2.0: An Interview With George Landow
Landow's seminal work of literary criticism, Hypertext:
The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology,
was published in 1992, ancient history in "web years," and
has since sold tens of thousands of copies. The "yellow book"
as it's been called, has been translated into many languages, most
recently Japanese. A much expanded new version of the book, called
Hypertext 2.0, will be coming out this August with the Johns Hopkins
University Press. And now that so much of our current artistic, critical,
economic and scientific energy and resources are being devoted to
the World Wide Web's research and development, we thought we'd ask
Landow, who first introduced us to the important correlation between
the deconstructive philosophy of Jacques
Derrida and the spirited ideas behind Ted Nelson's Literary Machines,
what this explosion of mainstream interest in this not-too-long-ago
esoteric field of study means to him.
Alt-X correspondent Lars Hubrich, who has been working
with Landow at Brown University, conducted the interview in Providence,
are the main differences between the first version of your book and
the new edition? What things did you add or leave out?
I took a lot of the emphasis off Intermedia
and moved it on to a whole series of other kinds of Hypertext systems,
such as Storyspace,
World Wide Web, and various CD-ROMs. Second, there is a whole new
chapter, almost a hundred pages in typescript, on writing hypermedia,
the rhetoric and stylistics of writing, and the notion of Hypertext
as a kind of collage or montage. There are also new sections on Hypertext
fiction and Hypertext poetry. The chapter on narrative thus is about
twice as long.
The chapter on education, instead of being entirely about more orthodox
educational applications, now has added to it lots of sections on
inventing new forms of writing for the electronic space. For this
chapter, I depend chiefly on student projects but also include some
commercial CD-ROMs, ranging from K
on-Tiki Interactive to the Resident's Freak
Show. Besides that, I also looked at interactive video like David
Balcom's Hypercafé. So in general, the whole notion of narrativism
moved out from straight text and more into hypermedia, even though
I am still primarily a devotee of straight text.
Finally, the last addition is a new discussion of the notion of legal
jurisdiction in the chapter on the politics of Hypertext. What do
you do in electronic space when there suddenly is not really a "there"
there? I used the examples of people being arrested in one place for
putting something on a computer bulletin board at a different location.
For me, this is essentially an extension of vulnerability and not
protection. My theory is that it actually is not about moral outrage,
but that it is a jockeying not so much for political as economic power.
Because if you can arrest someone for moral things you can also claim
sales and other taxes and control money. This is something more of
a factor in the United States which has separate jurisdictions in
the individual states. But with the European Union, Europe is going
to face something very similar to the American States. A second example
would be gambling, because gambling is done off shore in the World
Wide Web. And then, I raised the whole issue that you find in the
works of Gibson and Stephenson about what will happen to the national
state, when countries are unable to control the flow of money.
Those are roughly the changes in the book which make it about 50%
longer. There are also some sections I threw out, like the stuff on
Intermedia, and some critical theory that turned out to be not as
helpful or as relevant as I thought. On the other hand, some feminist
theory and Deleuze and Guattari became more important to me.
far has the World Wide Web influenced or changed your views on Hypertext?
The web actually hasn't changed my views on Hypertext
at all. It's just that on the one hand it has completely fulfilled
the expectations of a Nelsonian docuverse with its gigantic amount
of interlinked material, and all the advantages and disadvantages
that come with it. On the other hand, because HTML is much more limited
than it should be, I spent a great deal of time trying to explain
how you can create Web documents that are as rich as Hypertext documents
in other systems. It is not only a matter of bandwidth. It is a matter
of the lack of one-to-many linking and the lack of multiple windows.
Those two features are really important. Another issue would be orientation
devices like the Intermedia Web View. I think we are going to get
technically advanced things that will help us create much more elaborate
and interesting things. But at the moment, that is future talk; there
is not enough bandwidth to make these things work.
would you still consider the World Wide Web to be a Hypertext?
it is a form of Hypertext, but compared to things like Intermedia,
Storyspace, Microcosm, or the German SEPIA (Structured Elicitation
and Processing of Ideas for Authoring), or Hyper-G in Austria, it
really is a flat version. On the other hand, the World Wide Web is
to networked Hypertext what HyperCard was to stand-alone Hypertext.
Despite the fact that it is so flat and limited, it is probably going
to have much more influence than better systems because most people
perceive it as free, and it is very easy to get into in the beginning.
If you want to do something really ambitious, however, you end up
throwing years of your life into it. It is much harder to author than
other programs like Storyspace or Intermedia. Nonetheless, the fact
that it looks glitzy and you can get it out there, and you know that
if you write an essay on some area and you are going to find someone
who wanted contribute, that's fine. It is not just resenting or looking
down upon the World Wide Web, it is just that it is a little disappointing.
I hope it will do for Hypertext on a large scale what Hypercard did
on a smaller scale. That is, get a lot of people interested and drive
the development of better things, since, once people get into it,
they see what they want. One example of how it's really fulfilling
some of these things: I have people all the time sending in things
for the three large websites that I run (Cyberspace,
A student from the University of Southern Colorado, Gabriel A. Martinez,
who is doing work
on Kipling for his class asked the teacher if he could hand in
his work to the Victorian Web and the teacher said that's fine. I
find this really fascinating, all the business about sharing resources,
unimportance of location, and distant learning. I welcome the Web
to act as a lab to test a lot of ideas about hypertext, digital writing,
multi-headed authorship, and the like.
is the Web for you rather an information storage technology than a
That seems to be true for the most part, but some
people are showing that it can be artistic. I think it is harder to
be artistic and creative on the web than scholarly or educational.
Because of the Web's limited and flawed nature you have to create
artificial structures, which is fine for informational Hypertext,
but it really gets in the way of literary work.
role does Virtual Reality, Multimedia, RealVideo etc. play in relation
to Hypertext? How, if at all, does it influence the development of
One of the definitions people use is that the difference
between Hypermedia and Multimedia is that Multimedia is what commercial
developers do when they want put in a lot of glitz, and Hypermedia
is a real interlinked document or information technology that has
lots of different media (sound, media etc.). I think that there has
to be a much larger visual element in Hypertext than in print text.
When it's well used, sound can be very effective, but I have my doubts
about the Real Time stuff.
John B. Smith, a computer scientist who's one of the
developers of Storyspace and gave the opening talk on Hypertext '97,
told me that he now teaches his classes on programming entirely on
the web. He found that putting papers and assignments on the web and
interlinking them, discussion groups, and e-mail work beautifully.
The only thing that really disappoints him are chatrooms. Why? Because
the great advantage of text is that it enforces reflection. Most people
cannot come up with something brilliant off the top of their head.
That is why most of the stuff in chat rooms is rather pathetic. I
gave this talk to students in a dozen or so European countries via
a TV hook-up from Brown that was organized by Espen Aarseth fron Bergen,
Norway. Later students could call in, and the questions were all rather
dumb compared to the written questions I get on other occasions when
I've taken part in other distant learning activities using listservs,
which produced much more thoughtful and intelligent inquiries.
That is one of the reasons why I think that e-mail
is much more interesting than telephone conversations. Obviously,
there are certain things that you would rather do on the phone, like
talking to your wife etc. where you want to hear someone's voice and
you want them to hear yours. But for creative text you don't really
need that. In fact, a lot of the emphasis on see-you see me technology,
like all forms of telepresence, is, as Derrida points out about so
much of Western culture, riddled with the problem of presence -- namely,
that it elevates presence above everything else. Telepresence can
be interesting, but a lot of the real-time stuff has the same problems
as Western metaphysics in that it is afflicted with the idea that
speech and the immediate presence of something is better than reflection
and writing and thought.
Virtual Reality is something else. It is a form of
asynchronous writing which is disguising itself as presence, very
much like photorealism in painting and photography. You should never
believe that Virtual Reality is another reality, since it always is
someone else's ideology and abstraction that presents itself as real.
There are some things for which Virtual Reality is dazzling. For anything
that is dangerous or expensive, Virtual Reality as a simulation is
wonderful. I would love to see a new art form coming out of it, but
most of the stuff I have seen is so banal, that I'd rather read or
see a film.
of the problems seems to be that people tend to forget the relation
between the real and the virtual world. They don't see the latter
as being only an extension of the real rather than an alternative
to it. Thus they try to impose things onto the virtual world that
don't quite work there.
I agree, and besides that, every artist is trying
to give us a Virtual Reality that they think to be better or more
interesting. It is like Virginia Woolf said: Why reproduce nature
when one of the damn things is enough? If all works of art are some
sort of Virtual Reality, how little of it is successful? How many
films are made that use the best writers and actors and get all the
money they need, but that still don't work in the end. The same will
happen with Virtual Reality in Hypertext. Of course, 90% of everything
is crap, and so you can't rely on negative examples, failures, particularly
in the early stages of any technology or art form.
you think your work can be relevant for the World Wide Web?
I certainly do. Working with a fancier Hypertext system
tells you what you need and what you don't need. Some aspects of Intermedia
like the link marker, for example, are unnecessary, but others are
crucial. Why, for example, doesn't the World Wide Web have link indicators
that you can turn on and off like the ones in Storyspace? That is
the kind of thing WWW developers can learn from non-WWW systems since
these earler forms of hypertext have worked as laboratories for the
web -- and one hopes that WWW developers won't keep trying to reinvent
the wheel but build on earlier work.
The other thing is that I really think you have to
theorize. You have to have some sort of intellectual understanding
of Hypermedia and Hypertext. Since the World Wide Web is driven so
much by amateurs or commercial interest, a lot of these people have
no interest whatsoever in Hypertext. So they blindly stumble on redoing
things that people did ten years ago that didn't work. In some cases
they rediscover stuff, which is good. But why can't you have both
the experience of those who used Hypertext and apply it to the Web,
but also find out how to theorize that and find out what the implications
are and work with them.
A good example is this: It's disastrous to have have
settled on the term, "homepage," which makes one think in
terms of paper-based information technology when all hypertext is
essentially virtual and physical. To stick with the idea that WWW
is just another form of the book when it doesn't have the strengths
of a book is also pathetic. That is the kind of thinking that I hope
my work might help correct. Finally, the idea of developing some kind
of rhetoric and stylistics of writing in electronic space is very
important in order to protect the medium against skeptics who say
that you get lost in Cyberspace. Like Mark Bernstein of Eastgate and
many others, I believe that the whole "Lost in Hyperspace"
issue is a non-issue: Bad systems and bad writing disorient, but bad
writing always has. People have to learn how to write in the medium,
in the same way people have to learn how to write a book or to give
presentations, public speeches, etc.
you think that the Web can make critical theory more accessible?
Lots of people have told me that it has. At least,
it has it to me. I suddenly saw how good a lot of material, particularly
by Derrida, was that I had not at first believed relevant or interesting.
Many of my students who took my Hypertext class have told me the same
thing: they found the theory more accessible than in the context of
other classes. The theory and the medium are on the same wavelength;
that is, there is a real convergence, even if it is not a total mapping
of all theory to all technology. But hypermedia certainly is very
useful in embodying the theory just like the theory is very useful
in intellectualizing and explaining the space.
are applied grammatologists out there who don't know about it.
Absolutely. Applied grammatology is what all the good
hypertext is, really. Greg Ulmer's concept really fits in that respect.
talk about literary writing again. A lot of literary Hypertext is
very self-referential. Do you think that this will always be a crucial
characteristic of Hypertext or do you think that it is just a passing
I don't know if that's because we are at an early
stage or if it really is a natural part of the medium. Freak Show,
for example, is not very self referential, whereas Patchwork Girl
is. Afternoon is self referential to some extent, whereas some of
the Hypertext poetry is not. I am thinking of Forward Anywhere by
Cathy Marshall and Judy Malloy. That is why it is really hard to make
any claims at this moment about what the future of literary Hypertext
is going to be.
do you generally see Hypertext as being two-sided, one side being
literary, and the other one being informational? Or wouldn't you make
I see that distinction, but it really depends on use.
We have seen but so much blurring. People who start out writing informational
Hypertext sometimes end up with something literary and the other way
round. It also depends on how the user defines and works with it.
might have to take another direction as well. Remember there is lots
of interesting digital stuff on the web which is not particularly
hypertextual. I am thinking of something like Christy Sanford's work
on Safara, Safara
in the Beginning. It really is sequential, but it uses things
like animation and other things you could not do in a book. It is
very elegant, but it is digital fiction that is not particularly hypertextual.
There is another element, and then there is Virtual Reality stuff.
So I think that there is the distinction you made, but there also
other distinctions that come into play.
kind of connection do you see between Hypertext and Cyberspace? That
is, what role does the spatial metaphor play in Hypertext?
Spatial metaphors are about the best thing we got,
and I have seen some recent systems that make even more out of them.
At the same time I am a little suspicious of these metaphors, because
you don't orient yourself or travel in quite the same way as you do
in real space because the element of time is very much changed. Certain
things just collapse or pop up in Cyberspace, so you have to think
about time and space in slightly different ways.
'97, very impressive UNIX-based systems called Pad
and Pad++ were demonstrated by Noah Wardrip-Fruin from NYU. His
team produced a work of art on it, called Gray
Matters and it is based on Gray's anatomy. As you sweep into it,
suddenly a poem appears or a drawing that is disturbing or erotic.
You just swoop through it. That brings me back to the question of
Virtual Reality. Maybe Virtual Reality is more useful as an information
navigating tool. I have seen some impressive virtual worlds that make
impressive use of space as an orienting device. I don't know, however,
if these things are going to work on a large site. The main question
that is always asked is "Does it scale up?" Something that
works for 100 documents does not necessarily work with 300 documents
or 300, 000.
to what you said in the beginning about law: What is your take about
the question of context in Hypertext? Does the context change notions
of intellectual property and, ultimately, copyright?
It's got to change. As I argue in the book, copyright
is really a matter of the print world. It was originally devised so
printers and publishers and booksellers who were often the same person
wouldn't go broke. The fact of the matter is now that a great deal
of intellectual property is not protected by copyright. It is protected
by secrecy, or it is capitalized on by getting to the market first.
All you have to do is to think about something like Coca Cola whose
makers won't tell their formula, or cigarette manufacturers don't
tell what is really in their cigarettes. There are certain commercial
developments that are worth billions of dollars that are not protected
Another thing that people often claim is that copyright
protects the individual creator. But most of the time the money simply
does not go to the individual creator. One of the most bizarre things
about copyright is defined as that little bit you add to public knowledge,
that makes it "copyrightable."
But let me give you one example from James Boyle's
wonderful new book -- Shamans, Software, and Spleens: Law and the
Construction of the Information Society: The problem is you could
have a tribe or group of people in the third world that develops a
medicine or a seed that is resistant to some sort of fungus. A Western
scientist comes along, and his company which our laws, bizarrely enough,
define as an individual can copyright something that originally belonged
to the group. Because, according to western copyright, the public
cannot copyright anything. Therefore, you have examples of how copyright
is used to abuse and to take over other people's property, and it
is not necessarily used to help.
So, having said all that, what can we do? One solution
would be Ted Nelson's idea: minuscule amounts of money for using anybody's
stuff. Anybody should be allowed to use anything from any place.