|This newest issue of The New River
goes online only days before dozens of writers and programmers (and, of
course, writer-programmers) gather at Brown University for the Technology
Platforms for 21st Century Literature conference. The array of hypertext
writers, theorists, programmers and industry representatives attending
the conference is impressive, and promises to deliver an energetic schedule
of discussion and interaction.
On the conference list, the tension between hypertext and hypermedia turned out to be one of the first issues to generating discussion . In an early post, Stephanie Strickland emphasized the importance of text. She wrote of her interest in a publishing environment where text could be ". . . presented effectively enough that someone, in the midst of the present Web speed culture, actually finds an individualized, meditative, space, of the kind that supports mental doodling, rest, quiet exploration in a safe space, as books were wont to." I followed up on Stephanie's observation with a post expressing my concern for the centrality of text. "I am most interested," I wrote, "in language, in the meditative experiences of reading and writing, and that's where I want to concentrate my energies: on the word, on words in combination, on the dreams that words alone can render." In a subsequent post, Marc Canter expressed a different view, one held by many digital composers, in which text is only one element in a multimedia environment. "We need standards for hypermedia links," he wrote. "One of the things folks are missing on this list is video, audio, animation, photos - all the 'other stuff' besides text. . . . you GOTTA have it be full hypermedia - not just hypertext!"
The issues raised by the tension between hypertext and hypermedia are likely to produce a good deal of head scratching for some time to come. Though no one knows where digital literature and art is going, here's one guess, and it's only a guess of course, but it's my own personal one: hypermedia will evolve into a collaborative art, in the way of film and television, to be viewed on the computer-television screen. I suspect this because, though the world is changing rapidly, some things don't and will not change. The mastery of a skill--any skill, from making a poem, to composing a photograph, to writing a computer program--requires single-minded dedication and concentration. That won't change. The multiple skills involved in multi-media productions will most often require multiple creators, each of whom has worked hard to master her particular craft. Hypertext, alternatively, will remain the domain of the writer, working alone, with language, shaping stories and poems to be read on hand-held, pocketbook-sized, digital readers. In my guess at the future, the book remains of central cultural importance, as the principal medium of thought and meditation. The book's form will simply become--in many instances, certainly not all--digital; and all digital writing will commonly come to include hypertext.
All of which leads us to the current issue of The New River. The works included in this number are illustrative of the differences between hypermedia and hypertext.
Christy Sheffield Sanford's "Light-Water: a Mosaic of Mediations" is a hypermedia work. It is a striking visual-literal meditation on light and water. This combination of the visual and the literal is central to the direction of hypermedia. One reads "Light-Water . . ." as a merged experience of visual art and literature. It both happens to the viewer--the way moving images happen while we observe them--and is made to happen by the reader, in the manner of traditional writing, by interpreting and translating words, turning them into patterns of thought.
David Herrstrom's "City of Angles & Anguish" is a hypertext piece, and in most ways a more traditionally literary undertaking. It's magic is in its language exclusively. There are no pictures, no moving images. There are only the words on the screen, arranged and ordered hypertextually, using the screen to break away from the fixed order of the page.
Both works are fascinating, and I hope you'll spend time with each of them. They may also represent a fork in the road of digital writing.