Jon Garfunkel on Tue, 5 Jan 1999 12:15:15 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Thoughts from a young man about hypertext writing

I've been browsing <nettime> posts for almost a year now. In the spirit of
mini-autobios from other posters, I have a story to tell about my formative
Internet years...

I have not been able to write any coherent paper of any length for some
time, and I have hypertext to blame. To be truthful, I was never much of a
writer, just a hack essayist out of high school who once made fifty bucks
off of a piece that was found by a publisher in a Compuserve* Forum in its
heydays. I didn't have the necessary nose for journalism, just a sharp
tongue for commentary that apparently welled from my cultural heritage.*

My therapy for now is to stick an asterisk wherever I feel I would make a
hyperlink, but time permitting, I just won't bother putting in the
markup/footnote*. That I blame the Wired/Rheingold collective* for
unlearning how to write is just hyperbole. (in these days of projected
responsiblity* CYA is good policy.) With any luck, I may just be like any
other people my age, and if something deluded me I should hope it won't
ensnare others.

I entered college with a half-year's worth of Wired philosophe* committed to
my soul (I do have Wired to thank for publishing email addresses of
letter-writers, one of whom passed an important lesson to me: Microsoft is
evil), and a dream to expand the web everywhere: this was 1994. Had I
matriculated the previous year, I would have been initiated to the Net
through gopher and vt100 terminals; a year later, I surely would have become
an HTML writer in high school and anyhow realized I ought to go to Stanford
instead. *(I'm sorry, I put a link in there. Thought it was cute).

Just a week after settling in I was proudly displaying the artwork of the
Louvre via Mosaic to my hallmates. Soonafter I resolved to learn HTML, and
then embarked on a mission to create what at the time was a "webzine" and
now might be labeled a "portal." With no precendent except a funny line from
a movie, I dubbed it "The ________ Spigot" (the name of the school is not
relevant at this point); it was supposed to be independent from the
lackluster official school portal/page and the monolithic daily campus paper
that apparently provided the sole forum for campus thought.

The web and usenet would be the new voice of campus, the hub of the "virtual
community"! Surely somewhere smiling would be Rheingold, maybe even the
sociologist Paul Starr. Our moment in the spottiest of spotlights was when
the summer beat reporter (well, me) setup an action-site about the
administration's off-season announcement about banning online political
speech in deference to tax auditors. The sited and related activism lasted
until the ACLU's hired guns rode into town on white horses and set the
administration back on a first amendment course.

The Spigot partly saw its demise as the student staff found other pursuits,
like classes and paid HTML jobs; the University's IT group slowly but
steadily made the campus website into a more useful port, borrowing our
pages in some cases. The Daily paper eventually got a web hosting service in
Ohio and, print subscription fees be damned, starting putting up the copy
online. A handful of students began to use the local usenet groups for
public discussions (partially at my urging, it should be said). Since the
Spigot lost necessity and my lack of publishing skills began to show, we
quietly merged with the student's weekly "alternative" paper.

(Other Ivy League online projects fared differently: Brown's "netscape"
began as a Unix server for students, and expanded to the web, and still
goes; Yale's "Student.Net" found inspiration in the Spigot and in 1997 sold
out to USWest for seven figures. Paper-based and student-government
portalzines appear to be the norm now.)

As the "virtual community" ideal was slowly yielding to reality, a separate
dream was clamoring to save the day: that the new medium would beget new
types of writing. I imagined that one person would write an article, and
anything in the piece that needed elaboration would necessitate another
article linked to it (yes, they're called sidebars, and they're not so
new...)  Maybe someone else would write the piece but generally only I would
think to, so I'd do it. So I'd start to write, then I'd stop and opening
another window to work on the hyperlinked piece. These unfinished pieces
didn't threaten to take up much space on the filesystem, so I'd keep them
lying around (besides, it seemed so old-fashioned to dispose of aborted
writings to the trash bin).

What drove me to this belief is the mounting testimony that my generation
(the one after X) doesn't think the same way as any previous one: we didn't
read as much, but instead watched MTV (when it played music videos!), and
surfed channels and the Net. This came to me not just through Rushkoff's
"Playing the Future", but in James Bailey's more academically-presumptious
tome "Afterthought," which suggests than human thought since the Greeks has
been a function of the writing system employed.

This is not the most solid of theses. But given the mantra of "the old rules
just don't apply" I was seduced into thinking I could piece together any
theory that looked like it was new.

My last semester at school I took Tom Levin's "The Rhetoric of New Media"--
a class I unfortunately did not take sooner thanks to EE requirements.
Though I was familiar with the territory, Tom was a brilliant guide in
leading us through the bases of  postmodern texts and media theory bases for
cyberculture dialogue. We tuned into <nettime> and watched in awe as
Gotham's TechnoRealist dragon rise up against the Wired/West folks (and
further awe when the dragon was sacrificed!)

The stage was set for my ultimate accomplishment: my final project be the
vehicle for stretching out of the ridiculous confines of HTML conventions. I
needed to have hyperlinked text appear as it *should*-- as "footnotes"
appearing at the click of the mouse (similar to what Feedmag does, but I
used CSS layers). I needed moving text to work out points-- text which
responded to where the user would be going! Imagine a web document that
started to work the hyperstructure for you, to truly demonstrate a nonlinear
experience. This took programming, which I could do, but it drained me from
the actual writing of the _content_ of the seminal document.

In my senior year, it only encouraged me more that my "madness" was
confirmed. Two very good friends of mine-- solid journalists as well-- told
me point blank: I am not making sense. I was speaking in hyperstructures, we
determined, and not sticking to linear thoughts. I was offering commentary
on what I was saying, while I was saying.

For a time, I was in my own twilight zone. Everybody else that has grown up
in this culture *should* be like me-- but nobody else is bothored by this.
They supposedly engage in this hyperlinear culture; but still feel perfectly
alright in linear texts and conversations. Someday, won't this lead to some
terrible disconnect in society?

I graduated six months ago, leaving my home of NY and the Sili Alley for
Boston, base of GNU and BBN and 128 (even the high-tech highway here wants
to be a TLA). I got a job as a software engineer working punching in
everyday and talking shop with the guys, and never have a felt more

But just the other day I untarred my files, and determined to get back to
the feeling of madness now that my corporate face has solidified. My thrill
is that I have ideas which won't get funded because they're too far-out and
nonlinear... but the fear is up that somebody will come up with this idea,
and do it the Microsoft way.

Should we be anticipating the great HyperDocument, which will render all
linear documents obsolete? Is this just a foolish quest under the pretense
of shaking the foundations of thought, a lofty ideal of trying to rise above
the level of my peers who find salvation in carving out Internet markets?

I hope this community can help me find my way; in return, I'll get back to
the necessary work of programming the answer.


Jon Garfunkel
telecom hacker, dangerous cook, dancing convert
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