Hypertext 2.0: An Interview With George Landow

Hypertext theorist George 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, Rhode Island.

What are the main differences between the first version of your book and the new edition? What things did you add or leave out?

First, 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, Micr ocosm, 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 Hypercafˇ. 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.

How 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.

But would you still consider the World Wide Web to be a Hypertext?

I think 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, Victorian, Postcolonial). 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.

So is the Web for you rather an information storage technology than a literary environment?

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.

What role does Virtual Reality, Multimedia, RealVideo etc. play in relation to Hypertext? How, if at all, does it influence the development of Hypertext?

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.

One 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.

Do 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.

Do 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.

There 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.

Let's 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 phase?

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.

But do you generally see Hypertext as being two-sided, one side being literary, and the other one being informational? Or wouldn't you make that distinction?

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.

But you 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.

What 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.

At Hypertext '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.

Back 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 by copyright.

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.