Category Archives: hypertext


We were recently alerted, via Grand Text Auto, to a new hypertext fiction environment on the Web called Hypertextopia:

Hypertextopia is a space where you can read and write stories for the internet. On the surface, it looks like a mind-map, but it embeds a word-processor, and allows you to publish your stories like a blog.

The site is gorgeously done, applying a fresh coat of Web 2.0 paint to the creaky concepts of classical hypertext. I find myself strangely conflicted, though, as I browse through it. Design-wise, it is a triumph, and really gets my wheels spinning w/r/t the possibilities of online writing systems. The authoring tools they’ve developed are simple and elegant, allowing you to write “axial hypertexts”: narratives with a clear beginning and end but with multiple pathways and digressions in between. You read them as a series of textual screens, which can include beautiful fold-out boxes for annotations and illustrations, and various color-coded links (the colors denote different types of internal links, which the author describes). You also have the option of viewing stories as nodal maps, which show the story’s underlying structure. This is part of the map of “The Butterfly Boy” by William Vollmann (by all indications, the William Vollmann):
Lovely as it all is though, it doesn’t convince me that hypertext is any more viable a literary form now, on the Web, than it was back in the heyday of Eastgate and Storyspace. Outside its inner circle of devotees, hypertext has always been more interesting in concept than in practice. A necessary thought experiment on narrative’s deconstruction in a post-book future, but not the sort of thing you’d want to read for pleasure.
It’s always felt to me like a too-literal reenactment of Jorge Luis Borges’ explosion of narrative in The Garden of Forking Paths. In the story, the central character, a Chinese double agent in WWI being pursued by a British assassin who has learned of his treachery, recalls a lost, unfinished novel written by a distant ancestor. It is an infinte story that encompasses every possible event and outcome for its characters: a labyrinth, not in space but in time. Borges meant the novel not as a prescription for a new literary form but as a metaphor of parallel worlds, yet many have cited this story as among the conceptual forebears of hypertext fiction, and Borges is much revered generally among technophiles for writing fables that eerily prefigure the digital age.
I’ve always found it odd how people (techies especially) seem to get romantic (perhaps fetishistic is the better word) about Borges. Prophetic he no doubt was, but his tidings are dark ones. Tales like “Forking Paths,” Funes the Memorious and The Library of Babel are ideas taken to a frightening extreme, certainly not things we would wish to come true. There are days when the Internet does indeed feel a bit like the Library of Babel, a place where an infinity of information has led to the death of meaning. But those are the days I wish we could put the net back in the box and forget it ever happened. I get a bit of that feeling with literary hypertext -? insofar as it reifies the theoretical notion of the death of the author, it is not necessarily doing the reader any favors.
Hypertext’s main offense is that it is boring, in the same way that Choose Your Own Adventure stories are fundamentally boring. I know that I’m meant to feel liberated by my increased agency as reader, but instead I feel burdened. What are offered as choices -? possible pathways though the maze -? soon start to weigh like chores. It feels like a gimmick, a cheap trick, like it doesn’t really matter which way you go (that the prose tends to be poor doesn’t help). There’s a reason hypertext never found an audience.
I can, however, see the appeal of hypertext fictions as puzzles or games. In fact, this may be their true significance in the evolution of storytelling (and perhaps why I don’t get them, because I’m not a gamer). Thought of this way, it’s more about the experience of navigating a narrative landscape than the narrative itself. The story is a sort of alibi, a pretext, for engaging with a particular kind of form, a form which bears far more resemblance to a game than to any kind of prose fiction predecessor. That, at any rate, is how I’ve chosen to situate hypertext. To me, it’s a napkin sketch of a genuinely new form -? video games -? that has little directly to do with writing or reading in the traditional sense. Hypertext was not the true garden of forking paths (which we would never truly want anyway), but a small box of finite options. To sift through them dutifully was about as fun as the lab rat’s journey through the maze. You need a bigger algorithmic engine and the sensory fascinations of graphics (and probably a larger pool of authors and co-creators too) to generate a topography vast enough to hide, at least for a while, its finiteness -? long enough to feel mysterious. That’s what games do, and do well.
I’m sure this isn’t an original observation, but it’s baggage I felt like unloading since classical hypertext is a topic we’ve largely skirted around here at the Institute. Grumbling aside though, Hypertextopia offers much to ponder. Recontextualizing a pre-Web form in the Web is a worthwhile experiment and is bound to shed some light. I’m thinking about how we might play around in it…

penguin of forking paths

Following on last year’s wiki novel, Penguin will soon launch another digital fiction experiment, this time focused on nonlinear storytelling. From Jeremy Ettinghausen on the Penguin blog:

…in a few weeks Penguin will be embarking on an experiment in storytelling (yes, another one, I hear you sigh). We’ve teamed up with some interesting folk and challenged some of our top authors to write brand new stories that take full advantage of the functionalities that the internet has to offer – this will be great writing, but writing in a form that would not have been possible 200, 20 or even 2 years ago. If you want to be alerted when this project launches sign up here – all will be revealed in March.

The “interesting folk” link goes to Unfiction, the main forum for the alternative reality gaming community. Intriguing…

ted nelson is still on the job

It’s been a while since we’ve mentioned Ted Nelson on this blog. Ted Nelson came up with the idea of hypertext in 1963; since then, in his estimation, most of what’s happened in computer interfaces and the way we use electronic documents has been a colossal disappointment. This would be a presumptuous idea to have, but Nelson does have some claim to being a genius, and his analyses of what’s wrong with the way we use computers are cogent and worth taking seriously. If you have an hour, there’s a worthwhile video of him presenting the basics of his ideas at Google at GoogleVideo. There’s an even better (if longer) presentation of a talk he gave at Oxford in 2005, where he holds forth on the history of science and technology, why the systems that win out aren’t necessarily the best ones, and what’s wrong with the standard metaphors of cut, copy, and paste as used on computers since 1984. Nelson’s a computer scientist, but he’s talking about issues that increasingly affect everyone in today’s world. Viewing both – especially in the first, where his audience is an unenthusiastic group of Google engineers – it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for him as a romantic figure. His view of technology bears a certain similarity with the view of American history laid out in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon: that of vast potential squandered in the name of power and the market.
As I’ve argued before, Ted Nelson’s ideas are essential to engage with if we’re thinking seriously about how we compose and read using computers. His central thesis (which is strangely echoed by Gary Frost‘s comments on this blog) is that from Xerox PARC on, electronic documents have been designed to mimic their paper antecedents. In Nelson’s view, this is where everything went wrong: electronic documents could and should behave entirely differently from paper ones. Since 1960, Nelson’s been attempting to remedy this problem by creating a replacement for the World Wide Web which he calls Project Xanadu. In 1995, Wired termed it the “longest-running vaporware story in the history of the computer industry”. Twelve years later, Project Xanadu isn’t much closer to replacing the web, but it’s somewhat less vaporware: Nelson’s group has released Xanadu Space, Windows-only software that lets you create primitive transcluded documents. We unfortunately don’t have a PC in the office to try it out on, but you can see Nelson running it in the Google video, and there are intriguing screenshots:





There’s more information here; I’d be curious to hear how well it actually works.

stencil hypertext

Not sure if it’s been washed away yet, but folks in the Bay Area should keep an eye out for this charming urban hypertext:

The mission stencil story is an interactive, choose-your-own-adventure story that takes place on the sidewalks of the Mission district in San Francisco. It is told in a new medium of storytelling that uses spraypainted stencils connected to each other by arrows. The streetscape is used as sort of an illustration to accompany each piece of text.

More images and some press links on this Flickr photoset.
(Thanks sMary!)

ecclesiastical proust archive: starting a community

(Jeff Drouin is in the English Ph.D. Program at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York)
About three weeks ago I had lunch with Ben, Eddie, Dan, and Jesse to talk about starting a community with one of my projects, the Ecclesiastical Proust Archive. I heard of the Institute for the Future of the Book some time ago in a seminar meeting (I think) and began reading the blog regularly last Summer, when I noticed the archive was mentioned in a comment on Sarah Northmore’s post regarding Hurricane Katrina and print publishing infrastructure. The Institute is on the forefront of textual theory and criticism (among many other things), and if:book is a great model for the kind of discourse I want to happen at the Proust archive. When I finally started thinking about how to make my project collaborative I decided to contact the Institute, since we’re all in Brooklyn, to see if we could meet. I had an absolute blast and left their place swimming in ideas!
Saint-Lô, by Corot (1850-55)While my main interest was in starting a community, I had other ideas — about making the archive more editable by readers — that I thought would form a separate discussion. But once we started talking I was surprised by how intimately the two were bound together.
For those who might not know, The Ecclesiastical Proust Archive is an online tool for the analysis and discussion of à la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). It’s a searchable database pairing all 336 church-related passages in the (translated) novel with images depicting the original churches or related scenes. The search results also provide paratextual information about the pagination (it’s tied to a specific print edition), the story context (since the passages are violently decontextualized), and a set of associations (concepts, themes, important details, like tags in a blog) for each passage. My purpose in making it was to perform a meditation on the church motif in the Recherche as well as a study on the nature of narrative.
I think the archive could be a fertile space for collaborative discourse on Proust, narratology, technology, the future of the humanities, and other topics related to its mission. A brief example of that kind of discussion can be seen in this forum exchange on the classification of associations. Also, the church motif — which some might think too narrow — actually forms the central metaphor for the construction of the Recherche itself and has an almost universal valence within it. (More on that topic in this recent post on the archive blog).
Following the if:book model, the archive could also be a spawning pool for other scholars’ projects, where they can present and hone ideas in a concentrated, collaborative environment. Sort of like what the Institute did with Mitchell Stephens’ Without Gods and Holy of Holies, a move away from the ‘lone scholar in the archive’ model that still persists in academic humanities today.
One of the recurring points in our conversation at the Institute was that the Ecclesiastical Proust Archive, as currently constructed around the church motif, is “my reading” of Proust. It might be difficult to get others on board if their readings — on gender, phenomenology, synaesthesia, or whatever else — would have little impact on the archive itself (as opposed to the discussion spaces). This complex topic and its practical ramifications were treated more fully in this recent post on the archive blog.
I’m really struck by the notion of a “reading” as not just a private experience or a public writing about a text, but also the building of a dynamic thing. This is certainly an advantage offered by social software and networked media, and I think the humanities should be exploring this kind of research practice in earnest. Most digital archives in my field provide material but go no further. That’s a good thing, of course, because many of them are immensely useful and important, such as the Kolb-Proust Archive for Research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Some archives — such as the NINES project — also allow readers to upload and tag content (subject to peer review). The Ecclesiastical Proust Archive differs from these in that it applies the archival model to perform criticism on a particular literary text, to document a single category of lexia for the experience and articulation of textuality.
American propaganda, WWI, depicting the destruction of Rheims CathedralIf the Ecclesiastical Proust Archive widens to enable readers to add passages according to their own readings (let’s pretend for the moment that copyright infringement doesn’t exist), to tag passages, add images, add video or music, and so on, it would eventually become a sprawling, unwieldy, and probably unbalanced mess. That is the very nature of an Archive. Fine. But then the original purpose of the project — doing focused literary criticism and a study of narrative — might be lost.
If the archive continues to be built along the church motif, there might be enough work to interest collaborators. The enhancements I currently envision include a French version of the search engine, the translation of some of the site into French, rewriting the search engine in PHP/MySQL, creating a folksonomic functionality for passages and images, and creating commentary space within the search results (and making that searchable). That’s some heavy work, and a grant would probably go a long way toward attracting collaborators.
So my sense is that the Proust archive could become one of two things, or two separate things. It could continue along its current ecclesiastical path as a focused and led project with more-or-less particular roles, which might be sufficient to allow collaborators a sense of ownership. Or it could become more encyclopedic (dare I say catholic?) like a wiki. Either way, the organizational and logistical practices would need to be carefully planned. Both ways offer different levels of open-endedness. And both ways dovetail with the very interesting discussion that has been happening around Ben’s recent post on the million penguins collaborative wiki-novel.
Right now I’m trying to get feedback on the archive in order to develop the best plan possible. I’ll be demonstrating it and raising similar questions at the Society for Textual Scholarship conference at NYU in mid-March. So please feel free to mention the archive to anyone who might be interested and encourage them to contact me at And please feel free to offer thoughts, comments, questions, criticism, etc. The discussion forum and blog are there to document the archive’s development as well.
Thanks for reading this very long post. It’s difficult to do anything small-scale with Proust!

electronic literature collection – vol. 1

Seven years ago, the Electronic Literature Organization was founded “to promote and facilitate the writing, publishing, and reading of electronic literature.” Yesterday marked a major milestone in the pursuit of the “reading” portion of this mission as ELO released the first volume of the Electronic Literature Collection, a wide-ranging anthology of 60 digital literary texts in a variety of styles and formats, from hypertext to Flash poetry. Now, for the first time, all are made easily accessible over the web or on a free CD-ROM, both published under a Creative Commons license.
The contents — selected by N. Katherine Hayles, Nick Montfort, Scott Rettberg and Stephanie Strickland — range from 1994 to the present, but are stacked pretty heavily on this side of Y2K. Perhaps this is due to the difficulty of converting older formats to the web, or rights difficulties with electronic publishers like Eastgate. Regardless, this is a valuable contribution and ELO is to be commended for making such a conscious effort to reach out to educators (they’ll send a free CD to anyone who wants to teach this stuff in a class). Hopefully volume two will delve deeper into the early days of hypertext.
This outreach effort in some ways implicitly acknowledges that this sort of literature never really found a wider audience, (unless you consider video games to be the new literature, in which case you might have a bone to pick with this anthology). Arguments have raged over why this is so, looking variously to the perishability of formats in a culture of constant system upgrades to more conceptual concerns about non-linear narrative. But whether e-literature fan or skeptic, this new collection should be welcomed as a gift. Bringing these texts back into the light will hopefully help to ground conversations about electronic reading and writing, and may inspire new phases of experimentation.

open source dissertation

exitstrategy-lg.gif Despite numerous books and accolades, Douglas Rushkoff is pursuing a PhD at Utrecht University, and has recently begun work on his dissertation, which will argue that the media forms of the network age are biased toward collaborative production. As proof of concept, Rushkoff is contemplating doing what he calls an “open source dissertation.” This would entail either a wikified outline to be fleshed out by volunteers, or some kind of additive approach wherein Rushkoff’s original content would become nested within layers of material contributed by collaborators. The latter tactic was employed in Rushkoff’s 2002 novel, “Exit Strategy,” which is posed as a manuscript from the days unearthed 200 years into the future. Before publishing, Rushkoff invited readers to participate in a public annotation process, in which they could play the role of literary excavator and submit their own marginalia for inclusion in the book. One hundred of these reader-contributed “future” annotations (mostly elucidations of late-90s slang) eventually appeared in the final print edition.
Writing a novel this way is one thing, but a doctoral thesis will likely not be granted as much license. While I suspect the Dutch are more amenable to new forms, only two born-digital dissertations have ever been accepted by American universities: the first, a hypertext work on the online fan culture of “Xena: Warrior Princess,” which was submitted by Christine Boese to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1998; the second, approved just this past year at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, was a thesis by Virginia Kuhn on multimedia literacy and pedagogy that involved substantial amounts of video and audio and was assembled in TK3. For well over a year, the Institute advocated for Virginia in the face of enormous institutional resistance. The eventual hard-won victory occasioned a big story (subscription required) in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
kuhn chronicle.jpg
In these cases, the bone of contention was form (though legal concerns about the use of video and audio certainly contributed in Kuhn’s case): it’s still inordinately difficult to convince thesis review committees to accept anything that cannot be read, archived and pointed to on paper. A dissertation that requires a digital environment, whether to employ unconventional structures (e.g. hypertext) or to incorporate multiple media forms, in most cases will not even be considered unless you wish to turn your thesis defense into a full-blown crusade. Yet, as pitched as these battles have been, what Rushkoff is suggesting will undoubtedly be far more unsettling to even the most progressive of academic administrations. We’re no longer simply talking about the leveraging of new rhetorical forms and a gradual disentanglement of printed pulp from institutional warrants, we’re talking about a fundamental reorientation of authorship.
When Rushkoff tossed out the idea of a wikified dissertation on his blog last week, readers came back with some interesting comments. One asked, “So do all of the contributors get a PhD?”, which raises the tricky question of how to evaluate and accredit collaborative work. “Not that professors at real grad schools don’t have scores of uncredited students doing their work for them,” Rushkoff replied. “they do. But that’s accepted as the way the institution works. To practice this out in the open is an entirely different thing.”

networked books are disorienting (linear vs. shuffle)

There’s a fascinating thread active in the GAM3R 7H30RY forum discussing the format we’ve designed for reading and responding to McKenzie’s book. There’s a general sense of disorientation, as well as “hyperconsciousness” of one’s reading and commenting behaviors within the book. I take this as a positive sign that we’re pushing uncomfortably at the intersection of print and screen-based reading practices.
A particularly interesting little section:

Ray Cha: We don’t generally navigate websites in the way we read books. Perhaps, what is happening is that, because networked books are still quite new to us, we are hyper-conscious of the way we read them. Once we become more familiar with the form, the technology of the form will become more transparent to us. That is, we never think about how the interface or technology of a table of content or index of a print book works. One day, it will be the same way for the networked book.
Dave Parry: I think that is part of what I find so interesting here, this hyperconsciousness provides us with the oppurtunity to make different sorts of textual interventions, and to become aware of others that might become transparent.
McKenzie Wark: This is what both attracts me to this process and scares the hell out of me. Its the change in the material and social form that makes one aware of writing and reading as practices, but then one has this giddy sense of writing and reading without the comforting handrails of the book as form.
I think it was Victor Shklovsky who said that we become aware of structure when the roof caves in.

McKenzie composed Gamer Theory in a highly modular structure, which we ran with to the extreme in the card-based design. But emphasizing the chunks in this way — and situating it in a web browser, where people are accustomed to skipping around — we risk giving the impression that paragraphs are self-contained, or that this is a book that can be read selectively.
But this is absolutely a linear work, with an argument that builds through the successive chapters. And so naturally we find ourselves a little confused, at times needlessly debating propositions that are elucidated in subsequent paragraphs, simply because they seemed final in the context of the card. No wonder it scares the hell out of Ken, even as he dives bravely into the unknown: give people a deck of cards and they tend to shuffle it.

GAM3R 7H30RY 1.1 is live!

g7 screenshot.jpg
The Institute has published its first networked book, GAM3R 7H30RY 1.1 by McKenzie Wark! This is a fascinating look at video games as allegories of the world we live in, and (we think) a compelling approach to publishing in the network environment. As with Mitch Stephens’ ongoing experiment at Without Gods, we’re interested here in a process-oriented approach to writing, opening the book up to discussion and debate while it’s still being written.
Inside the book, you’ll find comment streams adjacent to each individual paragraph, inviting readers to respond to the text on a fine-grained level. Doing the comments this way (next to, not below, the parent posts) came out of a desire to break out of the usual top-down hierarchy of blog-based discussion — something we’ve talked about periodically here. There’s also a free-fire forum where people can start their own threads about the games dealt with in the book or about the experience of game play in general. It’s also a place to tackle meta-questions about networked books and to evaluate the successes and failings of our experiment. The gateway to the forum is a graphical topic pool in which conversations float along axes of time and quantity, giving a sense of the shape of the discussion.
Both sections of GAM3R 7H30RY 1.1 — the book and the forum — are designed to challenge current design conventions and to generate thoughtful exchange on the meaning of games. McKenzie will actively participate in these discussions and draw upon them in subsequent drafts of his book. The current version is published under a Creative Commons license.
And like the book, the site is a work in progress. We fully intend to make modifications and add new features as we go. Here’s to putting theory into practice!
(You can read archived posts documenting the various design stages of GAM3R 7H30RY 1.1 here.)

interactive books are closer than we think

The other day, Ben’s recent post on the “Novel Twists” and the “exquisite corpse” got us talking for a minute or two, on some children books loosely based on the “exquisite corpse.” The conversation got me reminiscing about other forms of children’s books that pushed the conventions of the book while remaining within confines of the printed page. In retrospect, as we gain clarity on the present and near future of digital books, I appreciate how for years, authors felt a need to overcome the limitations of the print book. While these books are not digital they do add interactivity to the experience, by both exploring interfaces and giving over some control to the reader.
Here is a quick run down of a few examples. (The format takes a cue from Ben’s post on the networked book.)
Mix and Match
Based on the idea of the “exquisite corpse,” these spiral bound books allow readers to combine various pages to creating their own images. In this example, the reader invents new dinosaurs, complete with remixed names. The spiral binding encourages the idea of ever turning pages. Thus, this non-linear book is not designed to be read front to back, but rather it is designed to be played with.
Pop – Up Book
My earliest memory of a pop-up book was from “Star Wars,” this gem from the late 70s is still available on ebay. Mark Hiner, a self-described “Paper Engineer” has build a great website on pop-up books, showing samples, an historical overview of pop-up books, as well as, instructions on creating your own. Pop-Up Books break the conventions of the static two dimensional page. Although, they still read linearly, pop-up books break into three dimensions, and add interactivity by including tabs to pull which create movement in a pop-up figure.
Choose Your Adventure
These pre-cursors to hyper-linked fiction were a big fad when they were first published in the late 70s and early 80s. In these books, readers are presented with the opportunity to chose the direction of the narrative. After a situation is described over a few pages, the reader is offered paths in a forking narrative. Each choice had a different page number, and the reader went to the correct page and proceeded with his selected narrative. I spent many hours reading and re-reading books from this classic series. In what was most likely my first attempt to “game the system” I recall finding an “ending” I liked, and working backwards to figure out how to get there. Reading in this way also lead to my first experience at reading a book backwards.
I have many memories of reading these kinds of books. Print books of this nature, however, are inevitably regulated to the realm of children. As I grew older and my reading became more “sophisticated,” the books I read stopped including these innovative features. In the case of fiction, pictures and illustrations were also eventually eliminated. Although, I do understand the idea that at times, visuals can become a crutch, which allow authors to become lazy with their writing. I must further admit that I was pleased to see visual representations of handwriting and letters from a “hangman” game included in David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, a “serious” work of fiction. They were used sparingly and appropriately. Perhaps, the author felt these breaks in formalism were allowed as a special case because the book’s narrator is a thirteen year old boy.
I find it wonderfully ironic that we can look at these books for children for insight on the transition from printed page to screen, even-though these examples are still bounded by the technology of paper. By reflecting upon spiral binding, 3D pages, and hyper-linked pages, we are informed as we move further into the digital. What will the result be as mix and match books closer towards the original Surrealist game, where readers can include their own “parts?” How will pop-up books evolve with the integration of sound and video? Which hyper-linked fiction work, foreshadowed by Choose Your Adventure books, will become the first New York Times best seller?