Henning Ziegler on Wed, 10 Jul 2002 22:07:52 +0200 (CEST)

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[rohrpost] Hypertext [Part 1]

[Part 1 one of a 5 part essay, comments or corrections are very welcome]

Why Hypertext became Uncool
Notes on the Power Struggles of the Cultural Interface

Henning Ziegler

Cyberspace is where the bank keeps your money.
—William Gibson

I must have been one of the last people to ditch Victory Garden.  On a hot day in late 1999, as a relative newcomer to digital media studies, I was
clicking through Stuart Moulthrop’s 1995 CD-ROM on an Apple Macintosh in the McHenry library at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  I had
heard a lot of enthusiastic criticism about the work, so as it was finally flickering on the screen before me, I did at first feel somewhat intrigued, but
that feeling quickly gave way to the loneliness of a reader in a hyperlink maze; trying to make sense of what then felt like ‘postmodern’ writing in
digital form, I was simply annoyed at the impossibility of arriving at a mental model of the digital rhizome that was spreading wider and wider before
my eyes with each click.  A reading experience, I held then and I hold now, basically is strategically building many contradictive voices of a text into
a mental whole.  With Victory Garden, that just didn’t work.  If a book consists of materially sedimented social contradictions, unchangeable but
analyzeable, the problem with hypertext is that simply stays fluid—my reading became socially meaningless in that it was only one among many; I
was equally distanced from the text as I was from my fellow readers of Victory Garden.  Looking back, it seems to me that during that afternoon in
the library, then, I had lived through the second half of the 90s again—the period when hypertext gradually became uncool.

	What happened during that time?  In the first half of the 90s, books such as Landow’s Hypertext 2.0 or Bolter’s Writing Space celebrated
the coming of a new age for a medium that is a metaphor of the mind: decentered, fragmentary, associative.  The company Eastgate built a whole
business around hypertext with its costly, professional hypertext editing program Storyspace and CD-ROM releases of major hypertext fiction such
as Moulthrop’s Victory Garden (1995) or Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, a Story (1990), both written with Storyspace.  Since then, however, hypertext
(in the sense of an authoritative, literary artwork) has steadily been on the decline (alongside with the ‘New Economy’).  Eastgate’s Storyspace is
now on sale for 70 dollars, and nobody really bothered to buy the hypertext literature CD-ROMs—after all, you could hardly bring your Apple
Powerbook to the beach for a read.  So the Digerati were as quick to turn away from hypertext as they were to hype it before.  What you got now
were remarks like “Hypertext? Oh yeah... been there, done that.”  What got lost in this all too quick turning away from hypertext, however, is a
critical discussion of the reasons why hypertext ‘failed.’  Or, in my mind, many of the critical remarks about hypertext hurried back to older
conceptions of text (“So books weren’t that bad after all”) instead of looking at the structural reasons for the hypertext’s loss of coolness: The critics
celebrated the downfall with the same rhetoric as hypertext’s appearance, eagerly awaiting the next hype.

	In this essay, by way of a ‘digital materialist’ position that I owe to Lev Manovich, I’ll argue that authoritative hypertextual works as a new
media object have the same formal limitations that hold for the human computer interface in general (for hypertext always takes place within a HCI).
In a nutshell, the interface is a site where absent cultural and social contradictions clash and  meaning is being dialogically produced for a cultural
community.  But this is not to ‘unmask’ that hypertextual works weren’t as ‘resistant’ as seemed to be in the first place: Instead, both the older
celebretory and the recent gloomy rhetoric about hypermedia are part of the same logic of capitalist hype.  So on a formal level, I will try to expose
some of the limits of authoritative hypertextual works and the cultural interface by looking at new media objects such as Storyspace, the AOL
interface, or Netscape Navigator within a Marxist political framework.  Read in this way, hyperlinks become associated with the Althusserian notion
of interpellation, and the HCI becomes hegemonic.  It may come as a surprise that in the end, I will refrain from calling all ‘resistance’ futile.  But
hypermedia, understood as the totality of the World Wide Web,  do promote a shift in the relationship between reader and author on a formal level in
new media objects such as the Navigator browser suite (or it’s non-proprietary variant, Mozilla): the Browser comes with an HTML (hypertext mark-
up language) editor—unlike old media, reading and manipulating a Website here become two equal choices in the ‘file’ menu.  So Mozilla might not
be so uncool, after all...

Henning Ziegler, Berlin

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