Hypertext adds to the digital word the element of the link connecting words, phrases, images, sounds, and other forms of information electronically. Hypertext therefore denotes text composed of blocks of text — what, following Roland Barthes, I term lexias or reading units-- and the electronic links that join them. Together they produce a kind of text composed of blocks of words (or images) linked electronically by multiple paths, chains, or trails in an open-ended, perpetually unfinished textuality described by the terms "link," "node," "network," "web," and "path." Whereas the digital word leads to the electronic book, hypertext, which combines the digital word with the digital link, leads to something much closer to an electronic library.

Were you reading this essay in a completely realized hypertext, clicking on the words "Roland Barthes" would have brought you to bibliographical information of the sort usually contained in a foot- or endnote. However, at that point you would have been able to leave the bounds of this essay and this volume and move directly to the cited texts or else more to other discussions of Barthes and hypertext.. At this point, deciding that the works by Barthes interested you more the present one, you might continue reading through their work or you might return here. That is, like the scholarly reader wandering through the shelves of an open-stack library, you might well find yourself productively distracted from one task into a possibly more valuable one, or you might, like the scholar in the stacks, make a note about that discovery and return to the so-called main text. Of course, if you were reading this chapter in a complete hypertext form, in which every text participates in what Theodor H. Nelson, who coined the term hypertext in the 1960s, calls a "docuverse," you would also have had the opportunity to open the full text of Newman's Apologia or The Idea of a University at any time in order to check the context of my quotations from Newman or just to follow some of Newman's arguments.

In one sense, such reading practice does not seem particularly novel, since it is, after all, pretty much what skilled readers in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities do regularly: they read an annotated text in the form of a professional publication, encounter the presence of a foot- or endnote, consult it, and either return to the main text or decide to consult a cited article or other work before doing so. Obviously, hypertext makes such reading far easier, quicker, and therefore more likely to occur in more complex forms. In a time during which we can expect to read in both print and electronic environments for some time to come, hypertext also offers an efficient means by which beginning students can develop the higher order cognitive skills involved in the multilinear reading practice that characterize scholarly and scientific skill.

In other senses, hypertext produces a drastically different experience of reading and of text that has major implications for a range of related issues, including intellectual property, authorship, and creativity. Print technology emphasizes the discrete, separate work and thereby markedly exaggerates conceptions, precious to our print-based intellectual culture, of isolated creativity. In contrast, the experience of reading hypertext emphasizes how much works relate to each other and how much they have in common. Hypertext, which obviously encourages and even demands particularly active readers, transfers to them some of the power — and function — of the author, but it continually reminds us how every author participates in an ongoing work-in-progress to which countless others have already contributed. As readers move through a web or network of texts, they continually shift the center — and hence the focus or organizing principle — of their investigation and experience. Hypertext, in other words, provides an infinitely re-centerable system whose provisional point of focus depends upon the reader, who becomes a truly active reader in yet another sense.


Last modified 18 October 2005