PRINT November 1991


Writing Space

Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing, by Jay David Bolter. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991, 258 pp.

IN THE ACT OF WRITING, the writer externalizes his or her thoughts. The writer enters into a reflective and reflexive relationship with the written page, a relationship in which thoughts are bodied forth. It becomes difficult to say where thinking ends and writing begins, where the mind ends and the writing space begins. With any technique of writing—on stone or clay, papyrus or paper, and particularly on the computer screen—the writer comes to regard the mind itself as a writing space.

The thesis of Jay David Bolter’s book is that the way we organize our writing space is the way we come to organize our thoughts, and in time becomes the way in which we think the world itself must be organized. Bolter, who teaches in the Classics Department at the University of North Carolina, looks at the major phases in the history of writing, from papyrus rolls through medieval manuscripts and on into the era of print. He examines the way in which each of these writing spaces has created its own picture of thinking and of the organization of thought. “The writing space,” he says, “becomes a metaphor, literate culture’s root metaphor, for the human mind.” Hence the print writing space offers a linear, sequential, and unified writing and reading experience, and encourages us to try to envisage the world in those terms: as a place where logical accretions of cause and effect march forward in a unified plan. The medieval codex, on the other hand, became a forum for discussion and interpretation as successive scribes added their contributions to the texts they were copying. The codex invokes a more negotiable universe—one of pliability, intervention, plurality.

Most of this book is dedicated to an appraisal of the most current writing revolution, the computer, and to its implications as a “root metaphor.” Bolter’s contention is that the computer/word processor recapitulates all past phases of the history of writing; and, with the idea of “hypertext,” moves writing away from the linear and into a new territory of richly interconnected ideas.

Hypertext derives partly from what we know as “footnoting” in print culture: the process of elaborating on particular ideas contained in the main body of the text. But imagine now a work so rich in footnotes, and footnotes about footnotes, that there is no longer a single main argument, and the process of reading becomes an active ramble in various directions through a three-dimensional text space. In such a hook “the reader calls forth his or her own text out of the network, and each such text belongs to one reader and one particular act of reading.” The “author,” then, becomes the person who constructs this network of possible linkages, but it is in the nature of the system that he or she will never be able to know which particular book any given reader will read.

Bolter discusses earlier attempts by such experimental writers as Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, and Jorge Luis Borges to modify the writing space of print in order to make it possible for the nonsequential, networked nature of experience to be communicated within its constraints. Joyce is here described as an early creator of hypertexts: unwilling to follow a straightforward narrative thread through the complex web that constitutes human memory, he tried instead to recreate the experience of such a web. In Ulysses and Finnegans Wake he wove a tangle of allusions, cross-references, ellipses, shifts of time, and points of view. The reader is tacitly expected to decode the work, to engage actively in the game of association that it presents, to engage in the process of organizing chaotic and multilayered experience. Borges, on the other hand, wrote in a comparatively traditional manner, but chose to describe new writing spaces: books written and rewritten in countless permutations; books with endlessly branching plots; infinite libraries of random letter-combinations; books about books. Bolter says:

For Borges literature is exhausted because it is committed to a conclusive ending, to a single storyline and denouement. To renew literature one would have to write multiply, in a way that embraced possibilities rather than closed them off. Borges can imagine such a fiction, but he cannot produce it. . . . Borges himself never had available to him an electronic space, in which the text can comprise a network of diverging, converging, and parallel times. He could not see that the literature of exhaustion in print by no means exhausts the electronic medium.

An electronic “book” (if the term still applies) is published as a diskette. In several important ways, it is conceptually different from a printed book, for it is impermanent, ephemeral, a manifestation of energy rather than of matter. Most of all, it presupposes interaction, creating a new sense of what it means to be a reader, by diffusing the concept of authorship to all users of the system. The distinction between author and reader blurs further as readers actively intervene in the text, adding to, subtracting from, and modifying it from their own keyboards. The idea of “book” now changes radically: it ceases to be a finite, finished statement and becomes instead a space where ideas are continually being gathered together, reassembled, and added to. This suggests the intriguing idea of books that never stop being written, of books that mutate and proliferate and become teeming communities of ideas, a powerful modern version of the medieval codex, with its layers of commentary and addition.

The pièce de résistance in this publication is, in fact, Bolter’s construction of a hypertext version of the book Writing Space itself. Slip this into your Mac, and you begin to sense the potential of the new writing space. The screen shows a paragraph of text. Certain words or sentences are highlighted. By pointing to one of these, you open up a new window that displays an amplification or extension of that idea. That extension may itself carry highlighted sections inviting further exploration. Then move back out of the network to peruse a window that shows you the overall architecture of the text, pick a reentry point, and begin reading again from a new perspective. Your progress through the electronic text becomes an adventure—a genuinely new reading and thinking experience. I’ve already modified my copy of the disk; added a few notes here and there, for example, so that I am now to some degree coauthor of my particular version of the electronic book called Writing Space. And when I copy that version and pass it on to my friends (as Bolter specifically invites readers to do), they will no doubt make their own modifications and additions. It’s conceivable that, after a sufficiently long period, only a small fraction of the material on the disk will have originated from Bolter’s keyboard.

The intriguing questions of authorship raised by this kind of interaction will keep copyright lawyers employed for several decades. What does authorship mean in new scenarios such as these? If the author becomes someone who “merely” assembles a network of dots, and then lets you, the reader, join them up (adding and erasing as you go), can he or she be said to be responsible for the shapes that emerge? Should we now describe an author as “the curator of an ideas space”? And do we then place curators in the same category as we place “original artists”?

This question is culture-wide, addressing a curatorial spectrum from gallerists (people who identify and distinguish their own particular constellations in the total space of art history, and who thus create original resonances in that space) to rap artists with their samplers (people who fabricate new music out of the total space of existing recorded music). It addresses critics, editors, program directors, science writers, librarians, political analysts, spin-doctors, newswriters, and educators—anyone whose work is to create pattern in the great fluxes of information. Curatorship is arguably the big new job of our times: it is the task of reevaluating, filtering, digesting, and connecting together. In an age saturated with new artifacts and information, it is perhaps the curator, the connection maker, who is the new storyteller, the meta-author.

Bolter’s book may turn out to be primarily about the move away from old concepts of originality. We will stop dividing the world into “authors” and “readers,” and start to recognize instead a continuum of involvement in the writing process. We will acquire a feel for this new continuum through our growing acquaintance with computers, machines that encourage all of us to interact with information. It may well be that Writing Space does for electronic writing what Gutenberg did for print. It is fortunate to have such a detailed and inspiring overview of a new technology this early in its evolution

Brian Eno is a musician, record producer, and installation artist.