The Heresy of Hypertext:
Fear and Anxiety in the Late Age of Print

by John Tolva

"Art not ashamed to publish thy disease?"
--Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophel and Stella, 1591

As of this date, there are no known viruses which
can infect merely through reading a mail message.
--U.S. Computing Incident Advisory Capability Report, Dec. 6, 1994

The late twentieth century is the age of digital incunabula. Just as bibliographers regard 1501 as the year that printed books emerged from the "cradle" of their post-Gutenberg nativity, the first year of the coming millennium will likely serve as a convenient demarcation point for the end of the beginning of electronic textuality. Though it's not exactly news that advances in information technology are revolutionizing global culture, only recently have the changes wrought by computerization received attention in the disciplines collectively known as the Humanities. From cardless card-catalogues to paperless journals, from simple word processing to the OED on CD-ROM, from hypertext collation of Chaucer manuscripts to the Rossetti Hypermedia Archive, applied technology has established itself in academia and is becoming difficult to ignore, despite the humanist inheritance of what Elizabeth Eisenstein calls a "venerable tradition of proud ignorance of matters material, mechanical, or commercial."[1] A reliable indicator of the computer's influence is the recent emergence of articles and books that question the compositional, pedagogical, and cultural consequences of widespread interconnectedness and digitalization. Equating the birth of text-based computing with the invention of the printing press, critics claim, at once smacks of the myopic enthusiasm that typically accompanies the emergence of new technologies while it assumes a critical objectivity unavailable to an observer of the present historical moment. Of course, technoclasm isn't always so eloquent. If an argument against textual computing proceeds any further than the chorus-like complaint ". . . but you can't read it in the bathtub!," it usually degenerates into labeling hypertext the bastard child of the book and the Nintendo unit. As I will show, more is at work in such criticism than a simple Luddite aversion to change. An array of anxieties attends our culture's slow passage from print to electronic textuality, and, as might be expected, these anxieties have manifested themselves most noticeably in disciplines which are intimately involved with the printed word. Despite exaggerated reports of its demise, the codex book is not dead--but, like handwriting in the age of print, it isn't likely to remain the dominant means of textual dissemination. So the question is not if computers will transform our notion of reading and writing, but instead how?

Rather than confronting the community of happy hypertextualists and media theorists, I propose to answer this question by exploring some fears and anxieties generated by the interaction of the print-based world and its emerging digital counterpart. As I see it, three specific sources of tension require investigation: First, the Platonic heritage of mistrust in the written word--specifically, the fear that unmediated language loses its communicative function, becoming merely a receptacle of information; Second, the elusive ontic status of digital text, the search for the digital word-as-thing--specifically the anxiety generated by its disconcerting lack of physical presence; Third and finally, the blurry distinction between the verbal and non-verbal elements of electronic textuality--specifically, hypertext's technical emulation of simultaneity and spatiality, characteristics usually associated with the visual arts. Common to these three points is the sense that traditional or formal boundaries are deteriorating: between author and work, signified and signifier, visual and verbal, and so on. Of course, these pairings have always been an object of theoretical discourse, but the issues assume an increased urgency now that new technologies are instantiating what once was safely ensconced in the realm of theory.

Though traditionally ignored by historians of literacy passing on to the more tractable Poetics of Aristotle, Plato's dialogue Phaedrus unequivocally presents the written word as an untrustworthy agent of communicative transaction. In the dialogue, Socrates relates the story of the enterprising demigod Theuth, inventor of writing, who peddles his new ware to the king. Theuth proclaims, "Here is an accomplishment which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure recipe for memory and wisdom."[2] The king, unconvinced of writing's merit, responds to Theuth:

you, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your offspring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on . . . external signs instead of their own internal resources.

Further on, he remarks, "Your pupils will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part ignorant." This notion of writing's inadequacy as a replacement of or supplement for oral discourse has never vanished from the historical radar screen, becoming a rather large blip since Saussure, but the striking point is the resemblance of Plato's position to modern-day criticism of electronic textuality. Writing and print, Walter Ong tells us, are both ways of technologizing the word, methods of structuring cognition.[3] As such, the king's objections to writing easily apply to electronic text, a very literal technologizing of the word. Hypertext databases, for example George Landow's In Memoriam web, have been attacked for dumping loads of seemingly unsystematized information into an unwary student's lap. "Total information," philosopher Michael Heim writes, "is the illusion of knowledge, and hypertext favors this illusion by letting the user hop around at the speed of thought."[4] In another echo of Plato's argument, Myron Tuman notes his concern that "the ascendancy of hypertext [will] . . . push literacy in the direction of information management."[5]

The fear is not that text-based computing will keep students from "exercising their memory" but rather that their powers of creative association and assimilation will atrophy as they navigate around an amorphous, virtual "docuverse" via predetermined hypertext pathways.[6] In both ancient and modern cases, though, the central fear is that what is essentially a means of storage will not organize thought but stifle, disperse, or worst of all, control it. Sven Birkerts, one of a growing number of lugubrious elegists of the codex book, amplifies Socrates' fear that writing emphasizes reliance on things external to the mind, claiming that our increasingly multi-this, hyper-that, and cyber-everything culture embraces the "ersatz security of a vast lateral connectedness." "Subjective individualism," he continues, has succumbed to "electronic tribalism--hive life."[7] Birkerts admits fearing that the non-hierarchical interconnectedness of hypertext represents little more than textual totalitarianism, implicitly proscribing what can and can not by read by the existence of a pre-defined nexus of links. In fact, in a true hypertext system the reader can re-configure and add links at will, ideally accessing information according to his or her own needs and thus requiring the same ordering of one's thoughts, the same "restructuring of consciousness" to use Ong's term, demanded and fostered by lucid writing. This parallel between ancient and modern polemical stances should emphasize that electronic textuality is merely the most recent novum monstrum in a long line of communication technologies that have slowly subrogated their precursors. Inexorable as the word's migration from paper to screen seems, though, the issues involved (as in Phaedrus) are not neutral. Literacy did not create a society of information-drunk drones and the fact that Phaedrus exists as a written document suggests that for all his anti-sophist posturing Plato denounced writing to serve the rhetorical purpose of emphasizing the evanescence of physical form. Today, faced with the possibility that huge matrices of scholarly data will be available to any neophyte with a computer terminal, modern critiques of text-based computing often reveal their rhetorical substratum, namely, an aversion to the democratizing potential of the digital word.

John Unsworth, a member of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, notes that regarding scholarship "the fear that predominates is the fear of pollution--the fear of losing our priestly status in the anarchic welter of unfiltered, unrefined voices." The key word here is "unfiltered," since the print-based academic dictum "publish or perish" traditionally has served to dilute the polluting effect of most of the "unrefined voices."[8] But what happens to this equation when the difficulty of typographical initiation disappears? Disseminating an article or even a whole book in electronic form in general requires less effort than typing a cover letter to a prospective university press. Infinitely reproducible, systematically distributable, and radically egalitarian, electronic text dismantles the primacy of the printed word: it reduces all things written (whether Pulitzer material or unreadable drivel) to the condition of a very unique kind of unsolicited manuscript: available to everyone, published by no one. Though this new textuality promises to level hierarchical distribution of and access to even the most esoteric data, we should not make the mistake of equating the leveling with a reduction in the standards of professional scholarship. In fact, in such an intraloquial and interactive scenario, shoddy work quickly draws attention to itself, succumbing to the necessarily higher standard of excellence in a web of virtual collaborators and competitors. Ong calls this kind of collective environment in the Renaissance "participatory poetics."[9] Indeed, the circulation dynamic of texts published on the Internet resembles the medieval and Renaissance practice of glossing, parodying, or otherwise altering a manuscript before passing it along. Slowly, though, the fixity and ubiquity of print have eradicated such practices, all but banishing the notion of a collaborative, "textually permeable"[10] work. Now, the cult of the author and the printing press are inextricably linked; you can't have one without the other. Digital text, however, requires neither. As a consequence, and much to the chagrin of political critics, no economic model has yet been devised to explain its production and propagation in a capitalist society.

Underlying the obvious problem of treating this new type of writing as a packageable commodity is the inexactness of the term "digital text." The difficulty comes not with the first word; "digital" in this context merely refers to the method of storage used by the computer, like calling a codex book an "ink text." The OED says that the word "text" originates in Latin, meaning "that which is woven" or "web." While this etymology certainly seems pertinent when speaking of hypertext, or "non-sequential writing--text that branches and allows choices to the reader,"[11] it helps little in providing a distinction between paper text and digital text. What's certain is that both Luddite and hacker agrees that a difference does exist. But if the same word inscribed on paper and displayed on a computer screen means the same thing--and how could it not?--then the only explanation is that we perceive a discrepancy, that the medium itself somehow affects how we think of the words. Let us take a simple example, the letter "u," and think about how we think about it. In print the letter is usually composed of a viscous pigment that stains vegetable cellulose fibers; on screen the letter is a cluster of electrons shot out of a cathode gun at the rear of the monitor. The printed "u" on paper can be touched, maybe even smeared, and shown to exist physically. It is a tactile representation of the idea "u," the commonly agreed-upon vowel that in English occupies the twenty-first position of the alphabet. On the monitor we know that the "u" is not a particular group of electrons, for without permanently losing the letter we can move it off-screen, back to the computer's memory (as when one finishes reading a book and places the words in his or her "memory"). So our letter resides on (or in) a microchip--the labyrinthine circuitry becomes the ultimate palimpsest, right? Not exactly.

To the computer the letter "u" is the numerical string: 00010101, the digit one representing the presence of an electric impulse, zero an absence. But without contextual information, the letter "u" sequence can stand for the integer 21, the real number 1.3125, the musical note C, or a set of commands reading no, no, no, yes, no, yes, no, yes.[12] How can we possibly define this digital letter, much less the text it composes, when its most basic signification is so varied and variable? The answer is that we cannot, but it is our very inability to do so that alters our perception of electronic text. Birkerts articulates the experience thus: "words removed to storage, rendered invisible, seem to have reversed expressive direction and to have gone back into thought. Their entity dissolves into a kind of neural potentiality."[13] Perhaps in its virtuality, the electronic word can best be described (albeit paradoxically) as a signified without a corporeal signifier, whereas in general readers (Derrida notwithstanding) have agreed that the printed word has presence. That the reader can touch the printed word, handle the book, assert its "there-ness" is soothing, an illusion of textual immutability in the deconstructive chaos of endless deferral. To the mind weaned on the indelibility of the printed word, electronic text seems unstable, less epistemologically graspable. I submit that this mostly unconscious perception of instability generates anxiety in the reader, anxiety of the type usually written off to the "it just feels different" category. Like most anxieties, though, this one can be overcome; but not until writers who use word processors employ a completely paperless editing process (and no author yet does) will proof exist of a truly comfortable relation between the writer and the digital word.

One consequence of reducing the digital text to the status of electric impulses is that clear-cut distinctions between verbal and non-verbal elements cease to exist. That is, as far as the computer (or anyone browsing through binary code) knows, a digital representation of the Mona Lisa is ontologically no different from, say, Walter Pater's verbal description of her. It's all ones and zeros. To be sure, after the information is processed in the bowels of the computer, the screen presents two very different things: Da Vinci's painting look's like a painting and Pater's text reads like text. Nevertheless, on the virtual palimpsest of the computer chip the painting and text are essentially identical. While most computer users will never consider this conundrum, the difficulty of differentiating between text and non-text at the most basic level has a more conspicuous macroscopic counterpart. Hypertext, specifically hypermedia, in which visual elements (even full-motion video) are woven into the fabric of the text like a modern-day illuminated manuscript, allows visual manipulation of text blocks (called lexias) and graphical depiction of structural features. In addition to this literal spatialization of the word, hypertext also approaches the condition of visuality in experiential ways. William Dickey, in an essay called "Poem Descending a Staircase," notes how the narrative element of chance in hypertext poetry and fiction emulates the visual arts' "rejection of linear causative organizations."[14] The reader may "enter" a hypertext narrative just about anywhere, much like the viewer approaching a painting or sculpture. In such a hypertext environment, the reading process, like the gazing eye, jumps around associatively, moving not according to the work's formal structure but according to its content. Jay David Bolter refers to electronic writing as "topographic," "both a verbal and a visual description."[15] By this he means "not the writing of a place, but rather a writing with places, spatially realized topics." Non-computerized writing, long considered a temporal art because of its paginated unidirectionality, has never been able to emulate the experience of the visual moment, though a small sub-genre of literature called ekphrasis has attempted to approximate it, archetypal examples being Homer's description of Achilles' shield, Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn", and Rossetti's Sonnets for Pictures. "Ekphrasis," explains W.J.T. Mitchell, is used "as a model for the power of literary art to achieve formal, structural patterns and to represent vividly a wide range of perceptual experiences, most notably the experience of vision."[16] Digital textuality effects this formal, structural, and perceptual experience of ekphrasis on a purely technical level. It is an ekphrastic medium that quite literally shapes the message. No longer a literary device or trope, ekphrasis as it applies to the computer is a practical description of the visual ways that the reader approaches the verbal text.

Not surprisingly, this actualized ekphrasis has precipitated what Mitchell calls "ekphrastic fear": "the moment of resistance or counterdesire that occurs when we sense that the difference between the verbal and visual representation might collapse, when the difference . . . becomes a moral, aesthetic imperative rather than . . . a natural fact that can be relied on."[17] Such fear of incestuous relations between the sister arts reveals itself in some unlikely places. In 1990, the director of the University of Delaware's writing program, Marcia Peoples Halio wrote an incendiary, if not very tightly argued article in which she claimed that students who used word processors in the iconic environment of the Apple Macintosh wrote qualitatively and statistically inferior prose compared to students who composed on the text-based interface of IBM's DOS machines.[18] Halio reasoned that the image-based editing process of the Macintosh computers encouraged negligence of strictly verbal elements of prose. Whether true or not, her claim is typical of the anxiety caused by (what some see as) electronic textuality's arrogation of properties traditionally ascribed to the visual arts. The feelings are echoed outside academia as well. In a Newsweek article titled "A Font a Day Keeps My Muse Away," Jerry Adler bemoaned the recent trend in word processing that emphasizes "words as graphical elements, decorations on a tableau of white space."[19] An admitted "extremist" on the subject of the division between verbal and visual representation, Adler attacked the graphical manipulability of digital words stating "I would no more want to see my words treated this way than my child." (One of course hears the king of Phaedrus admonishing Adler "you, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your offspring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function.") What Halio and Adler fear is not that future writers will revert to pictograms but rather that the traditional modes of textual composition that stress linearity, closure, and containment are being eroded from the inside out by the visually-based compositional aids themselves.

So what can we, the orphaned children of the printed word, do in the face of such alarming metamorphoses? We can wallow in gloomy self-pity crying, like Barry Sanders, "God is dead. The author has passed away. The written page is being deconstructed. Word processors have turned everyone into ghostwriters, so that technology, like a hard-wired vampire, has sucked the very essence out of life"[20] or we can try to devise ways of reading electronic text in the bathtub without electrocuting ourselves. We can compose oppressive elegies to the book or we can be comforted by Walter Ong's assertion that new media merely transform, never eradicate their precursors.[21] We can claim that the end of print means the end of the human individual as he/she has been author(iz)ed into the text known as Western culture or we can understand that humanity survived and communicated for most of recorded history without Gutenberg's invention. Finally, we can regard new modes of writing and reading as heretical or we can try to avoid a literary schism by revising canonical law to accommodate things like hypertext fiction and poetry. While not avoidable, fear and anxiety can be instructive. One example in closing: in December of last year, panic struck the Internet when rumor spread that a text-based computer virus was replicating its way across the globe and that it could be acquired simply by reading one's electronic mail. For a while millions of people refused to approach their messages, afraid that the very act of reading would cause infection. We would do well to learn from this reaction, especially since the idea of a text-based virus was proven to be a practical impossibility; the rumor was a hoax. Indeed the rumor that the new medium of digital textuality will infect or corrupt our print-based practices is as baseless as the hysteria caused by the alleged virus. Human communication, like a living creature, has always adapted to tumultuous periods of change, surviving the "pathogenic" influence of speech, literacy, and moveable type, and no reason exists to think that it won't adapt to the computer.

copyright © 1995 John Tolva


  1. Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1979) 706. Back.

  2. Plato, Phaedrus and Letters VII and VIII, Walter Hamilton, ed. (New York: Penguin, 1973) 96. Back.

  3. Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy (New York and London: Methuen, 1982) 80. Back.

  4. Michael Heim, Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) 38. Back.

  5. Myron Tuman, Word Perfect: Literacy in the Computer Age (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992) 78. Back.

  6. See J. Hillis Miller, Illustration (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992) 40. Back.

  7. Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies (Boston and London: Faber and Faber, 1994) 228. Back.

  8. John Unsworth, Electronic Scholarship or, Scholarly Publishing and the Public. Published as hypertext at but since removed. Forthcoming in print. Back.

  9. Walter Ong, Interfaces of the Word (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1977) 274-79. Back.

  10. Wendy Wall, The Imprint of Gender (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1993) 34. Back.

  11. Theodor Nelson, Literary Machines (Swarthmore, Pa.: self-published, 1981) 0/2. [Pagination begins with each section or chapter, thus 0/2 = prefatory matter, page 2.] Back.

  12. Technical information taken from Jeff Rothenberg, "Ensuring the Longevity of Digital Documents," Scientific American January 1995: 42-47. Back.

  13. Birkerts, 155. Back.

  14. William Dickey, "Poem Descending a Staircase," Hypermedia and Literary Studies, George Landow and Paul Delany, eds. (Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press, 1991) 144. Back.

  15. Jay David Bolter, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing (Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1991) 25. Back.

  16. W.J.T. Mitchell, Picture Theory (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994) 154. Back.

  17. Mitchell, 154. Back.

  18. Marcia Peoples Halio, "Student Writing: Can the Machine Maim the Message?," Academic Computing (Jan. 1990):16-19, 45. Back.

  19. Jerry Adler, "A Font a Day Keeps My Muse Away," Newsweek October 24, 1994: 49. Back.

  20. Barry Sanders, A is for Ox (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994)150-151. Back.

  21. Ong, Interfaces, 82. Back.

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