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Seventh International
Conference on Hypertext

Washington, D.C.
March 16-20, 1996

Hypertext '96

stuart moulthrop school of communications
university of

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."

What follows is a sketchy and idiosyncratic account of the '96 conference. I'm writing mainly for absent friends, partly for 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...

(opening keynote), "Ubiquitous Collaboration and Polyphasic Activities"

, "HyperCafé: Narrative and Aesthetic Properties of Hypermedia"

, "The Structure of Hypertext Activity"

, "Ut Pictura Hyperpoesis"

, "Hypertextual Dynamics in A Life Set for Two"

, "Hypertext with Consequence: Recovering a Politics of Hypertext"

: "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)

(keynote), "'To Classify is Human: The Politics of Voice in Information Systems"

, "Browsing the WWW by Interacting with a Textual Virtual Environment"

: "The Process of Discovery: Hypertext and Scholarship" (Bernstein, Kaplan, Landow, Smith, Mylonas)

: "Things Change: Deal With It! Versioning, Cooperating Editing, and Hypertext" (Cellary, Durand, Haake, Hicks, Vitali, Whitehead)

: "Future (Hyper)Spaces" (Cramer, Goldberg, Dieberger, Meyer, Marshall)

, (closing keynote) "Hypermedia as Integration: Recollections, Reflections, and Exhortations"

The debut of

First public release of Forward Anywhere by and

Winners of the first Douglas Engelbart best paper award: from Georgia Tech.

Well actually Bethesda, nucleus of the "edge city" that's grown up hard by the naval hospital and the National Institutes of Health. Okay, so it wasn't Edinburgh or Milan, Seattle or San Antonio. 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.

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: . 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.

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?

This conference featured a number of attempts at rapprochement with the Docuverse We Never Made: there was a pre-conference tutorial on Web development; there was a suite of papers concerning technical advances beyond HTTP/HTML; and there was a panel on "the Problem of Complexity in the Design of Web Sites." Having been part of this panel, I make no claim to objectivity; but it seems safe to say that this was where ambivalence about the Web most powerfully erupted.

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!

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.

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?

There was more, much more, but a complete account would overwhelm the larger story. Suffice it to say that we learned many things: that we may love the Web more than we thought -- perhaps beyond measure; that there may yet be problems of "design" not amenable to silicon solutions; that it's never easy, either for speaker or audience, to descry the imperial buns.

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.

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.

Which brings me to the future -- or specifically, the panel on "Future (Hyper)Spaces" proposed by hypertext prodigy Tom Meyer (Hypertext Hotel, WAXWeb, and other wonders). Joining Tom were A. Thomas Golderg (cyberspace designer from NYU), Cathy Marshall (hypertext system creator lately turned fiction writer), Kathryn Cramer (hypertext author and editor), and Andreas Dieberger (hypertext and MOOspace explorer from Georgia Tech). If the previous day's panel had an emperor's-new-clothes theme, this one was more like The Wizard of Oz re-made for Fractured Fairtytales. No one paid any attention to the man behind the curtain. They were all trying to crowd into the booth.

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?

Interesting questions...

Alas, when the questions turn really interesting it's usually a sign that the conference is nearly over. So we move from prospects to reflection, and thus to Randy Trigg's masterful closing keynote. In the tradition of Frank Halasz's classic "Seven Issues" papers, both of which began as Hypertext keynotes, Trigg gave a studious and revealing analysis of the field.

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, primarily 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.

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.

For this non-scientist, though, the real theme and virtue of Hypertext '96 was an arriving maturity: . 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


  1. Mark Bernstein, Eastgate Systems, 3/19/96, during panel on Hypertext and Discovery. [back ]

  2. Kathryn Cramer, Sunburst Communications, 3/20/96, during panel on Future (Hyper)Spaces. [back ]

  3. Cathy Marshall, Xerox, 3/20/96, during panel on Future (Hyper)Spaces. [back ]

  4. Tom Meyer, First Virtual, 3/20/96, during panel on Future (Hyper)Spaces. [back ]

  5. Randy Trigg, Xerox, 3/20/96, Closing Keynote. [back ]

  6. Kathryn Cramer, Sunburst Communications, 3/20/96, during panel on Future (Hyper)Spaces. [back ]

  7. Jim Rosenberg, poet, 3/19/96, on the way home from dinner. [back ]

  8. Andreas Dieberger, Georgia Tech, 3/20/96, during panel on Future (Hyper)Spaces. [back ]

  9. Kathryn Cramer, Sunburst Communications, 3/20/96, during panel on Future (Hyper)Spaces. [back ]

  10. Mark Bernstein, Eastgate Systems, 3/19/96, during panel on Hypertext and Discovery. [back ]

  11. Tom Meyer, First Virtual, 3/20/96, during panel on Future (Hyper)Spaces. [back ]

  12. Tom Meyer, First Virtual, 3/20/96, during panel on Future (Hyper)Spaces. [back ]

  13. Unidentified speaker in conversation with Mark Bernstein, 3/20/96. [back ]

  14. Maura Hogan at dinner, 3/19/96. [back ]