April 15, 1999
New Kind of Convergence: Writers and Programmers
By LISA GUERNSEY
-- 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
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.
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.
(December 10, 1998)
by Robert Coover
(August 29, 1993)
by Robert Coover
(June 21, 1992)
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."
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
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."