Technology - Circuits

April 15, 1999

New Kind of Convergence: Writers and Programmers


PROVIDENCE , R.I. -- Nearly everyone at the conference at Brown University here looked the same, with drab shirts and pants, shaggy hair, unfashionably comfortable shoes and the aura of people who spend altogether too much time in front of computer screens.

Bill Powers for The New York Times
Martin Eberhard showed a Rocketbook to Gitanjali Rege at a hypertext conference.

Only their vocabularies set them apart. One group talked about marginalization, "technological impermanence" and the potential of "kinetic literature." The others talked about "users," "scalability" and business plans.

The conference, called Technology Platforms for 21st Century Literature, was a kind of summit meeting for nerds from two disciplines: writers devoted to one of the sidestreams of contemporary literature -- hypertext or hypermedia -- met with the toolmakers for such writing -- systems architects, software developers and producers of handheld electronic books. Robert Coover, a creative writing professor at Brown, organized the three-day conference, which began April 7. The idea of hypertext, an art form that depends on computers as completely as writing once depended on pen and ink, is to let readers choose their own plot lines by clicking on hyperlinks embedded in text -- the "Choose Your Own Adventure" children's books do much the same thing on paper. Hypermedia takes hypertext a step further, using images, video, animation and audio recordings to create fiction or poetry.

Those who write in hypertext or hypermedia are on the fringe, a location that most unflinchingly accept. Since 1992, when Coover wrote an essay about hypertext titled "The End of Books" that appeared in The New York Times Book Review, writers of hypertext have been berated for creating works that it seems no one wants to read. Sven Birkerts, in his book "The Gutenberg Elegies" (Fawcett Columbine, 1995), compared reading hypertext to testing one's reflexes in a video arcade. Laura Miller, New York editorial director for the online magazine Salon, asked in a New York Times book review last year why anyone would want to read nonlinearly, with hyperlinks constantly diverting one's attention.

What's more, such critics asked, can people possibly lose themselves in a book when they are reading on a computer screen?

People who create hypertext believe that mainstream audiences will eventually appreciate their work. But for now, they consider such criticism a necessary accompaniment to the cutting edge, to the creation of art for art's sake.

"We shouldn't worry about being unread," said Diane Greco, a hypertext author who is working toward a doctorate in the history of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But they do worry about having the tools to write. So Coover, an indefatigable champion of hypertext, organized the conference to bring the writers together with the people who make the software. It's his latest foray onto the creative edge.

Throughout his career, Coover has taken risks with books like "The Public Burning," first published in 1977 (Grove Press, 1997), which included fantastic but nevertheless scandalous descriptions of public figures who were still living, like Richard Nixon.

"We're augmenting the dialogue between the people who are using the tools and those who are creating them," Coover said.

In the realm of traditional literature, the notion that there is even a need for such communication sounds strange. Authors of yesteryear probably had little desire to roll up their shirtsleeves, sit down with typewriter manufacturers and talk about their work. Even today, most writers aren't likely to have much interest in getting together with the programmers of Microsoft Word to chat about code.

But hypertext writers are a different lot.

Take Stuart Moulthrop, one of the first hyptertext authors, who spoke at the conference. As he unveiled his latest virtual-reality project -- one that gave readers the chance to roam through computerized renderings of coastal and planetary landscapes that accompanied the story line -- Moulthrop sounded a lot like the sleep-deprived computer geek who has become an emblem of late-20th-century culture. "It takes months of your life to build these little worlds," he said.

And although hypertext writers do not worry about a lack of readers, they do worry, Ms. Greco said, about "being unreadable" -- not hard to understand or difficult to read, but literally unreadable. Hypertext, unlike plain old books, can be inaccessible for technical as well as literary reasons.

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The writers wonder whether the software they are using may someday become extinct. They want better tools, ones that will enable them to create works filled with text, images and animated elements that do not require interruptive downloads. They want applications that will enable them to collaborate at a distance at any time.

In a hypertext presentation here, the words "gimme, gimme, gimme" floated across the screen. It's a phrase that hypertext writers use to poke fun at their never-ending appetite for new tools.

But until now, software developers have not been paying much attention. A few companies have tried to help, like Eastgate Systems in Watertown, Mass., which produces software for hypertext writing and publishes new works. But for the most part, technologists had little interest.

So bringing more than a half-dozen software developers to Brown to talk about hypertext was seen as something of a coup for Coover, who gives credit to his friend Jeffrey Ballowe, former president of the Ziff-Davis Interactive Media and Development Group, for pulling them together. The developers included Marc Canter, the founder of Macromedia; Miko Matsumura,

Sun Microsystems' former primary marketer for the Java programming language; Martin F. Eberhard, the chief executive officer of Nuvomedia, which produces the electronic Rocketbook, and the developers of new programs called the Brain, Emphemeris and Trellix, which help people keep texts, links and images organized online. A representative from Microsoft also attended, to stay on top of trends in the field.

Many of the sessions required attendees to endure technical glitches as they squinted at projections from computer screens. Meanwhile, the temperature outside reached nearly 70 degrees, and blue skies beckoned. Some attendees trickled out of the dark auditorium, but most stayed put. Rob Wittig, a professor of design at the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, said he wasn't about to leave because he finally had a chance to learn about new tools that might actually help him improve his hypertext presentations.

"I get the feeling that this is a real landmark conference," said Wittig, who founded an online literary bulletin board called IN.S.OMNIA. "The technology is over some sort of hump this year."


Here are a few pieces of hypertext on display at a conference last week:

FERRIS WHEELS, by Deena Larsen:


THE UNKNOWN, by William Gillespie, Frank Marquardt, Scott Rettberg and Dirk Stratton:

Eberhard, the developer of the Rocketbook, shared the same optimism. He said that he had never been to a hypertext conference before but that the time now seemed right. He figured that if the main criticism of hypertext was the unappealing thought of reading it on a computer screen, then his electronic book might be the answer. He spent most of one evening in a huddle of people, passing around his product.

"I'm creating a mechanism for them to put their work where people can read it," he said.

Despite the cheerful interchanges, whether the convergence of technologists and hypertext writers will actually help the field of hypertext remains an open question. Most of the software demonstrated on April 8 was designed for use by business people, with just a few features that might be useful in organizing fiction or publishing poetry. Many writers remained skeptical of whether the software they saw would be flexible enough for them to unleash their creativity.

In fact, by today, it became clear that one of the problems with producing hypertext wasn't necessarily a lack of communication between techies and writers but a rift that exists among the writers themselves -- between those who feel a need to be utterly technologically savvy and those who don't.

Some veterans of hypertext, particularly those who started electronic writing before the dawn of the Web, said they were reconciled to the fact that they would have to do their own computer programming if they wanted complete flexibility as artists.

"Some people who make pots grind their own glaze," said David Durand, a doctoral student in computer science at Brown. "They know all the temperatures at which you fire clay. Artists want an extra level of control, and it may come at a price."

But Edward Falco, editor of a hypertext journal called The New River, said he couldn't help fantasizing about not having to worry about which software to use or what code to write. "Sometimes," he said, as heads nodded around him, "I just want to take the tools and go away and write."

There were a few people who said that despite the upbeat nature of the conference, something was missing: a conversation not about the technology, not about the burdens of writing, but about the people who might actually be reading their work.

"We are so absorbed in creating this stuff ourselves," said Catherine C. Marshall, a researcher at the Fuji Xerox Palo Alto Laboratory, "that we forget that there is a tenable thing called a reader."