From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

October 31, 2004*: The (ir)relevance of hypertext

Over the years a rather distinct and identifiable style has crept into these columns - or at least I like to think that it has. A characteristic column usually consists of a medium length main page that more or less flows like an essay - I introduce a topic (usually with some personal reference that explains what caused me, at this particular time, to deal with that particular topic) and then, in at least a handful of paragraphs (and often quite a few more) examine various aspects of that topic - some rather predictable, some perhaps a bit unexpected. And of course at the end I try to round out my examination of the topic with some sort of clincher sentence or two - usually a sort of return to the opening but with a slightly different take on things. Anyone who has suffered through a freshman writing course would probably identify the roots of the style. Even if my writing sometimes succeeds in breaking free from the authorized paragraph style of introductory sentence, discussion of that sentence and summary sentence, astute readers should have little difficulty noticing that during my studies of long ago I apparently learned my lesson (almost too) well.

But that's not all. Branching out from this basic structural trunk are the links - usually about fifteen shoots or buds. These are, of course, ideas, reflections, commentary and general associations that come to mind from the central text or from the branches, and the branchlets of those branches, of the essay. There's certainly lots of (perhap too much) black on white text in these pages, but there are also quite a few words and phrases which are blue and underlined. These links are not necessarily a subtext, nor a supertext. Perhaps they might be called sidetexts in the sense that they are often (though not always) tangential to the main gist of the text. Readers are free to click (or not click) on a link to read its content, to see where it leads, to find out what sort of associations came to my mind as outgrowths from what's written in the main text. Over the years, the somewhat precarious coexistence of these two almost contradictory elements - a rather conventional expository writing style, and numerous links scattered throughout the text that seem to break away from the expected convention - has become, if I may, the crux of the Boidem's style.

As noted, readers may choose to click or not click on the links in the text. For me, it's not really a choice, though I suppose that it would be going too far to claim that it's a necessity. As I create the links I'm constantly asking myself whether creating or not creating each one is truly called for, is justifiable. Do I really need a link there? Wouldn't parentheses be easier? Or why not simply commas? Hypertext may be fun to play with, but maybe it makes more sense simply to stuff everything into one big run-on sentence? Though the amount of seemingly almost frivolous links in these pages might suggest that I give myself free reign, that I let whatever thought springs into my head its linked day in the sun, the truth is that I'm often deciding that I really don't need a link in a particular passage. Many more links don't see the light of day than do.

From as far back as I can remember I've always been fascinated by the single drop that seems to contain the entire universe. Hypertext seems to give me the same feeling - starting from an almost insignificant thought additional, almost unlimited, thoughts seem to continually spring up and attach themselves. The single thought, like the single drop, seems to encompass the entire world. But an approach such as this may also be little more than simply another way of telling my own story - in all its tedious details. This particular reflection, the metaphor of the single drop, for instance, sprung to mind while I was washing dishes, and reading a note that was intended to be thrown out but ended up on the kitchen counter instead. So while washing dishes I read a note telling us that a book my daughter had asked for from the library (translated into English, the title was "All Because of a Winter Puddle") was now available for her, and in a rather predictable fashion, the note ended up on the kitchen counter, and the thought found its way to this column.

Only recently I wrote about repeating myself - about making the same points over and over, quoting the same quotes, even linking to the same links. I get the feeling that I'm repeating myself here as well, though I've also admitted that repetition is part of the style of these columns. Any examination of the use of hypertext on my part will tend to cover territory previously covered - sometimes to reiterate points I've made and sometimes to reexamine, from a different perspective, and often with different results, my relationship with linking. In the past I've asked whether the use of hypertext is little more than a ploy, a wink in the direction of something a bit out of the ordinary and perhaps even almost original, to express thoughts that might have been communicated just as well if not even better in more traditionally structured writing. Though hypertexting may be fun, it's far from clear whether it's necessary. Perhaps I could have saved myself, and my readers, quite a bit of finger strenght had I not compelled them to read via the mouse rather than only their eyes. In a positive sense it may not even matter. Good writing should be, after all, good writing. Some good writing is highly structured, some quite free-flowing. Some good writing relies on lots of metaphors, some uses them sparingly. Some good writing is highly reflective, some maintains an attitude of personal detachment. For reasons that probably have more to do with the way I think rather than with the way readers read, I include a rather large number of hypertextual links in my writing. That unto itself isn't what makes my writing here either good or bad. Linking has become a readily identifiable aspect of these columns, such that the question of to link or not to link has lost its relevance. Whether or not those links are used in an intelligent, challenging and hopefully entertaining manner is important. Their existence has become a given.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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