Hypermedia potentials

'Hypertext theory', or now better, 'hypermedia theory' is a fairly new, yet exciting field of study within literary studies. At its heart are several characteristics which make hypermedia documents unique in comparison with conventionally written documents. One of the main scholars in the field is George P. Landow

(1991; 1992; 1994). Some of his work is available on the World Wide Web, e.g. a brilliant discussion of the history and potentials of hypertext.

Nonsequentiality of the argument

Hypertexts and hypermedia documents transcend the linear, bounded and fixed character of the conventionally written text (Landow and Delany 1991; Landow 1992; Landow 1994; Nelson 1993; Edwards 1994; cf. Jennings 1992). For that purpose, they often (though not necessarily) use computers. As Bob Cotton and Richard Oliver have put it:

"Hypermedia marks the beginning of the adoption and exploitation of the computer as a medium, rather than simply as a tool." (Cotton and Oliver 1993, 41)

In the hypermedia format the longer units (sections, chapters, appendices) and shorter units (footnotes, digressions, figures) of a conventional piece of work are brought into a single format. Hypermedia documents consist of a bricolage of 'nodes': blocks of texts, sounds and images, which were composed, and are to be read, in no specific order. In contrast to conventional texts (and perhaps especially conventional Ph.D. theses), there is no linear sequence in which a hypermedia document's pages are meant to be read and understood. A hypermedia document minimises the traditional status differentiation between the often sequential elements of a book or article, for equal status as independent pages is accorded to all elements (table of contents, preface, ordered chapters, digressions, conclusions, notes, bibliography, appendices, indices, etc.). Each reading experience is different. Hypermedia documents encourage readers openly to be active, to make decisions and to give a text meaning based on individual reading experiences rather than on something inherent in the text. The hypermedia document itself does not privilege any particular order, and perspective, of reading (see also Bolter 1991, 156–9; Landow 1992, 11-13). This has profound implications for education (Bermudez and Palumbo 1994).

Interestingly, a presentation in non-sequential hypermedia format comes also much closer to key characteristics of memory, free oral presentation and story-telling than conventionally written texts (cf. Winkler 1994). David Lowenthal stated:

"Memory retrieval is seldom sequential; we locate recalled events by association rather than by working methodically forward or backward trough time." (Lowenthal 1985, 208)

It has also been said that hypermedia provides a

"model for the mind's ability to re-order the elements of experience by changing the links of association or determination between them. ... Hypermedia takes us ... closer to the complex interrelatedness of everyday consciousness; it extends hypertext by re-integrating our visual and auditory faculties into textual experience, linking graphic images, sound and video to verbal signs. Hypermedia seeks to approximate the way our waking minds always make a synthesis of information received from all five senses. Integrating (or re-integrating) touch, taste and smell seems the inevitable consummation of the hypermedia concept. Consciousness itself is a continuous linking and restructuring of images selected from ... the real and the imaginary; from the internal and external realms of experience" (Landow and Delany 1991, 7f).

In a way, an open non-sequentiality of writing is also more honest to the actual practice of reading and understanding, because the different pages correspond to various interconnected mental 'chunks' into which we tend to break up complex issues in order to make them intelligible (Landow and Delany 1991, 6, 23; Edwards 1994, 262f; Bermudez and Palumbo 1994). This corresponds to central assertations of associationism and connectionism (cf. Landow 1992, 26). In the words of hypermedia pioneer Ted Nelson, sequential presentations are artificial and "spoil the unity and structure of interconnection" of thoughts and ideas, which hypermedia can express (Nelson 1993, 1/14, see also 1/16). Moreover, hypermedia can

"provide a revelation, by making visible and explicit mental processes that have always been part of the total experience of reading. For the text as the reader imagined it-as opposed to the physical text objectified in the book-never had to be linear, bounded or fixed. A reader could jump to the last page to see how the story ended; could think of relevant passages in other works; could re-order texts by cutting and pasting. Still, the stubborn materiality of the text constrained such operations: they required some physical task such as flipping pages, pulling another book from the shelf, or dismembering the original text beyond repair" (Landow and Delany 1991, 4; see also Nelson 1993, 1/18).

In summary then, hypermedia documents are the better books. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to submit my thesis in HTML and applied to the University of Wales for permission to do so.


The concept of 'intertextuality' was first developed by Julia Kristeva, referring to the numerous implicit references in each text to other texts. No text is written completely isolated from other texts and can stand entirely for itself. Hypermedia technology can express such intertextuality by linking selected parts of a text (or indeed image) with other texts (or images) (Bolter 1991, 163f; Landow and Delany 1991, 9-13, 17f; Landow 1992: 10, 53; Nelson 1993, chapter 2.2; Edwards 1994, 242f).

I have the vision that perhaps, at some stage in the future, all relevant academic texts in a given field will be available in hypermedia versions, with a large number of links connecting them with each other, thus establishing a huge network of academic reasoning and writing, a gigantic multiple-authored intertext of academic research (cf. Project Xanadu as discussed in Nelson 1993).

Open-endedness: the living text

In principle, a hypermedia document is never finished or final, never dead. Not only can it be read and experienced in ever new orders as well as be constantly re-written and up-dated by the writer, but it also offers various forms of direct involvement of the reader. In some Hypermedia formats, the reader can actually directly add to, or change (parts of) the given document on his or her screen (Nelson 1993, 2/32-39; Landow 1994, 14, 16, 35f; Edwards 1994, 231f; Bermudez and Palumbo 1994). On the World Wide Web, every reader can download the whole document and then create a completely new version by independently editing it on his or her own computer, a similar process to re-writing and deleting or adding to a published book.

More importantly, the reader can also send feed back, such as criticism, questions, and suggestions, by electronic mail directly to the author, who may then make this feed back available to other readers by connecting it with a relevant page of the 'original' document. This offers possibilities of a democratization of academia, because every reader can easily and with the same status contribute to a discussion that happens either within or in direct connection with the hypermedia document from which it originated (see Ess 1994). Given this potential, a reviewer (or indeed examiner) of my thesis may well fulfill his or her role best by becoming engaged in 'participatory criticism', i.e. writing comments which are designed to become part of the document itself (Landow 1994, 36). Reviews, other relevant discussions, and direct comments in other publications on the World Wide Web, at any point in the future, can also be made accessible from the original document (Landow and Delany 1991, 13). In some cases, justified criticism may even lead to changes of mistaken parts of the original document. The author retains ultimate control, being free to transform his or her document constantly. But input from readers is welcome and can easily be integrated into the document, thus reducing the status division between author and reader (cf. Bolter 1991, 153-56; Landow and Delany 1991, 29-31).

Such practices will transform academic discourse, as we know it, in general, and it will therefore also affect future archaeology. Before that happens however, a number of problems have to be tackled and resolved.

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Last updated: Mon March 8 1999