“Heresy” after a decade

Ten years ago I wrote a paper for a small graduate school conference that in retrospect marked a real turning point in my life. The Heresy of Hypertext: Fear and Anxiety in the Late Age of Print was a bit of a personal manifesto, an attempt to bring my literary critical skills (my day job) to bear on the new media of hypertext (what I obsessed about most of the rest of the time). But, in truth, it was actually an extended rant to my English grad school professors about the importance of hypertext and digital text. Great scholarship “Heresy” wasn’t — and oh my how saturated it is in gradschool-speak neologisms! — but it is still the most linked-to part of any site I have ever had. It has even been anthologized and translated.

But ten years is a long time when you’re writing about new media. Let’s see how it holds up.

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.

True enough. By 2001 blogging was in full swing, putting to rest any notion that the written word and electronic media were somehow incompatible. Though literary hyperext was not a mainstream phenomenon in 2001 (and is not now) I think it is fair to say that by 2001 most would agree that electronic textuality had matured to the point where the distinction between it and the printed word was largely academic — a sure sign of cultural assimilation.

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.

Mostly true. Wikipedia is a great example of this kind of collaborative weeding-out of shoddiness. A web of casual editors does expose deficiencies in rigor and quality faster than in other media. But the very anonymity, publishing reach, and fungibility of electronic text also makes fraud a hell of a lot easier.

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.

I think I missed on this one. Perhaps it was true in 1995, but I’m now of the opinion (largely because of Matt’s work) that the immateriality/instability was an illusion. The “just feels different” aspect, I suspect, was mostly a function of screen resolution.

Not a bad little paper, after all. Overwrought to be sure, but a personal milestone and one that I will always look to as the springboard that launched me into the arc that I am still on.

One response to ““Heresy” after a decade”

  1. J Berg says :

    It is interesting that the current process for producing printed text has in fact become just another deployment channel of hypertext within digital layout engines.
    Publishers have even quickly resolved to redefine font requirements to meet both digital and hot metal concerns. A perfect example is the recent port of Bembo: http://monotype.co.uk/bemboAMT/
    In fact it is digital mediums which have empowered indivduals to self-publish work into the printed medium without reliance upon the often corrupt and money driven print syndicates.
    While digital writng does invite ease of fraud, it also redefines the way in which we validate and invalidate text. Readers are now as empowered as writers to define the real and make experienced judgements on information. While Wikipedia allows live correction of data, websites such as snopes.com and other lie busting sites have become a rage. These digital social signatures are tools no modern reader should be without. The validity of information is such a concern to a digital age that “Myth Busters” have become info-tainment on television.
    This perpetual dialog of the real has been best played out in living fiction sites such as the recent Savings and Clone fun at http://www.savingsandclone.com/index2.html and of course toyed with in the fiction of the Wachowski brothers.
    The term “That has to be fake.” has entered the common lexicon of our daily dialogs.