14.0822 methodological response: hypertext

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: Fri Apr 27 2001 - 02:14:53 EDT

  • Next message: by way of Willard McCarty: "14.0823 conference on online conferencing"

                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 822.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Fri, 27 Apr 2001 07:03:34 +0100
             From: Patrick Durusau <pdurusau@emory.edu>
             Subject: Re: 14.0817 methodological complaints


    (read as a gentle tweak) It would be more helpful if you quoted enough
    of the prior posts to give readers a context in which to situate your

    C.M. Sperberg-McQueen wrote:
    > At 2001-02-16 16:27, you wrote:
    > >... (As some will know better than I do, a growing body of scholarship
    > >has taken up the problem of how to conduct an argument in a medium in
    > >the reader ultimately determines the sequence of presentation. It's
    not at
    > >all obvious that an effective argument is possible.)
    > That's right. Perhaps it's time to ditch this codex idea -- it's
    > an experiment that didn't work. Back to scrolls!
    > Michael
    > p.s. and then to see Patrick Durusau referring to non-sequential
    > reading as "bad reading practices" ... yikes!

    In my response to the portion of Willard's post you quote above I said:

    > "...a medium in which the reader ultimately determines the sequence of
    > presentation."
    > At this stage of hypertext development (which may change if XLinks are
    > widely implemented) the author of an essay determines whether hyperlinks
    > will appear and where they will appear in an essay. It is hardly the
    > case that readers can arbitrarily change the sequence of presentation
    > anymore than a reader who flips through the pages of an essay has
    > altered the order of presentation in a printed version. (The browsing
    > reader has changed the order of presentation in a sense but that simply
    > illlustrates that bad reading practices cut across various modes of
    > delivery.)

    I took it as implied that "changing the order of presentation" was a bad
    thing, hence the "bad reading practices..." statement. What is "bad" in
    hypertext can also occur in more sequential presentations. Not that
    non-sequential reading itself was a bad thing.

    My disagreement with Willard, however, concerns the question of whether
    the hypertext medium is something fundamentally different from prior
    practices such as footnotes:

    > I am concerned with your claim that the hypertext medium is
    > qualitatively different from traditional modes of presentation.
    > Hypertext links are no more than modern implementations of the
    > references that the glossators placed in margins of the Code of
    > Justinian or the masora in the Hebrew Bible. Rather than relying mastery
    > of a large body of textual material, the modern user can access the
    > information pointed to by a hyperlink.

    To which Willard replied (in part)

    > I am centrally concerned with Patrick Durusau's statement that,
    > >Hypertext links are no more than modern implementations of the
    > >references that the glossators placed in margins of the Code of
    > >Justinian or the masora in the Hebrew Bible.
    > The continuity of practice is important to understand, but I would take
    > issue with "no more than" if by "implementations" is meant unremarkable,
    > seamless, inconsequential retooling. It seems to me that form and content
    > are inseparable -- which is NOT to say that these words mean the same
    > thing, just that we cannot pry them apart, ever. Is this not the old
    > mind/body problem?

    Unfortunately I did not followup on this thread with Willard at the time
    and only have time to sketch a response at the moment.

    Hypertext links are no more than an unremarkable, seamless,
    inconsequential retooling of traditional reference mechanisms. (To
    appropriate some of Willard's language.) Perhaps a little less
    contentiously and more accurately, hypertext links are expressions of
    the same mental processes that are evidenced by traditional reference
    mechanisms, albeit easier to consult than traditional references.

    Consider my reading "Paradise Lost" along with Stanley Fish. Assuming we
    are reading the same printed (or online version) we are accessing the
    same stream of words but his reading, conveyed by voice, print or
    electronic media, is far more nuanced and textured than mine. Why?
    Because while reading the text, due to training, reading and years of
    research, he is forming far more associations (hypertext links as it
    were in the mind) between other materials and the text at hand than
    myself. If he were to write an essay in a traditional journal, he could
    express those associations as footnotes or other references. With
    hypertext he can put in links that alert the less experienced reader (in
    this case myself) to some of those associations and actually provide
    access to those materials without my leaving the comfort of my chair to
    get another book to track the reference.

    Who has not had the experience of following a reference in a printed
    journal or monograph, only to find that following succeeding references
    has taken the research in paths that were unsuspected at the first
    reference point? Hyperlinks are physically more convenient than
    following printed references but I don't see that as changing the
    underlying process.

    Despite all the "now I am awake" rhetoric from the W3C crowd, the fact
    remains that hypertext (even assuming robust implementaitons of
    XLink/XPointer/XPath) is an impoverished expression of the associations
    that a skilled reader forms while reading a text. That is not an
    argument against hypertext, but against the notion that it is
    qualitatively different from traditional reference practices. Neither
    can fully reflect the associations made by a reader.

    Hypertext technology should be supported/promoted for its enormous
    potential for accessibility, research, and collaboration. It has enough
    promise in those areas to not need the more questionable "now for
    something completely different" claim.


    Patrick Durusau
    Director of Research and Development
    Society of Biblical Literature

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