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Toward a Theory of Hypertextual Design
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Toward a Theory of Hypertextual Design

While the study of the temporal and spatial distanciation of communication is important to the concept of the mode of information the heart of the matter lies elsewhere. For the issue of communicational efficiency . . . does not raise the basic question of the configuration of information exchange, or what I call the wrapping of language.

—Poster, 8

Hypertext/Hypermedia

What distinguishes hypermedia from other modes of information is not that it is computer-driven—after all, the browsing and retrieval mechanisms of Vannevar Bush’s memex were non-electronic—nor that it is interactive, since the entire history of oral communication, whether electronically mediated or not, might be characterized as interactive; nor even that it includes navigational apparatus such as links and nodes, which might better be thought of as symptoms than causes, or buttresses rather than groundwork. What distinguishes hypermedia is that it posits an information structure so dissimilar to any other in human experience that it is difficult to describe as a structure at all. It is nonlinear, and therefore may seem an alien wrapping of language when compared to the historical path written communication has traversed; it is explicitly non-sequential, neither hierarchical nor “rooted” in its organizational structure, and therefore may appear chaotic and entropic. Yet clearly, human thought processes include nonlinear, nonsequential, and interactive characteristics which, when acknowledged by traditional information structures, are not supported. In fact, one might characterize the history of information transfer as a tyranny against such characteristics, that is, a tyranny against the rhizome.

Hypermedia might be understood as one manifestation of the struggle against this tyranny. In current parlance, hypermedia is used to describe both applications which make use of navigational tools such as links and nodes to form “texts” or databases, and the organizational principles of such “texts” and databases. Hypertext is also used to denote these same meanings. When a distinction is drawn between the two, it normally focuses on content—“hypertext” is used to refer to hyper-structures consisting exclusively of written texts, while “hypermedia” denotes similar structures built around multiple media. Others have noted the artificiality of such a delineation. “Text” is also used as a synonym for a “written work” or “book” which may or may not be limited to alphanumeric characters. A “text” may included charts, graphs, illustrations, photographs, and other visual media in its expression of meaning. Why then should a “hypertext”—which has the potential for incorporating an even wider range of expressive media (sound, animation, etc.)—be limited to alphanumeric characters in its expression?

A more useful differentiation might be drawn along structural rather than contextual lines. Hypertext demonstrates “traits that are usually obscured by the enforced linearity of paper printing”; it is text—only more so—because it participates in a structure that resonates asynchronous and nonlinear relationships. Hypertext is a kind of weaving—“text” derives ultimately from the Latin texere, and thus shares a common root with “textile”—a structuring with texture—web, warp, and weave, allowing for infinite variation in color, pattern and material; it is the loom that structures the “text-ile.” Hypertext is the organizational principle of hypermedia. Hypermedia is the medium of expression of a given hypertext structure. When that medium mirrors the singularity of the print medium of alphanumeric text, it may be properly called either “hypertext” or “hypermedia”; when the medium reflects an “intertwingling” (Nelson 31) of what we understand as separate “media” in the analog sense of the term, it should perhaps be referred to as “hypermedia,” but might equally be acknowledged as “hypertext.” Neither hypertext nor hypermedia is an object, rather the former is a structure, and the latter a medium, of information transfer.

Historical Context

All electronically mediated exchange participates in hypertext, though the degree of participation varies enormously. Some electronically mediated exchange is “hypertextual” only to the degree that it is virtual—that it consists of a series of switches or codes (binary or otherwise) which are, in and of themselves, unreadable (and, therefore, nontextual), and which contain “pointers” to their reconstruction as meaningful exchanges. The switches or codes are “nodes” which are “linked” to a “textual” form which, at any given...