Tag Archives: hypertext

Endings (part one)

Softcopy is a material change to writing, perhaps the most significant material change to writing since the rise of popular literacy and the printing press in western Europe. The specificity of this change matters, for what I’m particularly interested in is the implications of this for writing largely because for humanities academic research it is surely the possible changes for how we write that has the most significant implications for us as scholars.

Writing, to repeat a refrain that appears to run my work much like the hook in a pop song, is the site of my research as a practice. It is where the complexity, density, and messiness of ideas and thought and the world happen and are negotiated. As a non-fiction writer (for this is what academic writing is) and a critical theorist I recognise that the traditional academic essay, the sorts of things we normally write and publish (and for that matter read) are as formulaic as those science papers we sometimes mock, and apart from the odd pun and sometimes playful alliteration, a lot of effort is expended (well perhaps not) to tame our writing and thinking so that thought becomes singular and well composed, which in many instances simply means it deports itself in ways that lets it, as writing, stay polite, and calm, and, well, utterly domesticated. We tame or let thought become subdued in our writing as the clamour of ideas–in–themselves get politely sent to, on a good day, a footnote, even in writing that argues for and advocates some sort of multiplicity or other acentred view of some content area.

Humanities academic writing in our traditional but oh so very usual way is then, as in the sciences, a reporting upon what has been found, of what we already know, and in this domestication, which is a mix of the self policing of an academic milieu and the hegemonic reification of the a particular notion of the rational that print (Ong, Stafford) instantiates, we reduce the complex to the simple (even where we use long words and innumerable clauses).

Such a writing, and its form, is intrinsically teleological. To this extent what I’m almost parodying as the canonical humanities academic essay shares this quality with classical realist fiction, in both literature and cinema, for here, too a ‘good’ story is one that simultaneously presents the illusion that it could really have been, and also that how it ends and its means of arrival are inevitable, ‘natural’, and rationally understandable. Stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, do not have to do this. That they do this is a consequence of the linear finitude of their material substrates, to wit because there is a last page, because there is a last frame, they have to end. Because they have to end the ending becomes a problem (much like beginnings).

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.

Korsakow and Dense Nodes

In network media I discussed small world networks, dense nodes, and so on. A korsakow film is exactly this sort of structure. Below is something I wrote in 2011, reposting here as it should help people to understand Korsakow films as an architecture and structure that you do things with, and an architecture and structure that is, in its very DNA, the same as the networks we are working on. It’s sort of a mise-en-abyme moment really.

A significant idea that has a lot of relevance for things like the internet, hypertext, and social media (which are all forms of distributed networks) is the idea of a ‘small world network’. This is related to the famous experiment by Stanley Milgram about there being a maximum of ‘six degrees of separation’ between any two people, anywhere in the world. A small world network assumes lots of a small number of connections between individuals (nodes, clips in a k-film, links on the web, people you know), but with a few individuals who have a lot of connections. In relation to social networks these links are not about how close you are to others (whether geographically or personally) just that you know them. The existence of only a small number of people who know a lot of other people (who have a lot of connections) makes it much easier to get from one group to another, from one individual to another. The key features here are that these connections (how many people you know) is not equally distributed – I know 100, you know 200 – and that to get from one individual to another you do not need to know all the connections, all you need to know is somebody that you think will be closer than you are.

So, what does this have to do with k-films? Quite a lot, since keywords create (in k-film land) small world networks. Clusters or clouds of clips that all know about each other since they have common keywords. Now, imagine a work which has several such clouds. This is like a party where there are four, no let’s make it five, distinct groups of people who know each other. Now, to find someone in my group who knows someone in another group (in other words someone who could easily sit in one or more of the groups) is quite easy and this is how the two groups can be connected. The person I know in that group over there can introduce me to everyone else in their group – I just need one point of connection to be able to join them, it doesn’t matter that I only know one person.

Hence in my k-film with my clouds all I need to do is make sure I have one clip (node, SNU, pick your term) that has lots of connections to the other clouds. To keep my now rather dodgy analogy going, the person who knows someone in three, four or even five of the groups at my party. This node might have no limit to lives (it will keep appearing) and also have plenty of keywords so itn is a point of connection to all the other clouds and nodes.

In practice I might have most clips with limited lives. As I view the work I am caught in a cloud, but as I view material and clips ‘die’ this special node (what I’m currently calling a dense node) will appear. If I select this then because it has links to all the other clouds I can now get access to these other clouds. In this way I’m able to make sure that all the parts of my k-film can be connected. That’s one half of the problem. The other half is to figure out how to film or make this content in such a way that it makes sense, visually and contextuallly, so that it works as this dense node or hinge between these other parts. This depends very much on what these other clouds are about.

Need an example? I might have material that I have grouped (made as clouds) around night and day. I might then have to fllm something at dusk or sunset and use that as something that connects night and day and make this clip my connector. I might have inside and outside, light and dark, blue and red, and so on. In each case once I recognise what the terms of my structure are I can identify something that falls between them, and this is the one that I can use to join these two clusters or clouds together.

Korsakow and Hypertext

Found this from a static site from 2010 or 2011. This is about Korsakow as hypertext, not the linear singular link node notion of hypertext that everyone who writes about interactive documentary thinks hypertext is, but the sort of hypertext that hypertext theorists and writers use everyday (for example with tools such as Storyspace or Tinderbox).

Korsakow is software. It lets you make and publish multilinear video (and sound) works online. That is pretty much all you use it for and all it does.

Some questions: why do we use it? What might be learnt from using it? What can we make or do with it?

How to Think Korsakow

The Korsakow System is software that lets you make hypertexts. Unlike traditional hypertext the content nodes here are now video or audio, but all the principles, rules of making and reading are pretty much the same as for hypertext (or I guess more accurately hypermedia).

The simplest way I think of understanding the Korsakow System is that it is a system for making what I think of as hypertext movies. It lets you make links between nodes like you do in HTML, except the links are not written out as HREFs but use keywords. Each clip in your project These keywords can also be attached to time.

This means that you should think of a keyword as being the same as a link, so a video clip while you are making a movie can have links out to other video clips in your k-film. This means any clip can have as many links to other clips as you like (there is even a random option where it will insert any clip for you, think of this as a random link to all the other nodes/clips in your project). Similarly there are links in to each clip from other clips, and you define these as well.

KorsakowasHypertext
Figure One: Standard Links Using HTTP and HTML (HREF attribute).

For example, as Figure One illustrates, the sorts of links commonly understood to constitute hypertext are those written in HTML, and so are anchored on a source page (for instance in text or an image) and when selected have a single destination which is to a legitimate URL. Hypertext however, has always had much more sophisticated notions of linking than this, including the assumption that you could link from the entire object (in the case of Figure One, this would be the entire page), and that any link may have a single anchor, or source, but multiple destinations.

In such a system (see Figure Two) a link may come from an entire node, or from any part within that node (and a node may contain text, image, video, and so on) and may have multiple destinations. In many traditional hypertext systems this is realised through a link with some sort of dialog or directory window opening when a multiheaded links is selected to let the reader choose which of the destinations they would like to arrive at. Alternatively, such systems may also institute rules so that the system, rather than the user, determines the destination from those available (Storyspace is an example of such a system). Such rules usually rely on state information (that is the system records what you have been doing, and so knows what nodes you have in your history, which word you just selected to follow a link, and the like) and so make links available on the basis of reading history (what you have, or have not visited) and text strings (what bit of text you have selected.

However, technicalities aside, what is of importance here is the difference this sort of hypertext has to plain vanilla HTML with HREFs. In the latter links are singluar with a nominated and visible source (the link anchor) and a single destination (a URL). This means links can be thought of (and mapped) as complex, recursive tree structures, but the connections are all fixed and visible, whether they are followed or not – this web page has n links with n1 destinations. In Figure Two though we don’t have such tree like structures (I should stress that ‘tree’ really is a misleading analogy, since a web link can link to any other URL and there is no necessary hierarchy required, which the tree analogy suggests, but I do want to provide a strong sense of the way in which these sorts of links are ‘flat’ compared to more complex hypertext structures, are easily discoverable (ie you can just see them) and so describe and create a fixed topography whether they are followed by a reader or not. This is, after all, how a spider like Google can index webpages as it follows links, it is premised on them being explicitly declared, described and able to be followed). I like to think of them as clouds, or as fuzzy links.

KorsakowasHypertext1
Figure Two: Multiheaded Links in a Hypertext.

Clouds and Fuzzy Links

These are quite informal terms, but that’s OK. They are fuzzy because in Figure Two the link that has four possible destinations does not need to be made up of four different links (as would be the case in HTML) but can be a single link which has a condition or rule attached to it where that rule is satisfied (in this example) by four destinations. This lack of specificity, where a link does not absolutely go from here to there, is what makes it fuzzy. It might go to N1, but it might also go to any of N2, N3, and N4. As a consequence of this the structure is not fixed as in HTML but is cloudy, there is a soft constellation of potential destinations, and they are potential not because it is a web page with ten links and the reader may decide on any of the ten (or none) but because the destination is actuated by the system in response to the user as a feedback system.

Now, let’s return this to Korsakow. Korsakow uses the model described in Figure Two. The link is not a link in the technical hypertext sense (though it is, after all a hypertext system such as Storyspace is, like Korsakow, a database application with a particular sort of presentation layer for authoring and reading) but a keyword which enables a search. This search will, in the simplest scenario, match all other nodes that contain this keyword and so make them available for selection – in the first instance by the system and in the second by the user. In a k-film the set of possible destinations to a key word is constrained by a) the number of nodes containing that key word, b) the number of lives each node has (which limits the number of times it can be played, which in turn limits how often it can appear as a result of a search), and c) how many thumbnails have been allocated to present the outcome of the search.

For example, in Figure Two we have four nodes that have links, so as a k-film that would be four nodes that contain the same key word that we are searching for (keeping in mind that this could include the same node that is the source of the search). However, in defining the parameters for the first node in this series it is possible to limit how many results to return for this search, so while there may be four that meet the condition only two (for example) may be displayed. Similarly the designer of the k-film is able to determine how many thumbnail panes to present in the project, and this can also affect how many nodes within this ‘cloud’ may actually appear to the user. For instance, a k-film may only have three thumbnail panes, so if there are four nodes that match the search criteria, one will not be displayed. Finally, it should be obvious that as more material is added to a k-film project the set of nodes that matches a search may change as more nodes with the same key word are included.

So, we have links that are fuzzy because they are rule defined, and what meets the conditions of these rules varies due to a variety of author defined constraints. A problem remains though, as an artefact of our visualisation, which suggests a linear passage through the material (from left to right, and implicitly from beginning to an end). This is, in fact, not the case.

KorsakowasHypertext2
Figure Three: A Sketch of the Structure of A Completed K-Film

Figure Three provides a concpetual link structure for a simple k-film. The coloured lines are different key word links between each of the nodes. The point of this third figure is to begin to suggest the complexity that can be built through only a few nodes (SNUs, lexias) and keywords, and that the structures (the sequences) are recursive, circular, and ‘ill formed’ in that they are not explicit like in HTML but lie there, as a virtual set of possibilities.

Memory Machines

Melbourne based (Swinburne) academic Belinda Barnet’s history of hypertext, “Memory Machines: The Evolution of Hypertext” is listed in hardback and Kindle at amazon. She’s interviewed all the key figures, and as far as I know this is the first history to be written.

The Triumvirate

There are three things that matter in relation to a networked specific practice and media production. These three terms apply to the formal attributes of digital media, the qualities that practice requires, and how audiences participate, use, and engage with networked media. There is no hierarchy amongst these three terms, and they move prove to be insufficient. The terms are porousness, granularity, and facets. The list does not include database, user, or interactivity, as these are not causes but consequences of this triumvirate of terms.

Porousness describes the way in which the objects within networked media need to be open to each other internally, and externally. They are open internally to the extent that its constituent parts are available to its other constituent parts through what Weinberger has rather informally defined as ‘small pieces loosely joined”. Similarly, the work itself, as an assemblage of constituent parts, needs to be available to other systems and objects externally, out on the network. This allows them to be shared, curated, and used otherwise. Porous media does not want or need to monopolise my attention, screen, or hardware.

Granularity describes the smallest constitutive unit in a work that provides closure and coherence by itself. It is a meaningful whole, as is. This unit does not need to be narrative. A work that is highly granular can be regarded as very porous.
When a thing is porous and granular they have a multitude of possible connections with each other. These possible connections are the facets that things present to each other, or which other things cause to be presented. As there are a multiplicity of such facets, in any networked practice only some of this set of facets are ‘realised’, however the more facets that are enabled and available, then the more possibilities for connections between parts exist.

Where the units within networked media are granular and porous then these elements remain as elements during, and after, publication and distribution. This means these small parts still make some sort of sense, even if shifted elsewhere and into other contexts. This makes it easy to remix material, and the facets that can be provided to search, find, connect, and identify these elements then the easier and more successfully things can be mediated and montaged.

Cinema has always existed in such a condition, and it is the shots granularity and porousness to other shots that makes the cinema possible. A shot, has, in the terms above, many facets available to other shots to form a sequence. This means that the shift heralded by networked practice and media may not be as large as many believe, so that it is not so much the formal attributes as others that need addressing as media making moves even more substantially into networked modes.

If I apply this to online documentary then it is easy to see that a lot of online documentary does not understand this. The most common criticism is that the works are closed, with perhaps a nod to the modern version of the guestbook (comments or some other crude device to collect and aggregate other people’s words to itself). The second is facets, where the ability porousness of the parts to itself are trivialised into menus of choice, even where such menus become fancy dots, mouse events, or some other way of making a menu appear to be anything but the menu that it is. This produces largely linear, radial pathways through material, much like the architecture of a 7-Eleven (put the key sellers, e.g. milk, at the back and have each aisle lead you through it, with the impulse purchases closest to the milk and the counter) which in so many ways betrays an anxiety of granularity, facets, and porousness.