Beyond Gutenberg: Hypertext and the Future of the Humanities

May 13, 1994

Attended by approximately 250 people, "Beyond Gutenberg" was an intense, day-long conference focusing on current projects and possible futures of hypertext, particularly as they relate to humanities studies. Most attendees were librarians or humanities faculty, many with knowledge about the World Wide Web and familiarity with hypertext concepts. In other words, this conference was not an introductory "wow isn't this stuff neat!" presentation but, rather a serious look at a subject that is rapidly maturing. And it was not without its moments of controversy.

The conference was sponsored by the Yale libraries and was moderated by the dynamic Alphonse Yinh. After an introduction by Millicent Abell, also of Yale libraries, who reminded the audience of Yale's long tradition of nurturing the humanities, Edward Tufte presented the inaugural address.

Tufte's concerns centered around the difficulties of representing a multi-dimensional world in a two-dimensional format, whether paper or computer screen. He decried the low resolution of today's computer technology and the amount of "administrative debris" that clutters many programs' screens (as much as 40%) leaving minimal space for the real information. He postulates that good design is nothing new. Indeed, he brought a 1570 edition of Euclid's Elements (once owned by Ben Jonson) and a 1611 edition of Galileo's work on sunspots and the discovery of the rings of Saturn to provide examples of how these authors displayed three and four dimensional models in a two dimensional medium. In the case of Euclid, the book included a "pop-up model of a pyramid, while Galileo's works included drawings imbedded in the text and a picture composed of small multiples of the sun in various positions.

He stated four principles relating to good design:

Two favorite quotes:
"Interactivity is a poor excuse for low resolution technology."
"Clutter is not an attribute of too much information but of bad design."

The next section of the conference was devoted to two scholarly hypertext projects: Perseus and Who Built America. Greg Crane, creator of Perseus, sees his project as a library in that you have many resources and references close at hand. Perseus brings this wealth of material to those who might not otherwise have access to this information, thus democratizing the information (a theme that runs throughout hypertext discussions). It also addresses what he sees as the dominant problem of humanists: they need data. Perseus has been created to be expandable.

Who Built America is a hypertext edition of the book of the same name by Stephen Brier and Roy Rosenzweig. Brier reminded the audience that hypertext on CD is no longer new: when asked about his upcoming plans by the hosts of Entertainment Tonight, the super model, Fabio, said that he was working on "an interactive CD-ROM." It is definitely in the mainstream consciousness if not on everyone's desk.

Who Built America is now available in the ARF if you would like to see it. It is not only interesting in and of itself, but also for the fact that it uses Voyager's Expanded Toolbook, a hypertext authoring system.

After a short break the conference resumed with a paper by Patricia Willis, also of Yale libraries. Using the image of the library from Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose she mused on the future of books and questioned the librarian's role in the electronic future. She was followed by John Price-Wilkins of the University of Virginia. UVA has become the model for university electronic text centers. You can visit the UVA Electronic Text Center or the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities to see some of their current projects (including the new Rosetti project!).

UVA is a firm believer in the importance of SGML with particular attention being paid to the future of the Text Encoding Initiative's (TEI) guidelines for Document Type Definitions (DTD's). They envision hypertext across networks, not as stand-alone products. In this they were at odds with several of the other presenters at the conference who see an important role for easy to use stand-alone products. But more on this later.

I had lunch with Paul Constantine, the director of Yale's electronic text center (who, like every other academical librarian I've spoken to knows Merri Beth!), and then went back for the afternoon sessions. The first presentation, by Michael Joyce, hypertext author, was not only a commentary on hypertext but a demonstration of a literary work using StorySpace, a hypertext writing program. He use Milos' poem A Book in the Ruins to provide a reading for the electronic age. The parallax view that the poem provides on texts is amplified by electronic text that not only constantly renews itself as burning phosphors, but also can easily be renewed by the act of the reader/writer. This presentation was more like a poetry reading than a lecture and as such was extremely moving.

Publishers had an opportunity to present their views of hypertext in the next session. Mark Bernstein of Eastgate, Julie Hansen of Penguin, and Roger Devine of Voyager, were all enthusiastic supporters of this medium. They demonstrated some of the projects their companies are working on and answered questions from the audience. They obviously feel that stand-alone CD-ROM products of original works and "value-added" works have an important place that will not go away for some time. They do not yet know how publishing will evolve as the Net grows but see their continuing role as that of editors working with authors.

George Landow, author of Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (which I bought, if anyone here wants to borrow it), was the last single presenter. He focused on hypertext as a creative arena for student work and criticism. He demonstrated several student works, both original creations and works created as literary criticism on readings done in class. He questioned how faculty will deal with these new forms: how do you grade a "reading" of a literary work that is in itself a creative work.

The last session was a panel discussion by all the academic speakers answering questions from the audience. The questions ranged from "what do you think hypertext is" to "what is the future of the university." As the session was limited to less than half an hour those questions were not answered fully (!).

My conclusions

1) Hypertext design should present as much useful information to the reader as possible with the least amount of "hoop-jumping," that is, links for links' sake is not a good design premise.

2) The jury is still out on the SGML vs. stand-alone question. SGML is the standard for most work available in electronic text centers. It is flexible, can be converted to HTML for use with Mosaic and other network browsers, and is useable across many systems making it a natural for networking. It is, however, cumbersome for creating documents unless you buy a full-featured SGML editor/viewer program which can be fairly expensive. Stand alone products, like Storyspace or Voyager's Expanded Toolbook, are easy to use and have many nice features but are limited to use on specific machines on specific platforms.

3) The field is open and publishers like Eastgate, Voyager, Penguin as well as Yale Univ. Press and U of Texas Press are looking for projects.

4) Hypertext not only provides a new and more comprehensive way of looking at traditional materials, it provides a new creative arena.

5) Hypertext is of special importance to humanists for several reasons: a) humanists need access to data--and that data exists in texts that are often only available in a few or sometimes even one physical location; b) humanists need sophisticated computer tools to be able to do textual analyses on those texts; and c) humanists need to examine and compare non-textual as well as textual materials--including physical objects, video, audio, etc.

6) UVM is sorely lacking in electronic textual materials, both possession of existing materials and creation of new materials, and as such is missing out on an important direction in scholarship.

7) It is not too late to get on board, though we may miss the boat if we concentrate on administrative or public relations-type projects to the exclusion of academic projects.

Hope Greenberg/