What is Hypertext Anyway?
Contemporary ideas about hypertext date back to Vannevar Bush's (1945) article "As We May Think." Bush, director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II, foresaw a time when the scientific literature on any one topic would be so large that scientists could not keep up. To address this problem, he proposed a machine he called the Memex: not a computer, but a sophisticated microfilm reader, which a scholar could use to stay up with the literature and make links between interesting ideas.
Bush envisioned individual scientists each at work on their own Memex. Another early pioneer, Ted Nelson (1987) envisioned a hypertextual information network (called Xanadu) much like the World Wide Web. (Xanadu never caught on, as you can tell from the bitter tone of their website.)
In the early 1990s (just prior to the appearance of the Web) a series of books (such as Bolter, 1991; Landow, 1992; Lanham, 1993) attempted to theorize digital writing on the computer screen by contrasting this new form of writing with earlier print forms of communication. It was in my mind a particularly unproductive era; these scholars wrote about using hypertext as if technology by itself could change literacy practices. As Johnson-Eilola and Kimme Hea (2003) described this early 1990's ideology: "Hypertext offered the technological means to challenge the hierarchical nature of relationships between reader/writer and theory/practice" (p. 416). What we really needed, however, was not more technology, but richer, more complex literacy theories that would challenge our ideas about the materiality of reading and writing.
The work that eventually broke our field out of this nonproductive thinking was Bolter and Grusin's Remediation (2002). They developed a view of hypertext and hypermediation not as digital, screen-based publishing but as a form of semiotic meaning-making that might appear in either paper or in digital form. Drawing on Lanham (1993), they framed their argument in terms of the semiotic push and pull between the urge to see through media and the urge to look at media itself:
We do not claim that immediacy, hypermediacy, and remediation are universal aesthetic truths; rather, we regard them as practices of specific groups in specific times. Although the logic of immediacy has manifested itself from the Renaissance to the present day, each manifestation in each age may be significantly different, and immediacy may mean one thing to theorists, another to practicing artists or designers, and a third to viewers. The diversity is even greater for hypermediacy, which seems always to offer a number of different reactions to the contemporary logic of immediacy. (p. 21)
They further argue that hypermediacy "expresses itself as multiplicity" and that "[t]he logic of hypermediacy acknowledges multiple acts of representation and makes them visible" (p. 33). In this section and the next, I particularly focus on three types of hypermediated meaning making: segmenting, linking, and juxtaposing.
Segmenting means breaking text into small discrete units of content (something I was not very good at in this webtext, alas). It is in many ways the most important and least appreciated form of hypertextual meaning making. Consider all of the electronic texts one encounters these days that are nothing but a long scroll of text: Word documents without headers or page numbers, endless blog entries, and personal web pages that seem to scroll forever. Breaking print or electronic documents into clear segments and organizing those segments is, in my mind, the starting point of hypertext as a form of meaning making. You cannot create hypertextual documents until you start segmenting your text into discrete units and articulating the relationships between those segments. Linking is the process of making connections between segments or between organizing strategies. Juxtaposing is the process of placing multiple (text or media) segments on the same page so that the segments gain meaning in the ways that they compare and contrast with each other.
More recent conceptions of hypertext, however, move away from meaning making to focus on the social nature of hypertext. Johnson-Eilola and Kimme Hea (2003), for example, have argued that we should be focusing not on technique but on how hypertextual techniques are inscribed in social practice: "Hypertext, then, is a heuristic for thinking through our relationships to technology, literacy, and one another" (p. 420). I would rephrase this point, drawing on activity theory, to argue that hypertext is always situated within a specific community and a specific set of community values about the ways that texts mediate or call attention to themselves. Hypertext always emerges out of an ever-changing confluence of texts, techniques, technologies, and social practices.
What is particularly interesting about Kairos is that this hypertextual community has always been visible. It has existed for ten years in the authors, editors, editorial board, editorial staff of the journal whose values have been made visible by Kairos' editorial policies and by each and every choice authors make in designing and hypertextualizing their webtexts.
Thus the opportunity in studying hypertext in Kairos is not only to identify forms of meaning making and to track changes in those forms over time, but also to see the impact of those changes on a community and on a community's changing sense of value, power, meaning, and identity.