Given the fact that Jay David Bolter wrote Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing in nineteen-ninety-one, the first question that invariably comes to mind is how accurate were his predictions? Did computers and hypertext turn out to be everything he thought it would?
The short answer is we don’t know yet because it’s still too early to tell. Bolter, himself, points out that sweeping changes in the technology of writing often take a long time to come into their own. In the early decades of the printing press, for example, printers strove to create books that resembled the handwritten codex. They went so far as to design typefaces that mimicked a handwritten text. In fact, according to Bolter, the fact that the printed manuscript appeared to only represent a change in quantity was a major factor in public acceptance of the new technology. Only later, as writers, printers, and readers began to realize the possibilities that movable type represented in terms of quality, did printed text start to get cleaner and begin to resemble the crisp, utilitarian layout of printed books as we know it today.
We can see hypertext, in the intervening years between the publication of Writing Space and now, going through something of the same process as the printing press. Herculean efforts have been undertaken in order to make the computer and internet technologies behave like really fancy versions of print. One of the most obvious examples of this is the Adobe Portable Document Format, or .pdf file, which has become the dominant form of digitally archiving text in the academic setting. a .pdf file is essentially a digital photograph of a printed text. A student can download a .pdf file and read it just as he or she would read the actual document. More importantly, a student can quote from the .pdf document and cite page numbers so that a reader can find the cited quote in either the printed document or another copy of the downloaded .pdf document. Additionally, anyone who has the money to purchase a full copy of Adobe Acrobat can write marginal notes directly into the .pdf document, just like they would do with a pencil on a printed copy. So, despite the fact that we have, in Acrobat, a piece software that looks to the future, we are still trying to use it to do the same job that can be done just as easily with a sheet of paper and a five-cent pencil. So much for the short answer.
It is easy to point out the ways in which Bolter was wrong, and I have heard Ph.d’s do so, not without a certain amount of schadenfreude. But we should also look for the areas in which he was right. For example, in every chapter, Bolter eventually returns to his concept of the way in which hypertext allows the reader to “write” his own text by using hypertext to forge a unique path through a document. Bolter argues that this puts the reader on equal footing with the writer. A truly hypertextual document, Bolter says, can’t be considered to be written until a reader forms it by choosing one specific path through its many sections.
This is the kind of writing that we are beginning to see come out of internet technology and culture, since that is where most of this writing is done. Blogs, for example, represent the type of writing that Bolter was picturing for the future of hypertext. When one reads a blog, one can choose to read all of the posts in chronological order, like chapters in a printed book. However, if the blog has been created true to form, then the posts will also be connected by hyperlinks. For example, a post on the philosophical aspects of Kenneth Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives may well discuss hypertext as an example of Burke’s “ultimate” order. Such a post might have a hyperlink back to this post you are reading now. A blog with a hundred posts all linking to each other in various ways would allow a reader an almost (thought not quite) limitless reading of the blog. In a sense, the reader would be creating the blog every time he or she chose a path through it. And, while it is true that a printed book is, in a certain sense, unwritten until it is read, it can’t be denied that a hypertextual document, such as a blog, elevates the reader to a far more equal position with the writer than a printed book. In new forms of writing, such as the blog, we can see the stirrings of what Bolter was looking forward to.
Sadly, a great deal of Bolter’s predictions have yet to come true. In particular, hypertextual fiction has just not caught on at all with the reading public. The average person now probably uses hypertext mostly as a way to shop for printed books on Amazon.com. The question that really remains to be answered is whether the failure of hypertext to revolutionize writing thus far is permanent, or has the revolution merely been postponed?