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Conference on Hypertext
school of communications
|1996 has already been a remarkable year for hypertext,||
especially that increasingly notorious branch of the family called
the World Wide Web. This promised to be a remarkable year for the
Hypertext conference as well. More than in any year since the
annus mirabilis of 1987,
things seem to be coming together: "second-generation"
hypertext environments like Microcosm and Hyper-G converging with HTTP/HTML, Java,
open systems, VRML, MOOspace.
Meanwhile Storyspace, lone survivor of the Class of '87, continues to bring "serious" ideas about hypertext structure to users on and off the Web. These developments involve diverse groups of people: hypertext specialists and digital librarians, system designers and implementers, sociologists and rhetoricians, "engineers" and "literati."
is a sketchy and idiosyncratic
account of the '96 conference. I'm writing mainly for absent friends,
my students, and partly for the Web at large. If you're in the last category,
and if you came here looking for a primarily technical report, my apologies.
The non-scientist's side of this conference was unusually strong and that's
where I spent most of my time; though some of the best offerings (the
HyperCafé paper, or Rosenberg's "Structure of Hypertext Activity")
were quite strong in both areas.
Here's what it looked like to me...
"The Web is the weather. Enjoy it. Talk about it. When it's bad, build umbrellas." -- Mark Bernstein
Nick Sawhney, David Balcom, Ian Smith , "HyperCafé: Narrative and Aesthetic Properties of Hypermedia"
Jim Rosenberg, "The Structure of Hypertext Activity"
John Tolva, "Ut Pictura Hyperpoesis"
Robert Kendall, "Hypertextual Dynamics in A Life Set for Two"
Diane Greco, "Hypertext with Consequence: Recovering a Politics of Hypertext"
Panel:"Visual Metaphor and the Problem of Complexity in the Design of Web Sites: Techniques for Generating, Recognizing, and Visualizing Structure" (Joyce, Kolker, Moulthrop, Schneiderman, Unsworth)
Susan Leigh Starr (keynote), "'To Classify is Human: The Politics of Voice in Information Systems"
Andreas Dieberger, "Browsing the WWW by Interacting with a Textual Virtual Environment"
Panel: "The Process of Discovery: Hypertext and Scholarship" (Bernstein, Kaplan, Landow, Smith, Mylonas)
Panel: "Things Change: Deal With It! Versioning, Cooperating Editing, and Hypertext" (Cellary, Durand, Haake, Hicks, Vitali, Whitehead)
Panel: "Future (Hyper)Spaces" (Cramer, Goldberg, Dieberger, Meyer, Marshall)
Randy Trigg, (closing keynote) "Hypermedia as Integration: Recollections, Reflections, and Exhortations"
The debut of Eastgate WebSquirrel
First public release of Forward Anywhere by Judy Malloy and Cathy Marshall
Winners of the first Douglas Engelbart best paper award: Sawhney, Balcom, and Smith from Georgia Tech.
"Precious Eggs And Fantastic Journeys..." -- Kathryn Cramer
For this pilgrim it was only fifty miles from home, and while the daily commute wasn't the nicest way to spend spring break, it was worth the trouble to see all in one place the two or three dozen people whose work means the most to me. You know who you are. Besides, this week it didn't snow. Much.
"Why are our information landscapes so featureless? Why are they so unpopulated? Why don't they acknowledge that the space inside is continuous with the space outside?" -- Cathy Marshall
Even though the first of these was an actual conference slogan, none of the above really characterizes the event. Every gathering needs its motto, battle-cry, or Official Theme, but it's hard to find easy labels for complicated social moments. Randy Trigg's try -- "Integration" -- has a lot going for it, especially with the old-fashioned, "off-line" spin he subtly gave the word.
But for me the dominant mood was better captured by another phrase, also from Randy's keynote: The Decade of the Web.
Though the World Wide Web isn't that much younger than the ACM Hypertext community, its huge notoriety is quite recent, much more noticeable this year than at the last international meeting in late 1994. Hypertext '96 was really our first gathering in the presence of an actually emerging docuverse: the 30-odd-million items (this week) entangled in the Web.
"Superdense hypertext." -- Tom Meyer
Just how should a veteran hypertext campaigner take this? With the proud and quiet glow of long-term vindication? In high and not unjustified Nelsonian dudgeon? Or with equal doses of enthusiasm and adrenalin? Anyone who heard Doug Engelbart speak at the Vannevar Bush symposium last fall saw an inspiring example of that last option. But opinions will differ.
Cathy Marshall and others have noted that the younger Web developers don't seem to realize the hypertext concept is a half-century old with a considerable body of research behind it. It's grating to hear them sneeringly say, "Xanadu never shipped," and dismiss the past on a handwave. You know you're getting old when the impiety of youth starts to get to you. But we're not that old really, and the research continues, so what's the cause for complaint? Maybe the Web is just a boon to science, a grand experiment. Should we stop worrying and love the Web?
"Is there a way in which we're now being colonized by Netscape?" -- Randy Trigg
Playing the clear-eyed child, Michael Joyce. Taking the role of allegedly naked emperor, Ben Schneiderman. In the imperial backcourt: Kolker, Unsworth, and your narrator. Sure the problems of information design and mapping are huge, claimed the imperial chorus. But be patient. Give technology time. Demand the best. Pitch in if you want to make things better. Meanwhile how about these suits!
"You have to look at what information looks like." -- Kathryn Cramer
And the clear-eyed child said: yer ass. Like television, the Web is a cascade of empty airwaves, not a fabric of golden threads. It's about advertisement and self-promotion. It's isolating and onanistic.
Its links are pure deferral, pointing nowhere but elsewhere and always back to what was there before, not along a reciprocal track to what has come after. The Web is a hierarchy, not a true network -- not a maze of treasures but a trivial cascade.
"How do you know you've spent too much time programming? You look into the fridge at a certain soft drink bottle and you hear yourself thinking: Cool! Hi-Res root beer..." --Jim Rosenberg
We have no structures of understanding, Joyce argued, to help us understand our most vivid experiences of reading in this docuverse: for finding friends or allies in the Web; for failing to make that discovery; or for being recognized by others in this space. Lacking structures, we fail to grasp what the Web is for, and absent understanding, we fall unreflectively into marketing. The Web takes on the color of television tuned to an endless series of dead channels.
Of course this was controversial. Schneiderman answered Joyce with a strongly worded rebuttal, drawing applause from the audience. He pressed the heretic for a reform program -- give us the specs for these missing structures and we'll build them, see if we don't! Not my job, said the clear-eyed child, you guys are the engineers -- and besides, who says this is just a technical problem?
Surfing is dead. We must have spaces with meaning..." -- Andreas Dieberger
There is much more to hypertext than the Web and its wonderful discontents. A new emphasis on space has entered the discussion on both sides of the C.P. Snow line. This is as much practice as theory: see the Georgia Tech HyperCafé project, or for that matter IBM's AQUI, a potentially revolutionary distributed-link service that could make the complex topography of the World Wide Web considerably easier to manage and comprehend.
"An inversion of the hypertext graph, turning links into nodes, nodes into links." -- Kathryn Cramer
Aside from space there was also a quiet but insistent emphasis on "materiality" -- a perspective that denies the "bodiless exultation of cyberspace" and reminds us of our communities, our bodies, our selves.
Diane Greco's paper on "Hypertext with Consequence" was the first contribution to this conference to raise questions about social and gender issues in the promotion of information systems; and though it would be easy (and depressing) to regard this paper as a lone voice lecturing in the wilderness, Greco's line was taken up several times in the course of things -- offering in at least one instance a subversive counter-theme for the conference itself.
"We need lots of cute little tools... Small tools are easy." -- Mark Bernstein
"Tasty, pleasing, like television." -- Tom Meyer
Things we seem to agree on: surfing is dead, the future lies with richer interactive possibilities; space is important, especially as it becomes place (as Dieberger put it) -- invested with meaning by the people who occupy it; we need vision as well as visuals, and hence some sort of aesthetic around which to wrap a virtual-world view.
But here's where we disagree: will this aesthetic be avant-garde? surrealist? postmodernist? high-modernist? ironic? Is it okay to wear the colors of "tasty, pleasing" television? (Does anyone see an alternative?) Should structures for virtual spaces be negotiated or computed? What are we doing after the Web?
"...a very large game of SimCity..." -- Tom Meyer
"I showed Victory Garden to my seventeen-year-old. She said, 'Where are the pictures?'" -- Unknown
In at least one area, Trigg went his former colleague one better. He laid out a scientific, technical, and aesthetic agenda for hypertext; but he added also an explicit social agenda.
Trigg gave his theme as "Integration," a term he defined in several ways, including, he hinted, one that would emerge as the talk went on. I submit (though Trigg never said as much directly) that he meant racial integration -- a subject not much mentioned in this crowd. One of Trigg's examples broached this issue clearly enough: the case of the Jervay housing project in Wilmington, N.C., where a group of residents, mainly African-American women, successfully organized to demand a voice in their community's future. Among other things, the residents of Jervay made use of the World Wide Web to publicize their situation and to gain expertise from the privileged, white community around them. See www.wilmington.net/jervay.
To be sure, Trigg also covered technical kinds of "integration:" integration of technologies into the workplace; integration of diverse software functions into advanced systems; integration of observation and theory into hypertext design.
His talk had as much to say about typed links as urban politics. As I've already said, this was an important technical and scientific conference, facts to which this report does not do justice.
"I never say H-T-T-P-colon-slash-slash -- I just say hoopla!" -- Maura Hogan
For this non-scientist, though, the real theme and virtue of Hypertext '96 was an arriving maturity: hypertext grows up. Hypertext isn't an eccentric vision, an academic research project, or a literary theory: it's a tool and affordance being used by millions of people (not all of them white and affluent) and likely to be used still more widely in the future. By itself no tool can change the world; but the changes in work and communication that tool makes possible can be enormously transforming.
March 24, 1996
LAST MODIFIED 4-24-96