Reading Writing Space

Anne Burdick

A 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 programs—I 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 future—opens 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 signs—verbal 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 space—autonomy! 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 press—he 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 readings—in 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 and—a notion Bolter overlooks—writers.

"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 univocality.

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 enabling connections.

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 centuries" (78).

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 exclusive—unless 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 along—the material form is a part of the message! Surprisingly—or not—Bolter 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 writing—a 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 values—transparency and uniformity—have 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 right—a 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 Storyspacewhich 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 ago—and that it fit on one tiny disk—I 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 disappointment.

Perhaps, then, Writing Space's most significant contribution is its title. To conceive of the objects that graphic designers design as spaces for writing—or better yet, as spaces that are written, written in, and written to—reveals the ineluctable connection between the designer's actions and communication's outcome. "The organization of writing, the style of writing, the expectations of the reader—all 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.