Reading the Archives:
Ten Years on Nonlinear (Kairos) History

Jim Kalmbach

Conclusions: The Three Ages of Kairos

Reflecting on all of the different analyses of hypertext in Kairos, from random walks, to a ten-year slice, to slogging through the articles and totaling up the numbers, I have come to see the work published by Kairos as falling into three main eras: Beginnings: Moving Beyond Print (Volumes 1-4); Adolescent Exuberance: The Computers and Writing Issues (volumes 5-7); and Coming of Aging: New Media and Beyond (volumes 8-10). The boundaries of these eras are not exact. Instead, what you see is a slow transition between eras, a gradual increasing of one form and decreasing of another until a threshold is passed.

Beginnings: Moving Beyond Print (Volumes 1-4)
The first era of Kairos corresponds roughly to its first four volumes, but especially the first three. You could also call this era baby steps. It is a time of great diversity and experimentation, where no one form of hypertext ever appeared in more than about a third of the webtexts in a volume. Nobody knew what the rules were, so authors were constantly trying new things. The texts tend to be more visually conservative, hiding their experimentation behind the metaphor of the seminar paper. You do not see the striking visual constructs in this era that you do in later issues; the plain page dominates, but at the same time, there was more risk-taking as people played with this new form.

Adolescent Exuberance: The Computers and Writing Issues (Volumes 5-7)
The key word for this era is more: more graphics, more media, more links, more texts. More of everything. It was a time of great enthusiasms and great growth. This middle era is also defined by the publication of webtexts that were first presented at Computers and Writing conferences. These texts were published in such increasingly large numbers that they threatened to either turn the journal into a proceedings or overwhelm the editorial staff (). More webtexts were published in volumes 5, 6, and 7 (120) than in all the other years of Kairos combined, and the anomalies of this era (such as a last gasp spurt of linear webtexts and a return of sequential and looping forms) have as much to do with the pressure to get huge issues out the door than they do to any particular shift in our thinking about hypertext.

Coming of Age: New Media and Beyond (volumes 8-10)
Stepping back from the high-stakes games of large scale publishing, the last three volumes of Kairos are marked by a dramatic decrease in the number of texts published (26 in three years) but at the same time, a dramatic increase in the sophistication and an increasingly more confident balance between text, visuals, design, media, and navigation. This era marked the introduction of the first new form, the timeline webtext, as well as Flash texts and an increasing use of video. As a community we seemed to have matured in both our skills and our values and it shows.

Kairos and the Ransom Note Fallacy
These three eras remind me of the maturation process that I wrote about in a chapter called "The Ransom Note Fallacy" for Nancy Allen's (2002) collection, Words and Images. In that chapter, I described the stages that I had observed students progressing through as they learned to master visual rhetoric.

I had noticed that in technical writing and desktop publishing classes (classes where students—like Kairos authors—had to take ownership for the appearance of their texts), students designed in predictable patterns. They started with pages of bland, 12 point, double-spaced Times New Roman: page after page after page of gray, formless text. I called this initial stage, LESS is LESS. During this period, students would begin to complicate their visual designs by adding emphasis device after emphasis device on top of one another. So if I told students they needed stronger headers, the document would come back with every single header in 36 point, bold, italic, shadow, outline, underlined, centered, Times New Roman (see page 50 of the essay for an example).

As students gradually grew out of these additive strategies, they began a period I called MORE IS MORE, a time when they would experiment in more daring ways with the features of PageMaker. This is the stage where you might see the Ransom Note effects that Robin Williams and Roger Parker complain so bitterly about: newsletters that used so many fonts the pages looked like they had been cut out and pasted together like ransom notes (although such effects are quite rare in actual student work).

Finally, as students talked to one another about their designs and critiqued other designs, they gradually evolved a graphic style I called LESS IS MORE as they began to use visual principles such as contrast and consistency to communicate organizational structure and rhetorical purpose.

I see similar patterns (LESS IS LESS, MORE IS MORE, and LESS IS MORE) reflected in the three eras of Kairos I described above. And that is pretty darn exciting. Whether working in paper or on the screen, until students start to think about design in terms of "less is more," thinking about design in terms of audience, meaning, and rhetorical purpose, as well as seeing design as a social process rather than just a collection of their personal likes and dislikes, they do not make any real progress.

My analysis of Kairos suggests that as a field we have reached a similar point in our construction of online scholarship, and if so, the future will be exciting indeed.

At this point, the webtext is almost totally linear. There is one piece left, a coda, my call for new thinking about the online webtext. You can also return to the home page.