Henning Ziegler on Thu, 11 Jul 2002 06:34:33 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> 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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