The word is the serpent eating its tail; it is the sign that disappears in the act of signing—the signing is not complete until the word has disappeared into its puff of meaning. At the instant of apotheosis it ceases to be itself; when it has brokered the transaction, it vanishes, reappearing only when the eye has moved on. This is the paradox of paradoxes: The word is most signifier when it least signifies.—Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age
Writing should demand we see. Seeing should demand we change.—Fred Pfeil, Another Tale to Tell: Politics and Narrative in Postmodern Culture
Ideas of the Opposite
Critics are a blessing. As William Blake almost said, they may confer kingly titles. Failing that, critics can at least point out the high stakes involved in questioning important aspects of a culture. “Opposition is [End Page 651] true friendship,” the poet wrote, though these days that line reads less like Blake than some wistful, downsized Strangelove mourning the receding glaciers of the Cold War. There is a lesson in this. Without adversaries we are lost, unable to find even a contingent standpoint of difference in the all-assimilating postmodern funhouse. If opposition is friendship, critique is aid and comfort. It restores the agenda.
Though this logic of opposition could apply to virtually any recent intervention—multiculturalism or “language” poetry or postmodern theory itself—we focus here on an information-age practice called “cybertext” (Aarseth 19). This is writing (or more accurately, textual production in various media) that depends on a feedback mechanism operated and partly controlled by the receiver to evoke a particular state of a variable or combinatorial text. While this formula may cover everything from libraries, encyclopedias, and aleatory poems to role-playing games, I Ching, and the Ouija board, much cybertextual interest these days concerns text production on the Internet and its World Wide Web, a subtype of electronic writing called hypertext or hypermedia.
Once upon a time, globally networked, computer-mediated communication seemed a genuinely radical notion. In the 1960s and ‘70s, advocates like Stewart Brand, Howard Rheingold, and, above all, Ted Nelson foresaw electronic publishing as the cardinal technology of a decentered, populist information culture. When this vision reached research labs at companies like SRI, Xerox, and IBM, not to mention a certain garage in Silicon Valley, it helped spur development of personal computers, which in turn nurtured the emerging Internet (see De Landa). Unlike some prophecies of the time, the development of cybertext seemed by the early ‘80s a viable prospect. Within ten years the visionaries were joined by designers and implementers, including Bill Atkinson, chief programmer of Apple’s HyperCard, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, and Jay David Bolter, software developer and cultural theorist. Bolter has perhaps best expressed the expected impact of cybertext on intellectual life. He predicts both an atomization and a new regime:
Although we . . . lose the satisfaction of belonging to a coherent cultural tradition, we gain the freedom to establish our own traditions in miniature. The computer offers people [End Page 652] the opportunity to build liaisons with other readers and writers. . . . Unlike television, which promotes uniformity (even through the apparent diversity of cable and satellite stations), the microcomputer and the phone network really do permit special literacies to survive.(238)
In light of recent events, Bolter’s quondam description of “network culture” seems acutely innocent, much like the utopian, “tribal” rhetoric of the ‘60s on the morning after Altamont. With the headlines full of pedophiles, pornographers, and saucer cultists, some consider the Internet less a pastoral retreat for readers and writers than a sinkhole of weirdness and perversion (see Johnson). At the same time, the cybertextual enterprise itself has changed. When Bolter wrote Writing Space, very few people were interested in commercializing the Internet. Now one cybertextual system, the World Wide Web, accounts for more than 150 million documents (a number that will seem ludicrously low by the time you read this). Profitable exploitation of this resource has become a major object of capitalist desire—and lately, anxiety.
Bolter names our times “the late age of...