A Review of Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print (2nd Edition)

Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Printby Jay David Bolter
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001
ISBN: 0-8058-2918-0/0-8058-2919-9. 232 pp., $34.50

Review by W. Webster Newbold
Ball State University


Ten years ago Jay David Bolter published Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the History of Writing (hereafter WS1), and it shortly became one of the major scholarly works exploring and defining the new phenomenon of hypertext as a far-reaching development in the history of writing. Bolter’s work in computer science and his roots in classical studies, along with broad historical knowledge, gave him a unique perspective from which he argued for the importance of digital writing as a personal, aesthetic, economic, academic, and cultural activity.
          In 1991 it was perhaps still necessary to defend the idea of electronic writing as significant in and of itself, and capable of serious artistic and academic functions. That is no longer the case. Today’s culture is far more “wired” and open to computer-based and networked modes of expression and communication. It may be all the more important, then, to try to understand why and how electronic writing is important in our lives and especially in teaching and learning. Bolter’s revision of his 1991 book attempts to accomplish this – to update our conceptualizing of the new writing space in light of our more extensive experience with digital literacy technologies and with major structural developments in our electronic world. Paramount among these, of course, is the birth and rapid growth of the World Wide Web, which in 1989-91 was barely a glimmer in the eye of its creator Tim Berners-Lee.
          Bolter writes, "Like many others, I had no idea that the Web would grow into a defining application for electronic communication [. . . ]. As a global hypertext system, the Web has provided the most convincing evidence of the computer's potential to refashion the practice of writing [. . .]. It seemed worthwhile to revise Writing Space to take the Web into account, simply because much of what I had written was made obsolete by this phenomenon" (xi).
          Several other areas also comprise Bolter's revision focus. Along with the growth of the Web is paired Bolter’s concern for the “breakout of the visual” in contemporary media. In Writing Space second edition (hereafter WS2) Bolter traces the “growing importance of graphics, animation, video, and audio" (xi) on the Web and the ways these non-alphabetic functions create tension with and in many ways oppose traditional textual literacies, among which Bolter includes hypertext in its classic form. This strand continues work Bolter has done in the intervening years since WS1 appeared.
          A perspective on many of the changes brought about by digital technology and seen on the Web has been developed in the concept of “remediation,” which was introduced in the 1999 book by that name published by Bolter and Richard Grusin. Remediation had limited itself to visual media – photography, television, film – rather than enter the issue of print. In WS2 Bolter fills this gap, giving extensive consideration to the remediation of print culture in electronic formats, notably the Web.
          Finally, Bolter attempts to answer earlier critics who accused him of treating technology in a deterministic way in WS1, seeing “the computer” as an autonomous agent that acted on people and culture while neglecting the relationship of writing as a practice to its material tools. In a section on “Writing technologies and material culture,” he explains and defends the approach he and others have taken to understanding the relationship between technological tools and the context they function in.
          This review essay will not attempt to discuss the whole work in outline, which in many points repeats material well known from the first edition (It does provide a tabular comparison of the contents headings, however.) Rather, I will emphasize these new areas outlined above, cross linking between the discussions when appropriate and commenting on issues especially relevant to those of us who teach and learn in hypertext environments. Focus topics of this review include:

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Note: The Companion Website to WS2, announced on p. 214, may not be available at this time.