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<nettime> Hypertext pre.0.1
Henning Ziegler on Thu, 3 Oct 2002 13:21:14 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Hypertext pre.0.1



[Here is a second draft of the first section of my hypertext essay for
new critique/comments. You might see me working on it via web cam at
http://www.automatenbar.de... ;-) -Henning]


++++++


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

Henning Ziegler



1 Introduction

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. That feeling, however, quickly gave way to the
loneliness of a reader in a hyperlink maze; trying to make sense of what
then felt like 'post-modern' 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 antagonisms, unchangeable but
contradictive, 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.  Symptomatic of these early
publications is a statement that artist Nicole Stenger made in her essay
"Mind is a leaking rainbow," which is included in Michael Heim's 1991
book Cyberspace: First Steps: "cyberspace, though born of war
technology, opens up a space for collective restoration, and for peace.
As screens are dissolving, our future can only take on a luminous
dimension! Welcome to the new world."  The company Eastgate built a
whole business around this ideology 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, closed
artwork) has steadily been on the decline, alongside with the 'New
Economy.'  Comparatively expensive hypermedia works, shipped in boxes
that blow one CD-ROM up to the size of a small paperback, did not
overtake books in sales-after all, you would 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."
Stefan Porombka's 2002 publication Hypertext nicely illustrates this
turn: Porombka's basic argument is that the libratory hype about
hypertext constitutes a narrative in itself. What gets lost in this
argument and in an all too quick turning away from hypertext, however,
is a critical discussion of the reasons why hypertext 'failed.'  Or, in
my mind, 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, politico-cultural reasons for the hypertext's
loss of coolness: The critics celebrated the downfall with the same
rhetoric as hypertext's appearance. Porombka's book itself, viewed in
that sense, becomes just another narrative.

In this paper, then, I'll argue that authoritative hypermedia works
(works including texts, images, sounds, videos and so on) as new media
objects have the same formal limitations that hold for the human
computer interface (HCI) in general (for one thing, because hypermedia
reception obviously 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.  It's important to highlight that this is not to 'unmask'
hypermedia works as not being as 'resistant' as they seemed to appear:
Instead, both the older celebratory 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 describe some of the structural limits of
authoritative hypermedia works and the cultural interface in which they
are perceived by looking at new media objects such as Afternoon and
Victory Garden, the Storyspace computer program, the AOL interface, and
Netscape Communicator. Within a Post-Marxist political framework, I will
then try and associate hyperlinks with the Althusserian notion of
interpellation, and the HCI in general with Ernesto Laclau's concepts of
hegemony, articulation, and antagonism.  If this makes the interface
laden with political ideology, it may come as a surprise that I will
refrain from calling all 'resistance' futile.  But hypermedia,
understood as the totality of computers that are linked through the
internet, on a formal level promote an authoritative shift in new media
objects such as the Communicator: the software comes with an HTML
(hypertext mark-up language) editor-unlike old media, reading and
manipulating a Website now become two equal choices in the 'file' menu.
This ability to manipulate data (and to redistribute the manipulated
data) of computer programs such as the Communicator suite, finally,
might constitute a socio-political function of hypermedia that
contributed to the success of the World Wide Web (the totality of HTML
pages on the internet) - the lack of these functions, on the other hand,
might explain why authoritative hypermedia works 'failed.'  Whereas
authoritative hypermedia works trap a user into a single reading
experience, reading HTML source can constitute a shared experience that
serves a user's 'desire for intimacy' - provided you have access to the
code.

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