Reservoir Texts

By John Cayley, 10 September 1997

John Cayley reports from Hypertext97

"The King is dead, long live the King," was the challenging title of John B. Smith's opening keynote address at Hypertext 97. It was especially contentious given the animated and perpetually stimulating presence of Ted Nelson, uncrowned Emperor of the ballooning docuverse.

The eighth international conference of the hypertext research community was hosted by the University of Southampton, which itself has a strong tradition of research in this area. Smith, from the University of North Carolina, was primarily concerned with the relationship between the hypertext (research) community and the parallel or splintered groupings more recently clustered around the World Wide Web. The great irony is, that if the (non-specialist) wired masses recognise the word 'hypertext' at all it is because the web has popularised an actually existing technology which realises vital but significantly limited hypertextual potentialities. Historically, many of the concepts underlying hypertext were outlined by Vannevar Bush as early as 1945, while the term itself was coined by Nelson in the 1960s, and the latter's only half-mocking view is that even hypertext researchers are now working on conceptual problems that were essentially solved twenty years ago.

But, as Nelson put it succinctly in his only formal contribution to the conference - a hilarious and thought-provoking after-dinner speech - we were all, including even Bill (Great-Satan or Road-Ahead) Gates, "blind-sided by the web." Nonetheless, it is a fact that the hypertext community has developed working systems and concepts to go with them which would allow us far richer, more varied and extensible models of the new information culture than those which are provided by today's web technologies. Taking just one example, web links are uncomplex, unidirectional, unintelligent and unmanaged (unmanageable?), while the links of many true hypertext systems - mostly locked away in computer labs or tied to barely accessible 'platforms' - are richly structured, communicative, open and extensible. They offer a great deal to future content-providers but seem only just beginning to be able to supply. Meanwhile, most of the bells and whistles on the 'cooler' pages of the web are cosmetic rather than substantive add-ons to its largely passive, if immense and tangled, structures.

Meanwhile the sixth conference of the web research community was meeting concurrently in Santa Clara, CA. Video conferencing helped us link up intermittently while, for one important session, a live link was established. Howard Rheingold's largely anecdotal 'ain't it a miraculous community-generating technology (so don't worry about the corporations?)' keynote for WWW6 was followed by a live discussion betweeen - on the 'hypertext side' - Ted Nelson, Cathy Marshall (Xerox Corp., closing keynote speaker and an important voice of truly imaginative sense) and Daniel Meadows-Klue (CEO of the Electronic Telegraph) and Ð for 'webspace' Ð Rheingold, Robert Caillaiu (a colleague of Tim Berners-Lee), Terry Winograd (Stanford) and Ira Goldstein (Hewlett-Packard).

The wickedly explicit theme of this session, proposed by the chair of WWW6, was, "Why bother with research?" Riding the waves of a web-centric internet, caught up in the surfing high, many companies, institutes and individuals are indeed happy just to 'make things work,' to build and use anything that will let them beat the tide or enter that crystal tube. But this is not the first time that effective, albeit mediocre, technologies have triumphed by default - because they were there, and sometimes for the very reason of their simplicity or 'slowness' (the tortoise, the qwertyuiop keyboard, DOS). The web was a brilliant innovation, but it took over at least in part because it was a protocol that was ready to provide transparent information exchange within an existing narrow bandwidth. Now the corporations want to 'push' higher-bandwidth content while the hypertext community still dreams of enriching our structures.

The good news is that the research will continue and there will also, I believe, be deep cooperation on both 'sides' of this divide. The hypertext community is already very much 'out there', building tools and systems for rich and intelligent linking, for the integration of hypertextual and hypermedia databases; navigation by query; structural and spatial representation and visualisation; authored or 'guided tours' through exisiting webspace (shades of Nelson's 'transclusion'), and so on. The architectures underlying these enhancements are currently both involved and various. They require hybrid servers with intercommunicating software modules taylored for compatibility with current standards (Java keeps cropping up as an enabling technology). But the fascinating prospect, as Smith pointed out, is a web turned inside out, where the open programming environments which are currently tacked on to operating systems, servers and browsers enact a quiet revolution, such that today's relatively simple web protocols (http) end up inside richer, more articulate, hypermedia architectures, while the users remain unperturbed by a paradigm shift that is all but invisible.

Two papers in the more philosophical and poetic strand of 'hypertext rhetorics' were accepted into the main conference programme. In the first of the papers, David Kolb, 'author' of Socrates in the Labyrinth: Hypertext, Argument, Philosophy (Eastgate, 1994) explored some of the yet unrealised potential of scholarly hypertext, arguing the need for a 'self-represented complexity' far beyond the capabilities of current systems, not for its own sake, but because, he suggested, we require such structures in order to transfer and extend complex, often traditional forms of argument (such as are found in philosophy) into the hypertextual web-centred docuverse. Loss Pequeno Glazier, webmaster of the the most important resource for poetics on the internet, the Electronic Poetry Center based at the Unversity of Buffalo, gave a paper which structured links, historical and theoretical, between the poetics of a tradition of innovative writing and the specific poetics and rhetorics which are emerging from hypertextual practice.

The literary strand of the conference had an addendum in London, where Jim Rosenberg, Loss Glazier and Chris Funkhouser read and performed their (cyber)poetic work at one of the regular London venues for innovative poetics. A number of figures from the hypertext community attended alongside the more usual hard-bitten poetics audience. Rosenberg is an essential cross-over figure who gave a much cited paper (by a wide range of even the most technology-orientated researchers) at the previous Hypertext conference. In London, as a PowerBook was passed from lap to lap in order to demonstrate, hands-on, the interactive structures which he composes and from which he read, the audience was treated to the audio channel of his word clusters, simultaneities and underlying diagrams of syntax. It was a brief and small-scale but important meeting of convergent galaxies - of hypertext researchers and a few of the pioneering practioners of emergent literary forms.

Earlier that day, the conference had been closed by the keynote address of Cathy Marshall. With a brief to 'look forward,' Marshall eschewed the temptations of a visionary perspective in favour of reviewing and analysing current and anticipated research. Through an extended 'defensive driving' metaphor (the Smith System) she also set out five practices for 'safer hypertext.' Her talk was a model of complex and illuminating interaction with the specific inputs and outputs of the community of researcher/practioners who are actively reading her texts. In fact the spin she put on her chosen metaphor was not overly concerned with 'safety' as a function of defensiveness or restraint. Rather, she suggested a heightened awareness and openness to whatever is 'out there' and whatever is out here in the 'wet world' which may emerge when you 1) steer high, 2) keep your eyes moving, 3) get the big picture, 4) leave yourself an 'out' and 5) make sure the other drivers see you. If the hypertext community takes her advice, not only will there be an implosive revolution within the web, but poets, artists and philosphers will be welcomed on the way.

John Cayley <cayley AT> is a poet, translator, bookseller, editor and POtential LIterary OUtlaw. He is the author of Ink Bamboo (Agenda, 1996) and the pro-author of many cyber/hypertexts.