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The Death of Hypertext? 

If the world doesn’t yet have a strong, ongoing body of hypertext literature, could it be because the idea was born before the widespread popularity of web standards? Are the early hypertexts akin to the early attempts at bookmaking, and so will hypertext literature require an element of conservation science in order to survive? Will it be transcribed or upgraded, the way the ancient writing was transcribed from scroll, to manuscript, to book, to database?

Hypertext.” When I was a college student, I was obsessed with the idea that, some day, we would all be creating and consuming information— not just information, but literature—via portable devices like cell phones, when the hyperlink might become as central to reading and writing as the sentence. Since then, that day has come and gone. There are millions of people out there sporting an iPhone, an Android, a Kindle, an iPad, a netbook, a tablet, what-have-you. This year alone, there has been a doubling of the number of people who e-readers and tablet computers. Since then, nearly everyone I know can communicate with nearly everyone else I know, simply by pasting a hyperlink, sometimes without adding any additional information at all. By all accounts, this seems to be the moment I was waiting for.

On the other hand, I’ve just encountered two accounts that wonder about “why the book’s future never happened” and “the problem of how hypertext poems composed in the late 1990s have aged” by Paul Laforge and Benjamin Paloff, respectively.

What happened?

These two accounts differ in their approaches to that question, but they both agree pretty closely on the problem.

“hypertext fiction is in a tough place now. Born into a world that wasn’t quite ready for it, and encumbered with lousy technology and user-hostile interface design, it got a bad reputation, at least outside of specialized reading circles. At the same time, it’s impossibly hard to create, one of the only modes of fiction I know of which is more demanding than the novel. (And then add to that the need to create a user interface, and maybe a content-management system, and is it going to be an app? Suddenly your antidepressants aren’t nearly strong enough to get you out of bed.)” — Paul Laforge

“The paradox of this proliferation of online information is that, while by no means immune to decay, the information is quickly superseded by new dispatches, which in turn accelerates its aging. As we have seen, a book of poems published on acid-free paper in 1997 can easily look like a book published in 2011; in the United States, it is not uncommon for a book to go through multiple printings with little or no change in design. But a hypertext poem coded in 1997 shows its age almost immediately, whether because its design elements reflect earlier stages of a rapidly changing programming environment, or perhaps because the coding requires now-obsolete software.” Benjamin Paloff

If the world doesn’t yet have a strong, ongoing body of hypertext literature, could it be because the idea was born before the widespread popularity of web standards? Are the early hypertexts akin to the early attempts at bookmaking, and so will hypertext literature require an element of conservation science in order to survive? Will it be transcribed or upgraded, the way the ancient writing was transcribed from scroll, to manuscript, to book, to database? (Would cloud-based bookstores prove to be the dawn of a new dark age once the power goes out?)

I’m asking many questions here. I don’t propose to answer any of them here, merely to invite conversation.

Is hypertext literature dead? I don’t think so, but I do think it is ready for its “web 2.0” moment, wherein it becomes something easier to do, something everyone can enjoy. I think it might also help to consider the idea broadly, because in many ways it has caught on, and it isn’t aging, if the idea is allowed to include: video games, blogs, net art… the socially-networked/narrated identities of millions of people. I suppose it is possible that the Web 2.0 moment IS the hypertext literature moment. If that’s the case, then there’s just one troubling thing, as Laforge points out:

“And then … nothing happened. The Wikipedia entry for hypertext fiction lists no works published after 2001, and although Wikipedia isn’t the final word on anything, you have to think, if someone had written a hypertext fiction, this is where they’d want to tell you about it. The form’s seeming demise is puzzling…”

(Update: as it turns out, the authors of hypertext fiction don’t seem to use Wikipedia “to tell you about it”. Instead, these authors use things like conferences of the Modern Language Association, a large and growing database of electronic literature sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a series of anthologies published by the Electronic Literature Organization at MIT. So, the work is out there, if you know where to look.)

Maybe it’s just that “hypertext fiction” is the wrong search query. Let’s try another one, which yields some very familiar-looking results. Let’s try “conceptual literature” instead:

“With the rise of the Web, writing has met its photography. By that, I mean that writing has encountered a situation similar to that of painting upon the invention of photography, a technology so much better at doing what the art form had been trying to do that, to survive, the field had to alter its course radically.” — Kenneth Goldsmith

The time might be right, after all. I agree with Laforge’s conclusion, “I believe that the promise of hypertext fiction is worth pursuing, even now, or maybe especially now.”

That pursuit: what should it look like, now that it is 2012?