Hypertext has been with us for many years now. But earlier forms of hypertext were bounded spaces, able to link only the amount of information that can be stored on a single computer or disk. With CD-ROM technology, that amount of information was large, but still bounded and theoretically exhaustible. The reader could follow only the paths laid down by the author or authors responsible for the document immediately at hand.
Moreover, though any individual could theoretically write hypertext, the difficulty of the medium and problems of distribution (pressing and physically distributing disks) meant that there was relatively little motivation to do so. Hypertext therefore retained the centre-to-margin configuration made famous by the physical book. In general, authors--sometimes educators, sometimes software developers-- wrote. Publishers published. Readers read. Even daring hypertext experiments such as Landow's had no audience beyond the immediate educational domain.
The development of the WWWeb in 1993 marked what Marshall McLuhan, following Kenneth Boulding, calls a " at which some system suddenly changes into another or passes some pount of no return in its dynamic processes" (qtd. Understanding Media 49). At a break boundary, a medium that has been gradually speeding up finally reaches a point at which it is no longer the old medium made faster, but a new medium qualitatively different from the old.
Writing encountered a break boundary with the mechanization of type. Hypertext encountered a break boundary when it was placed on the Internet.
Now the writing space is boundless. Links can lead to other documents by other authors who in turn can direct the reader into boundless other spaces. Once a document reaches outside itself in this manner, the author has not only lost control of the reader's path through that particular document, but of the size and shape of the document itself. Ted Nelson's "docuverse" is born.
Moreover, centre and margin have lost their meaning. The Internet has no centre, no margin. HTML is not so easy to write that everyone on the street is creating web pages, but it is fast on its way to becoming a commonly available tool. As the easily-learned phonetic alphabet took writing out of the hands of the elite scribes and placed it in the hands of every educated person, so HTML is rapidly giving everyone the ability to be hypertext authors and hypertext publishers, not just hypertext readers.
For teachers of literacy, then, this may prove to be an especially important break boundary as it supplies our students with not only a new reading tool but also a new writing tool..
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