A Newbie's View

by Bill Bly

The Seventh ACM Conference on Hypertext
March 16-20, 1996
Hyatt-Regency Hotel
Bethesda, Maryland

This trip report really wants to be in a web of hypertext writing spaces, and that's the way it started out. But in the interest of getting it finished before the Millennium, I'm jamming it into the following few paragraphs. I can hardly do justice to the entire experience this way, but I can give a general impression of my impressions, which is one way to do an impression of a trip report.

Let me begin with the end: I have been to the mountaintop, and I have seen the promised land. And it's not what I thought it would be. I saw it, but I'm not sure I can say what it "looks" like. I know where it is, but I'm not sure how to get there. What I do know is that we are getting there. It's not beneath the event horizon anymore.

I'd spent the week or so before the conference whaling away at a hypertext novel that good fortune (and some hard-core planning) permitted me to finish -- half an hour before I got in the car for the five-hour drive to our nation's capital. Once on the road, I felt that typical alternation between "Oboy!" and "Oh, shit!" that plagues the shy person on his way to what he is sure will be an intense experience, like that first party in seventh grade (probably dating myself here) where said shyboy knows some necking will be going on -- it's why he's going, but.... Happily, in a way, things I realized I should have changed or fixed in the novel kept popping into my mind, and I took plenty of notes for the next revision, thereby managing to distract myself from turning the car around at the next exit and bolting for home.

This was on Sunday, the day before the conference proper opened. Had my department at NYU been able to afford a little support for an untenurable junketeer, I might have gone to the Hypertext and Education course on Saturday, but it wasn't to be. Their loss.

My first stop was the Eastgate reception, where I had a beer and schmoozed and passed out copies of my novel (by that time already hopelessly obsolete). There also began the conference-long sequence of first-time FTF (face-to-face) encounters with people I had been communicating with electronically for a long time: quite a discombobulating experience -- no one looks anything like what was imagined -- but altogether pleasant, except for the high adrenaline level such occasions occasion, and that only a carefully metered Sam Adams can keep under control.

Next morning the conference opened with a knockout keynote by Norbert Streitz. The early part of the speech was lost on me, much as I was wowed by the slides, but when he started describing hypermedia systems as digital meeting rooms, buildings, and cities, and not just as virtual realities but as environments, my ears pricked up and I started taking pretty furious notes.

But the fun had only begun. Next came the first papers sessions, and the one I went to was dedicated to spatial hypertexts. The first paper was given by David Balcom and Nick Sawhney, demonstrating the hypervideo system they'd developed (with Ian Smith) for HyperCafe, as part of their postgraduate work at Georgia Tech. This paper won the Englebart Best Paper Award for the conference, and it was easy to see why. Quite apart from the content of the paper, the Director presentation they put together to deliver that content to us was simply stunning.

Just before this, in the lobby, I'd literally run into Rob Kendall, my erstwhile hypertext-poetry-and-fiction teacher, and we sat together at the session. Over the next three days we would have a chance to transmogrify our virtual friendship into a real one, making the conference a bargain at twice the price even if nothing else fun and interesting came up, and there was a lot more in store.

After HyperCafe came a nearly impenetrable presentation on Content-Oriented Integration of Large Scale Hypermedia that was so far over my head that I just let my mind go into soft focus and watched the pretty pictures go by. I kept wishing I'd had the understanding engine or the conceptual augmentator locally installed before attending this talk.

However, Jim Rosenberg's following presentation on the Structure of Hyperactivity -- er, HyperTEXT Activity, sorry -- was the clearest analysis of the rhetorics of hypertext that I have yet encountered. So what if he had to invent terms such as "acteme" (the atom or lowest-level unit of hypertext activity, e.g., following a link), "episoid" (it's in my notes, but I don't remember what it means -- a false episode, or combination of actemes?), and "foraging" (as in looking for text spaces you haven't visited yet) -- Aristotle did no less. In fact, that's another line in my notes: Jim Rosenberg as Der Neuer Aristotleles (someone with a little Deutsch might want to check that for case and number, not to mention speeling).

The next event I went to, after lunch with Rob, was Papers on Hypertext Rhetoric and Criticism, at which Rob presented a paper on Hypertextual Dynamics in "A Life Set for Two," his hypertext poem for Windows. I'd seen a couple of screen shots of this opus, and read Rob's modest descriptions of it in class and in the article he did for Poets & Writers last November, but being to date a Mac-only person, I didn't have a real good sense of it until Rob's presentation, which inspired me to start extortion proceedings on a Windows machine at my office at NYU. (I'm justifying it as a necessary equipment procuration for me in my disguise as department WebMeister.)

Also presenting at this session was John Tolva, whose Ut Pictura Hyperpoesis examined, among other things, the mola web, a hypertext created by Carolyn Guyer, Michael Joyce, Nigel Kerr, Nancy Lin, and Suze Schweitzer and placed on the World Wide Web. The question John posed was, "what does it mean for words to approach the condition of visuality? Put another way, what is the consequence of poetry, poesis, functioning ut pictura, as a painting does? John's specialty is, of all things, the technology and history of the book, which perhaps ironically puts him in fine position to contemplate the development of hypertext, the putative supplanter of book technology and Bringer of the End to its history.

This session concluded with Diane Greco's Hypertext with Consequences: Recovering a Politics of Hypertext, wherein she called for hypertext theorists to take into account the political implications of both new technology and evolving hypertext theory. I'd never really thought of hypertext as being particularly political, but then I've so far only been a meatball theorist of the rawest kind. However, two ideas that came up during the talk really gave me something to think about: 1) communal authoring, which may "help overturn the dominant mythologies of the solitary (presumably male) genius as the sole origin of work of literary and artistic merit"; and 2) the political element isn't just a matter of access to the technology, but the uses the technology is put to, regardless of who has access.

The day concluded with a panel on Visual Metaphor and the Problem of Complexity in the Design of Web Sites with Ben Schneiderman, Stuart Moulthrop, Michael Joyce, and John Unsworth each making a brief presentation before mounting the dais to field questions from the cheap seats. Unfortunately, my brain had reached the saturation point sometime during Diane Greco's talk, and much of the philosophical stuff ran right off. However, I did manage to take a few notes, which, though not entirely coherent, do tell a fragmentary story. (If you want coherence, see Stuart's own trip report.)

Ben Schneiderman likened the ideal Web experience to driving a car: it should not require typing and subsequent error messages. Stuart Moulthrop asked rhetorically if the Web is a parody, in the Greek sense of "second singing," and advocated that it grow up, into an ergody, or "work singing." Michael Joyce chastised the Web for being no better than TV: "Netscape lets you change the channels but not the commercials." And John Unsworth demonstrated some dazzling projects for the new VRML (Virtual Reality Markup Language) already in progress at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at Virginia, such as a virtual tour of architectural ruins, or a virtual visit to Rossetti's studio, with paintings on the walls at scale.

As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, be that as it may. The next day's offerings picked up for me where the previous day's left off, with navigating on the World Wide Web. (Unhappily, I didn't make it to 9:00 am plenary session: I overslept and then hit really nasty traffic in the construction zone of I-495 East.) I'd never really thought about browser design, except that I liked Netscape and didn't like the one that comes with AOL -- but that preference was based mostly on one having features that the other didn't. (Also, the AOL browser implodes, regularly.) Steve Jones's presentation of a usability study was an eye-opener as far as dumb and dumber features are concerned.

But the paper that really captivated me was Andreas Dieberger's on experimenting with navigational metaphors. Andreas's presentation style is utterly clear and concise; if only he'd leave enough "space" between one point and another for the payload of the first to sink all the way in before it goes off. Having only had a cursory experience with virtual environments of any kind, I was not really prepared for the vista of possibilities that such things promise. Even the simplest text-based MUDs and MOOs that Andreas described were a wonder to me.

I think it was here that I stopped being able to pay complete or rather continuous attention to what was being said, on account of the cumulative effect of everything I'd ingested so far: my thoughts started taking off on their own, and only after several minutes of watching my mental brushfires burn and grow did I realize that I wasn't following the program. This phenomenon continues, but I'll try to recap what happened thereafter.

I had a working lunch with Rob Kendall, Deena Larsen, and Cliff Wulfman during which we tried to concentrate on hypertext structure, following up on some of the complaints made so far. Specifically, we were discussing Storyspace, its various versions and (at the moment) unequal platforms, and came to the (not exactly linear) conclusion that, as a publisher, Eastgate is the New Directions of hypertext.

By that time we were late for the main event of the afternoon for us writer types (the descendants of Ted Nelson's Fluffies?), the panel The Process of Discovery: Hypertext and Scholarship. George Landow proposed that hypertext is the only way to deal with certain kinds of scholarship, e.g., the 30-50 variant texts of Chaucer, none of which is definitive, or multiple published editions such as the poems of Whitman. John B. Smith thinks that the Web, although at present mostly used for and as background, may change (in fact, is changing) the process of scholarship, as well as its products, at least in terms of collaborative works and work that is by nature ongoing.

(At this point, my mind took one of those ravines into the nether regions upon the appearance of the question, "Is there such a thing as THE Web? What is that?" By the time I resurfaced, John was putting the finishing touches on what looked to me like a portrait of the new Scholasticism, in all its glory and absurdity. I couldn't tell from his deadpan style whether he was in favor of this development or not.)

Mark Bernstein then asked the rhetorical question, What's the matter? Well, one thing is that what he calls the Techno-Luddites (isn't that redundant?) get all the press. But don't be dismayed: the docuverse has succeeded -- perhaps too well. If hypertext succeeds in becoming everything, it will put itself right out of business. As for the Web, it's like the weather -- enjoy it, talk about it, build umbrellas if you need them. In fact, it seemed that Mark was chiding us for getting ponderous, when in fact all we really want is more life out there, and all we need is something that'll let us play, not make us feel stupid. Build umbrellas, he says. That's like Shaw's Captain Shotover, who says, upon being asked what we must do to be saved: "Learn navigation."

Nancy Kaplan seemed to be agreeing, in a way, when in the next talk she suggested that the tools we're using now don't make enough mess. (This would be echoed in the following morning's panel by Kathryn Cramer and Cathy Marshall.) She also brought up the very interesting question, what is the nature of a link? Should we link to the Unabomber, for example? What would that mean?

The questions and answers that followed contained a number of potential full-session subjects: 1) Hypertext is a game for tenured professors (so said Greg Crane, at ht87); 2) The printing press was delayed in Renaissance England by nearly a hundred years by government interference; 3) John B. Smith reminded us that the Web gives access to people, not just info; and 4) Stuart Moulthrop asked the $64,000 question, what happens to the RECORD? All of these topics are worth contemplating at length, a luxury I don't have at the moment, but I'm "squirreling" them away for a work of scholé(I looked this up in my Greek lexicon. It means leisure, spare time, ease; the product might then be Stuart's exhorted sholês ergoidia.)

By this time I was incapable of processing any more meaningful input, at least not in a formal way, and spent the rest of the day drifting from conversation to conversation, then demo to poster to conversation once again. Lots and lots of nifty stuff: new toys for the kids and writers, tools for teacher, and many things I just didn't get because I was too tired.

But the day came to a glorious conclusion at the North China Restaurant on Old Georgetown Road, where 28 or so hypertexteers unbuttoned a little at the behest of Stuart Moulthrop, who acted as convener of the paraconference and master of revels. Nothing like swilling Tsingtao and pigging out ála Chinoise to smooth the path for all the mentalimentation to come.

Not that the thought feast was over: there were still two more events the next morning. Before Randy Trigg's magisterial and prophetic summary in the closing plenary, the enfants terribles got their own gig, Future (Hyper)Spaces. Tom Meyer began innocently with the observation that one 'Net year equals five "real" years, whatever those are, and then asked, "What will kids become?" -- the ones for whom the Web will be what television was to their parents, i.e., on all the time, whether you pay attention or not, but a presence shaping every moment of your day.

Kathryn Cramer, who elsewhere has asked the devilish question, what's inside a link?, also wanted us to, as she put it, "look at what information looks like." She thinks we need more clutter in the environments we create, and advocated exploiting the intrinsic surrealism of these environments.

Andreas Dieberger likened the Web to the telephone, which once upon a time people thought was a great invention -- every city should have one. Now the Web has reached critical size, and what he calls social navigation begins to kick in. For example, surfing is dead; now people only check out those pages that have been recommended by friends or make lists of cool sites out of cool sites culled from other people's lists of cool sites.

Athomas Goldberg then played a most astonishing (for me) video demonstrating Improv, animation software that lets you program the behavior of virtual actors, beginning with basic emotions such as fear and surprise, but clearly on the road to creating 3-D interactive characters who actually behave according to rules that you lay down. Immediately my by now totally enervated brain jammed in overdrive, and it suddenly seemed to me incontestable that THIS is a virtual 3-D interactive world, that rule-based programming is an exact analog to what we call the Laws of Nature, and that what we're doing here is nothing less than creating more life -- in our own image to be sure, but now that favored implement for chop-logic cuts both ways, don't it?

Before I had time to do more than peek into that can of worms, Cathy Marshall calmly asked a number of fascinating questions, such as, how do our virtual spaces interact with our "real" spaces (as in our offices), and should we be so literal about space?

One question that came up in the ensuing panel really didn't get much of a chance to be answered, but only for lack of time, not desire to tackle it: a neglected aspect of all this virtual environment discussion is the ideologies that are literalized in the rule-making we do for our hypertexts and virtual environments. For example, the beau ideal of most computer games is the fourteen-year-old boy, and not even a real fourteen-year-old in all his complexity and confusion, but only that testosterone-ridden persona that needs to smash things or blow them up. What's the ideology being reinforced here?

Alas, the panel had to break up so that the ballroom could be restored to its gargantuan splendor for the closing plenary. Randy Trigg, wundermensch of Xerox PARC, and the first person ever to write (or get away with writing) a hypertext Ph.D dissertation, made good on his title: Hypermedia as integration: Recollections, reflections and exhortations. Having been present at the creation, his historical overview was also full of anecdotal gems, but the strongest part of the exhortation involved an exemplary tale about the Jervay community, the most celebrated slum on-line, whose residents took their future out of the hands of government bureaucracy with the help of this new technology, giving the lie to the fear many have that the Internet is creating a technological elite, or at least showing one way that this phenomenon can be counteracted.

My last experience at the conference was an impromptu noshfest at the food court with Rob, Deena, Mark Bernstein, Andreas Dieberger, Tom Meyer, Nick Sawhney and David Balcom. Tom was congratulating David and Nick, who were still flustered from winning the Engelbart Award, though their acceptance speeches at the closing plenary were models of gracious acknowledgment of their colleagues' acclaim. Andreas and Mark were trying to figure out how to integrate Eastgate's Web Squirrel with Andreas's Vortex. Rob and Deena were deep in consultation over the hypertext she's presently working on in his class at the New School. It was a perfect final image for the whole affair: sitting in the middle of several conversations, each studded with only vaguely grasped technicities, but resonant with gravitas such as only deep fun can provide.

Before concluding, I want to say a few words about my "real" life experiences during the three days I sojourned beside the lordly Potomac. My hosts, Ken and Pat Rolston (of the Arlington Rolstons), are old old friends from the folkie days when we used to play double bills at various Racoon Rooms in New Jersey. But as we all got gray and the 90s got nasty, they had to move to where the meaningful employment was. However, it was great for me, providing as it did the chance to play itinerant boomer-bum again and crash at someone else's house.

After the final panel on Monday, having thoroughly blasted my brain cells, I Metro'd "home" to Arlington, getting lost twice -- once in Bethesda, looking for the Metro station that was right in the basement of the hotel, and once in Arlington, when the street that was supposed to take me straight to the house took a curve instead and changed its name on me. But the spring had actually started at that lesser latitude, whereas a week after I got home to Staten Island we got MORE snow, and after breaking the record already back in January. Wandering around any town, especially at dusk, is the best physic for your basic brain-fever I've ever encountered. The air was spring-cool, and damp like the soft ground; the sky -- overcast, but the clouds were layered in such a way as to let the light from the sinking sun bleed through in a grayish yellow stain that changed shape from one street corner to another -- I guess it's not much wonder I lost my way so easily.

But at the Rolston household, I couldn't stop jabbering about what I'd seen and heard. These folks are not strangers to the world of interactive computing: Ken is an internationally known game designer, and it was on the basis of his recommendation (among others) that we bought our first computer, a Macintosh. But the fundamentals of hypertext per se (that global concept that eludes easy definition) were hard for me to explain, at least in terms of what I was doing there, for example. The only solution to this problem, I figured, was to lay Ted Nelson's Literary Machines on them, old hippie fashion, and let them make of it what they will. I did a dramatic reading of the short Chapter One called "The School Problem," which I find hilarious -- go figure. They were amused but wary, an admirable stance I'm finding difficult to maintain these days.

On the road back home, I had a good five hours to reflect on my experience. Another page of notes. In one thread of this meditation, I saw what might be called the physics of all the personal/professional/social interactions going on during those three days -- AND in the past, in preparation -- AND in the future, where we'd see the outcome of all the collisions, near misses, traveling-in-pairs, clustering, exploding, and imploding, as well as the regular application of Bell's theorem and the Uncertainty Principle.

I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, in which was first propounded (as far as I know) the contradistinction between the grandfalloon (the group of people we think we belong to) and the karass (the group of people we really belong to). Most of us come from institutions which put the bread on our table and provide us a little time (and occasionally equipment) to pursue our own crazy projects as long as we don't get caught. But I think I can see up the road a little ways, and there seem to be a lot of abandoned hulks rusting on the shoulder. Meanwhile, the highway itself is disappearing, or rather unravelling like a braided rope, the strands and fibers each taking off on its own. The metaphor breaks down here, but look where it was headed...

My last note reads: I, Node/I, Link/I, Hypertext.

It will take more time than I have at the moment to tie these scattered (if vaguely linear -- well, chronological, sort of) observations into a nice floppy bow. But I will provisionally conclude that we ain't seen nothing yet. Or that by the time we see it, it'll be like a tidal wave -- too late to do anything but grab the nearest plank and RIDE.

Comments to

[Go back to Home Page]

Last modified 4/4/96.