Much of the material in this web on the subject of reading hypertext uses television as a model. Seen through the terministic screen of this model, hypertext appears to be a passive medium that privileges clicking from one information Mcnugget to the next. I find this analogy helpful in a cautionary sort of way, but its helpfulness is subject to the limitation of all analogies: the analogy can only be pushed so far.
Web text is different from television in a number of ways, not the least of which is that, clickable or not, it is still text, not just visual images. But in this node I wan to switch tracks to another quality of hypertext that has only recently begun to seem important: it is a writer's medium as well as a reader's medium.
Hypertext began with a version of the centre-to-margin relationship that has always characterised broadcasting and book production. Hypertext publishers would create disks for distribution to an audience, and much hypertext material was in mimickery of book publication. Most people first encountered hypertext in the from of on-line documentation, and many of the classic and current works on hypertext authorship are designed to help documentation writers design text that makes information retrieval easy. But increasingly, with cheap and simple authoring tools and the WWWeb as a distribution medium, everyone can become a hypertext author.
This power of authorship is almost universally celebrated. But it merits further exploration in the context of my concerns over the possible mismatch between hypertext and the intellectual processes that underlie sustained argument.
Instead of embedding short quotations, paraphrases, and references in her own argument, the hypertext author is lead by the natural pull of the medium itself to include large chunks of others' work, either cut-and-pasted or, in the case of other works that already exist on the web, as hyperlinks to whole documents.
This can be a blessing to the reader, who can follow down references without having to trek to the library. But it can also tempt the writer to avoid the labour of grappling with the essence of the work She can simply slug in a chunk of undigested reference, leaving the reader to discover its significance. Think of the beginning student's "pro-con" essay that simply juxtaposes two points of view and forgets to find any significance in the juxtaposition.
Myron Tuman foresees this possibility in his response to Kaplan's "Politexts, Hypertexts" essay:
Hypertextual linking may actually encourage the simplistic, oppositional thinking of TV-talk shows, foregoing the long-established practice of qualifying thought through intricate subordination, even WITHIN A SINGLE SENTENCE, by balancing via links people clearly representing distinct positions (an odd thinker with an even one, a square one with a round one).
You will not find the present essay immune to this charge. Some quotations are carefully chosen and integrated with the text to illustrate a point, as in the one above. This is consistent with the best that we seek to teach our students when we teach them how to write from sources.
Other quotations, however, are scanned and slabbed in wholesale, contextualized by the links that lead to them but by little else. This would be terrible style in print. But what is it in hypertext? Is it an artful use of the new medium, allowing the reader quick access to far more text than print permits in order to form her own judgement of it? Or is it a form of intellectual laziness on the part of the writer?
The need to find parsimonious quotations and construct accurate paraphrases forces an intellectual involvement with other people's words, an effortful engagement which requires slowness and reflection. It is this intellectual engagement that separates expert writing from transitional patchwriting. Perhaps it also separates writing that really fosters cognitive growth from writing that doesn't.