rriving on the literary scene in the early '90s, Jay David Bolter's
Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing is one
of those pro-hypertext books whose earnest boosterism leaves you feeling a
little embarassed. Nonetheless, Bolter's book has recently been seen
changing hands around graphic design graduate programsI once heard it
referred to as "the only interesting writing about new media." While
interesting isn't a word I would use to describe the writing itself, the
book does touch upon a central area of interest to graphic designers: the
impact of technology on the material embodiment of language (i.e.
typography and graphic design). While Bolter's speculations on the future
of electronic writing show their age, (the world wide web is conspicuously
absent), his reconfiguration of the activity of writing in relation to its
"spaces"past and futureopens the way for an integrated study (and
practice?) of writing and design that was previously unimaginable.
Writing Space has two basic premises: (1) writing is a technology for
meaning-making via the structure and display of discrete signsverbal and
otherwise; and (2) the writing space, the materials and techniques used to
write, determine what can be written and how it will be used and valued by
a culture. Bolter examines the impact of the computer on writing, as a
technology, object, idea, process, and metaphor. "Electronic writing will
be felt across the whole economy and history of writing: this new
technology is a thorough rewriting of the writing space" (40). Bolter
looks at how the operational attributes of digital spaceautonomy!
fluidity! speed!will change not only writing but our conceptions of
literacy, human culture, knowledge and intelligence. He claims that the
introduction of the electronic writing space constitutes a technological
transformation more powerful than that of the printing presshe likens it
to the impact of the phonetic alphabet (42, 50).
Bolter's argument is centered on the virtues of "electronic writing"a
phrase he uses interchangeably with "hypertext"which means basically
linked chunks of topical information, to the extent that he imagines it.
The associative paths of the Internet represent the hypertextual ideal: a
network that is infinite (sort of), incomplete, and constantly changing.
There are no leftovers from the age of books, no closure nor privileged
readingsin the computer, everyone's an author! A designer too! Reading
becomes a kind of writing (and writing becomes a kind of designing), for
the reader chooses her own path through a hypertextual world
designed/written to be malleable, animated, and visually complex. "True
electronic writing is not limited to verbal text: the writeable elements
may be words, images, sounds, or even actions that the computer is directed
to perform" (26). For the first time in history (or for "the end of history," as media theorist Friedrich Kittler would say), the writing technology
allows the fluid integration of visual, aural and verbal elements,
reconstituting the very definition of writing anda notion Bolter
"The very idea of writing, of semiosis, cannot be separated from the
materials and techniques with which we write, and genres and styles of
writing are as much determined by technology as other factors" (239-240).
Bolter explores how the physical characteristics of our recording devices,
from stone and wax tablets to papyrus rolls, the medieval codex and finally
the printed book have "imposed" specific systems for the sequencing and
"chunkitizing" (my word) of information. He presents a history of
operations that become increasingly complex, making them easier to use
(where use=reading+access). Self-contained volumes, encyclopedias,
libraries, punctuation, even page numbers are revealed to be not only
facilitators for managing text, but technological components as well as
philosophical constructs. Writing's most sophisticated incarnation, the
printed book, is the ultimate in standardization, linearity, and
But the book is maxxed out, Bolter claims. While it may not disappear, it
will no longer be the cornerstone in the construction of human culture. The
webbed paths, integrated media, and linked communications of hypertext will
free us from its binds. Tear down the walls! Connectivity is the future!
Hypertextual connections emphasize the in-betweeness of movement and space.
The writer and the designer create meaning not by creating objects but by
creating relationships. "Electronic writing is both a visual and verbal
description. It is not the writing of a place, but rather a writing with
places. . ." (25). Bolter recognizes the computer as a "diagrammatic space"
in which the visible and experiential structures have a rhetorical
dimension. As with maps or scientific charts, much of the significant
information is in the placement of elements relative to one another. Such
visual syntax is no longer beholden to spoken language; the information
relayed through structure would be far too cumbersome to verbalize.
Additionally, relationships are not always static representations nor are
they always seen; many are travelled or encountered. The experiential
aspect lies in the moment-to-moment connections, where, as the saying goes,
it's the journey that's important, not the destination. By writing spaces,
graphic designers and writers become tour guides, staging experience and
While Bolter recognizes that visible structures exist in all printed forms,
his discussion of "graphic rhetoric" is limited to scientific or
mathematical diagrams and charts, the visual equivalent of dry toast. His
preoccupation with the book has led him to overlook a rich array of popular
forms, perhaps because they are predominantly image-based. From comic books
to fashion magazines, Bolter had a plethora of sources with which to
compare hypertext's integration of the visual and the structural. But his
lack of breadth limits his thinking, in spite of statements that show
promise. "The free combination of words, numbers, and images that is
characteristic of the electronic writing space did not begin with the
computer; it has been a feature of the best graphics of the last two
Bolter's lack of convincing examples is most damaging to his assessment of
hypertext's visual dimension. Using the history of pictographic writing as
an entry point for his discussion of visual communication, Bolter has
somehow overlooked an entire century's discourse in art, photography, film,
media studies and design. His crude evaluation of the semiotic capacity of
images is limited to those used within standardized writing systems, such
as Egyptian hieroglyphics or contemporary road signs. For Bolter, an image
and a sign are mutually exclusiveunless they are icons or, predictably,
integrated via hypertext. "In the electronic writing space, picture writing
moves back toward the center of literacy" (55). Apparently hypertext has
allowed the English department to recuperate the image, but only as an
element of writing.
So where does that leave the image-dominant "old"
technologies such as film or television? Is Bolter's proclamation the
result of a technological shift or just a shift in perspective?
Either way, Bolter gets points for trying: he pulls together elements
overlooked by most literature professors when writing to an audience of
authors. But he's only got half the picture. In this way, Writing Space
highlights the shortcomings of the industrial era's division of labor. The
old disciplinary boundaries improperly limit writers' and designers' (and
filmmakers'! and architects'! and computer scientists'! et al's!) abilities
to negotiate the visual/verbal flux of the electronic writing space (or for
that matter, of any writing space). By incorporating structures, paths and
images into notions of writing, Bolter has "discovered" what graphic
designers have known all alongthe material form is a part of the message!
Surprisinglyor notBolter uses his newfound knowledge to retain the
centrality of his position as a writer/author. "[The computer] now offers
writers the opportunity both to create their own character fonts and to
deploy pictorial elements in new ways" (63).
But Bolter claims typography
only to discard it later. His "visual history" of writinga history that
is "no longer appropriate to dismiss" (63)is basically a cursory review
of typographic technologies through the ages, from calligraphy to Linotype.
In his view, typography's prevailing valuestransparency and
uniformityhave not changed fundamentally since the Enlightenment, when
the permanence of print fostered the impulse to create the perfect page.
But in the perpetual motion of the electronic writing space, he claims, it
barely matters what type looks like! Not only is it bitmapped and coarse,
it's on screen for just a matter of seconds. "Work on computer typography
directs our energies away from appreciating the electronic space in its own
righta space in which the subtleties of type size and style may no longer
be important to the writer's or the reader's vision of the text" (67-68).
But don't type size and style constitute anyone's "vision" of the text? By
reducing typographic issues into typographic principles that only apply to
the printed page, Bolter retains his status as master of the new realm but
mistakenly erases a key element of the visual communication he champions.
"The computer encourages the democratic feeling among its users that they
can serve as their own designers. . . . This new technology thus merges the
role of writer and typographer that had been separate from the outset of
the age of print" (66).
The ramifications of this significant change have
yet to play out in a sophisticated or compelling manner, due to the very
prejudices and boundaries leftover from print and exemplified by Bolter
(in spite of how he positions himself). If writing is to move beyond the
strictly verbal, it's worth asking who the new writers are going to be. Is
Bolter expanding the domain of traditional writers or is he opening the way
for surprising new hybrids and inclusive collaborations?
Apparently, the former, as evidenced by the accompanying hypertext of
Writing Space that is available on disk. Created in a program called
Storyspacewhich Bolter co-wrote with Michael Joyce and John B. Smith, the
hypertext version contains digressions and elaborations too unruly to be
contained in the book, which is perhaps its most interesting attribute. I
spent about two hours clicking my way through its tunnel of page screens,
one at a time. I felt trapped in an anemic textual void. The screen, a
surprisingly static white rectangle, contained paragraph-length chunks of
text peppered with hyperlinks and icons for forward and back, giving the
whole experience a mundane sameness. The jumps between chunks just weren't
enough, regardless of how many choices I was given. Taking into account
that it was created six or seven years agoand that it fit on one tiny
diskI didn't exactly expect an action flick. Nonetheless, the semantic
capacity of the structure was severely limited; had there been visible
juxtapositions such as, say, five page screens open at once, the hypertext
would have kept its vow to move "beyond" the possibilities of the book. For
a fluid medium that promises the future, Bolter's use of it was a big
Perhaps, then, Writing Space's most significant contribution is its title.
To conceive of the objects that graphic designers design as spaces for
writingor better yet, as spaces that are written, written in, and written
toreveals the ineluctable connection between the designer's actions and
communication's outcome. "The organization of writing, the style of
writing, the expectations of the readerall these are affected by the
physical space the text occupies" (85).
The transparency of print's established structures have fostered the
illusion that communication consists of words alone. We have become so used
to writing to the page that we seldom realize how extremely rigid and
specific its characteristics are. By contrast, when writing and
designing to electronic space it becomes impossible to overlook the impact
and attributes of the spaces we actively create, due primarily to the
absence of conventions. Structuring this seemingly fluid and dynamic
environment, shaping it and setting limits, can feel like a bold and
violent act. By writing spaces, designers are in effect "writing" content,
not by choosing the words themselves, but by setting the parameters by
which the words will be chosen, choreographing relationships between
visual, verbal, and aural elements, and staging the reader's experience
through pacing and range of movement.
If anything, Bolter's book reinforces the fact that in any writing space,
writing and design cannot be neatly separated out, and that in the
electronic writing space in particular, they must, by necessity, work in
tandem. Now more than ever we need an integrated study of the history and
future of visible language. Unfortunately, Bolter's isn't it.
This essay first appeared in Emigre #40, Fall 1996. Reprinted by permission.
Anne Burdick is the guest editor, with Steve Tomasula, of the upcoming ebr special, ars electronica/ars fabula.
Copyright © 1997 ebr
and the author. All rights reserved.