Rock, Hard Place, The Open and Constrained Writing

It was Sunday night, and we were off the reservation down at Venus Bay, squatting in a friend’s holiday house. Venus Bay is a wild beach, facing Bass Strait and the Southern Ocean. The wind is always chilling, coming as it does more or less from Antarctica, and it is hemmed by ecologically recent sand dunes and, thankfully, a deep pocket of remnant vegetation. 

So here I sit. Gillian Welch on the sound system, mother and daughter in another room watching Spy Kids 4 on an iPad, and I find myself musing over things to say at an undergraduate lecture later this week. There are questions, loosely, about hypertext, and why hypertext for media students. I found myself remembering the first time I met hypertext, 1991, maybe 92, in what was then a state of the art lecture theatre in the medical building at Monash University. It was state of the art largely because it had a data projector so could present an image from a computer. 

Down there at the lectern was a pizza box Macintosh running an early version of Eastgate’s Storyspace. Remember, this is before the WWW (and before PPP dialup, I actually asked for a PPP dialup from the Monash IT people around this time and they didn’t know what I was talking about). Storyspace is a standalone hypertext system that lets you write, and read, based on granular chunks of content with links between them. It was what we now describe as a link node hypertext. Links (remember, pre WWW) could be from any object to any other. A word, phrase, sentence in one node to a word, phrase, or sentence in another. Or from a node to a node. Or from a node (so the whole container) to a word, phrase, or sentence in another. Links could be multiple, so one phrase might have four links (not HTML’s one) to four different locations. And links were first order objects, so could be named, have conditions set upon them, searched for, and all the usual things objecthood allows. 

Here you could write in an open, non–teleological way, letting the multiplicitous connections of ideas (Nelson’s ‘intertwingleness’) exist and not be tethered, domesticated, shoe-horned, into the faux sequentiality that linear print by material fiat demanded. It really was an epiphany for me. 

So as I sat there, thinking about what to say in this week’s lecture, I’m recalling the élan and liberation of twenty years ago, and realising that while I wrote quite a few published academic hypertext essays that I have not done so for a while. And if I actually want to get out what is racing through my head, I really should return to writing hypertext, hypertextually. The issue then, as now (twenty years later!) is how very few places allow for such writing. It isn’t the style that’s the issue, I’ve written plenty of things that approach the experimental in terms of form and structure for journals, but finding places that will host or support something that might be 50 or 60 web pages (or even a standalone hypertext for download), that’s an entirely different proposition. No one takes it seriously, and you end up providing a concatenated PDF of the whole thing, and that’s what’s read anyhows.

Hence a rock and the hard place. I could write in the way I want and believe I ought, and then perhaps struggle for publication outputs (which is the employment measure I’m supposed to pay attention to), or I can write linear essays that are much slower (if only because cognitively I’m not that sort of thinker) and eventually always much more timid and pedestrian than what I want, but at least they tick some research metrics. (And no, writing hypertext hypertextually and translating that to print isn’t effective, I’ve tried.) Some things to ponder.