In A Virtual Commonplace, “The Computer as a New Writing Space,” Jay David Bolter makes the argument that electronic hypertext offers a “revolution in writing” by allowing the writer to make use not only of linear words, sentences, and paragraphs, but also of larger and more diverse organizing structures which mimic or reflect the languages rich tradition of verbal gestures. He refers back to the Greek conception of topoi from which our word topic descends as a verbal unit or place whose meaning “transcends their constituent words.” This topical organization he suggests is intrinsic to logical thought but almost impossible to accurately reflect in traditional media. The closest that the ancients came to a truly topical organization was the Roman conception of outlining, which persists to this day as the primary “formal” method of written organization.
Other than the paragraph, which divides a paper up into high-level topics, traditional writing “flattens” or destructuralizes the content of an evolving text. Word processors move in the write (right) direction by allowing structures to be defined, highlighted, and moved or deleted as a unit temporarily, but don’t go far enough. An outline processor goes a step further, by making this structuralization a permanent feature of the processor, and allowing the writer to play more easily with the overarching structure. Finally hypertext offers the writer the ability to create a “web of thought” similar to many “pre-writing” exercises which writers use prior to formally organizing their thoughts. The computer he says, “Can maintain such a network of topics, and it can reflect the writer’s progress as he or she trims the network by removing connections and establishing coordination until there is a strict hierarchy.” He goes on to argue that these types of topical association networks are an important part of writing which traditional media have been forced to suppress as having no outlet for them. The papyrus allowing them not at all, and the codex and printed book, allowing better and better access; and finally, the hypertext document allowing full and unfettered access to the “text behind the text.”
Bolter then goes into the benefits, and detriments of this new form of writing. The benefits include the ability to capture that structure of ideas in physical form, the ability to restrict the flow of information to the reader with regards to both speed and path, and the ability make the written word respond to the reader in a much more interactive sense than ever before. The disadvantages include the removal of the writer even further from the reader due to the abstract nature of electronic technology, and the transitory nature of technological writing with its tendency towards change evolution and extinction. Without ever coming to any definite conclusions, Bolter seems to end the article or chapter in an uncertain state. While the benefits and possibilities that hypertext offers are without a doubt valuable, there seems to be a note of caution that the unstable and transitory nature of the electronic medium are something to be wary of.
This text is, of course, decidedly out of date with its talk of outline processors (a concept which flopped dramatically in the early 90s) and hypertext as a “revolution.” The only revolution in writing which hypertext heralded was in the amount of freely available smut. It has turned out that hypertext documents like other documents are best written in the same highly structured, hierarchical, and “flattened” format as traditional texts. Those that attempt to become “networks of ideas” end up as quagmires into which the unwary reader sinks, and without divine intervention loses himself, never to arrive at any conclusion. In fact, the reader is likely to become so frustrated with the plethora of options that he gives up on the text entirely and moves on to something that is organized in a manner that he can understand.
The problem of course is that my “network of ideas” or ways of grasping a subject are drastically different from almost everyone else’s ways. Rhetoric has always been the process of bridging that gap between topoi and speech, between idea and communication, between thought and action. It seems unlikely to me that this process will ever be “swept away” by a new paradigm, but rather that it will simply continue to be refined and evolved to use, rather than be replaced by, new technologies. In fact, the best use of hyperlinks in online text is the use which Bolton scoffs at in his introduction: The judicious footnote made immediately available inline through a hyperlink.
The real revolution in electronic text will come from the plethora of opportunities for the author/artist to bypass the establishment, and deliver their work directly to the proletariat, whether for pay, or gratis, and in the ability of the audience to respond to and interact with their beloved author in real time. Communal works written by multiple authors in which no one part can be said to be the product of a single person will flourish, as will published “discussions” or debates between two or more respected individuals. Town halls, and virtual universes will allow the reader to be steeped in the authors work, and the author will be able to monitor such places and use them sources for further writing. In fact, all of these processes are already happening to a greater or lesser extent with various authors, especially in genre fiction. As such, it is bulletin boards, newsgroups, online communities, and e-mail lists that herald the revolution in writing, not mere hypertext.