of ‘Internet distribution’ to use a more general term. The hypertext community is already very much ‘out there’ building tools and systems for rich and intelligent linking, for the integration of hypertextual and hypermedia databases, for navigation by query, for structural and spatial representation and visualization, for authored or ‘guided tours’ through the existing Webspace (shades of Nelson’s ‘transclusion’), and so on. The architectures underlying these enhancements are currently both involved and various. They require hybrid servers with intercommunicating software modules tailored for compatibility with current standards. Java keeps cropping up as an enabling technology which seems at times to be the glue between new servers and services, dishing out the goods to the existing, browsing users, that potential audience and testbed of millions for hypertext’s long and deeply held beliefs. But the fascinating prospect, as Smith pointed out, is a Web turned inside out, where the open programming environments which are currently tacked onto operating systems, servers, and browsers enact a quiet revolution, such that today’s relatively simple Web protocols (http) end up inside richer, more articulate, hypermedia architectures, while the users remain unperturbed by a paradigm shift that is all but invisible.

Nelson, the inventor of hypertext per se, is a self-confessed ‘generalist’. His background was in ‘science fiction, movie-making, theatre, and writing.’ He expected to go into media but found that he ‘couldn’t leave the rich… combative abstractions of academia behind.’ Perhaps, once more, it is the tenor of his influence which underpins a strand of serious literary and artistic engagement with both ‘Hypertext Rhetoric,’ and with the ever-increasing practice of literary hypertext, which now extends from scholarly, pedagogic web-building, through hypertext fiction (close on becoming an established, if problematic, genre), to hyper- and cybertextual poetics. As this is the area of my own particular concern, I hope readers will forgive me if I pay it an attention which is disproportionate to its overall place in the conference.

Two papers in this strand of ‘hypertext rhetorics’ were accepted into the main conference program. In addition there was a panel, moderated by Marc Bernstein (who couldn’t attend the conference due to illness) and including myself, on ‘The Future of Authorship’. In the first of the papers, David Kolb, ‘author’ of Socrates in the Labyrinth: Hypertext, Argument, Philosophy (Eastgate, 1994), explored some of the yet unrealized potential of scholarly hypertext, arguing the need for a ‘self-represented complexity’ far beyond the capabilities of current systems, not for its own sake, but because, he suggested, we require such structures in order to transfer and extend complex, often traditional forms of argument (such as are found in philosophy) into the hypertextual Web-centred docuverse. Loss Pequeño Glazier, webmaster of the most important resource for poetics on the internet, the Electronic Poetry Center based at the University of Buffalo, gave a paper which structured links, historical and theoretical, between the poetics of a tradition of innovative writing and the specific poetics and rhetorics which are emerging from hypertextual practice. Essential feedback loops were put in place and many questions raised. The Future of Authorship panel included three representatives of the wide-ranging hypertext community in France -Marc Nanard, working on hypermedia design and providing an excellent overview of the issues, Michel Crampes, developing software agents for generative hypermedia and interactive editing, and Jean Pierre Balpe, a poet and editor working on generative fiction, who missed the panel itself but made the conference later - and one researcher from the MIT media labs, Kevin Brooks, working on the automatic generation of filmed storytelling. On the same panel, I spoke of writing as programming, where the process of writing itself (which may include the readers’ interactions) may be seen as a ‘prior writing,’ as inscription prior to performance (in codexspace or cyberspace or anyspace). An emergent theme of the panel was the convergence of ‘engineered and creative authorship,’ further complicating and problematizing that rightly troubled term with an uncertain and highly programmed future. In the Fall of 2002 Cayley would return to the theme of writing as programming in ‘The Code is Not The Text, Unless it is the Text’ - ed.

The literary strand of the conference had an addendum in London, where Jim Rosenberg, Loss Glazier, and Chris Funkhouser read and performed their (cyber)poetic work at one of the regular London venues for innovative poetics. A number of figures from the hypertext community attended alongside the more usual hard-bitten poetics audience. Glazier’s reading was lo-tech but laced with the language poetry of Unix, ‘grep’ing across tribal, national, and disciplinary dialects to ‘chmod’ files of poems for our use. Funkhouser, a musician, writer, and editor in many media including the ‘new,’ was a living ‘open system,’ a neo-Beat mourning Ginsberg’s passing, chanting and reciting words from the MOO space to extend his own poetry. Rosenberg is an essential cross-over figure who gave a much cited paper (by a wide range of even the most technology-orientated researchers) at the previous hypertext conference. In London, as a PowerBook was passed from lap to lap in order to demonstrate, hands-on, the interactive structures which he composes and from which he read, the audience was treated to the audio channel of his word clusters, simultaneities and underlying diagrams of syntax. It was a brief and small-scale but important meeting of convergent galaxies - of hypertext researchers and a few of the pioneering practitioners of emergent literary forms.

Earlier that day, the conference had been closed by the keynote address of Cathy Marshall, who also attended the reading in London. With a brief to ‘look forward,’ Marshall eschewed the temptations of a visionary perspective in order to review and analyse current and anticipated research, but also, through an extended ‘defensive driving’ metaphor (the Smith System) to set out five practices for ‘safer hypertext.’ Her talk was a model of complex and illuminating interaction with the specific inputs and outputs of the community of researcher/practitioners who are actively reading her texts. In fact the spin she put on her chosen metaphor was not overly concerned with ‘safety’ as a function of defensiveness or restraint. Rather, she suggested a heightened awareness and openness to whatever is ‘out there’ and whatever is out here in the ‘wet world’ which may emerge when you 1) steer high, 2) keep your eyes moving, 3) get the big picture, 4) leave yourself an ‘out,’ and 5) make sure the other drivers see you. If the hypertext community takes her advice, not only will there be an implosive revolution within the Web, but poets and philosophers will be welcomed on the way.