PRINT January 1994



ALTHOUGH THE TERM “HYPERTEXT” has yet to acquire the mass-cultural (and instantly clichéd) cachet of “virtual reality,” a growing corps is treating it with a similar utopianism. Yet the two modes have interesting points of divergence: where VR eliminates language, hypertext is based entirely on the sign; where VR emphasizes a dizzying phenomenology of direct experience (or the elaborate illusion thereof), hypertext emphasizes symbolic representation; where VR is sexy and mainstream (Wild Palms, Lawnmower Man), hypertext remains the province of Brown University’s English department (just kidding). A “virtual reality,” as anyone not living in one knows by now, is a real-time computer-generated environment that single or multiple users can inhabit with the aid of such devices as Datagloves, electronic bodysuits, 3D Eyephones, and the simulation of 360° sound. These instruments immerse the user in an environment of data, which might one day represent anything from a cockpit or a surgical operating room to spreadsheet figures or a Westworld—style vacation paradise. “Hypertext” designates texts composed and displayed on computer terminals. The structures of these texts are nonlinear (or multilinear): on-screen, the text is separated from its physical existence on the computer’s hard disk, and becomes a malleable, “virtual” text. Through a click of the mouse or a touch of a key, one unit of text may be “linked” to another, or to a different text altogether: a glossary or annotation, or another work by, or influenced by, that author, or even written in the same period. Further, these texts can incorporate illustration, video, and sound, as well as music or movie samples.

In 1945, in the Atlantic Monthly, Vannevar Bush posed the developing problem of the information explosion, and the need for a means of threading through it all. Since the human mind “snaps instantly” by association from one idea to the next, Bush proposed a device called a “memex” (for “memory extender”)—a kind of giant desk packed with oodles of microform texts that would allow a reader to annotate and quickly rearrange the retrieved information. Bush, George Landow writes, was proposing “what are essentially poetic machines—machines that work according to analogy and association, machines that capture the anarchic brilliance of human imagination. Bush . . . assumed that science and poetry work in essentially the same way.”1

Virtual reality and hypertext might be seen as similarly both scientific and poetic, and both are similarly concerned with negotiating what would otherwise be an overwhelming proliferation of data. Each depends upon spatial metaphors. Much of VR’s appeal in the popular imagination derives from the primacy it grants bodily experience—it heightens one’s sensorial experience of data—and from its promise of fully realized, hyperreal alternate realities (a promise that continues to lurk behind most nonspecialist discussions of VR). The mapping of a familiar physicality onto unfamiliar systems of information transforms the digital into the tactile, reversing a process described by Jean Baudrillard over a decade ago. Hypertextual systems constitute a different kind of electronic experience, remaining largely rooted in the culture of the word. Still, a rhetoric of spatiality continues to define the structures of hypertext (“readers move through a web or network of texts”), not to mention the general proliferation of texts fostered by the computer (“a vast sea of databases”2).

Jay Bolter maintains that every writing technology produces its own “writing space,” which is also a reading space.3 The literature on hypertext repeatedly defines its flexible, unit-oriented writing space as a network that challenges the linearity of the book, questioning such elements as fixed sequence, definite beginning and end, and the ensuing perception of unity and wholeness. I’d argue that the reader continues to start, stop, and otherwise organize hypertext to produce a sense of unity or wholeness, but certainly textual authority has been displaced, if not obliterated.4 For novelist Robert Coover, an ardent hypertext enthusiast, this is a medium in which “narrative bytes no longer follow one another in an ineluctable page-turning chain. Hypertextual story space is now multidimensional and theoretically infinite.”5 The phrase “theoretically infinite” raises another question: the lack of closure may be a theoretical strength but a practical weakness. Landow concedes that “complete hypertextuality requires gigantic information networks” linked more tightly than existing networks.6 A “complete” hypertext, like the perfect simulation promised by virtual reality, remains a kind of electronic grail.

Descriptions of VR deemphasize language to evoke a kinetic, phenomenologically heightened field of bodily movement and metamorphosis. This depreciation of the linguistic is easily aligned with an all-too-prevalent discourse (I call it cyberdrool) that imagines cyberspace as a site of Dionysian antirationalist liberation. (For a brief but memorable period, cyberdrool was most easily locatable in the magazine Mondo 2000.) In this version of the future, VR actually poses itself against language, and ultimately, in its solipsistic focus on a solitary disembodied subject adrift in the cyberdelic fields, against culture and history as well. As VR-developer Jaron Lanier writes, “In virtual reality, there’s no question that your reality is created by you”—a remark that is typical of the rhetoric of subjective empowerment surrounding VR. This rhetoric inevitably yields to an almost parodic evocation of sublime transcendence: “Virtual reality is the first medium to come along that doesn’t narrow the human spirit.”7 At the same time, however, many writers have stressed the potentially revelatory power of a medium that permits absolute control over the objective conditions of subject formation. Allucquére Stone and others have convincingly argued that VR encourages a new interrogation of Being, as once unalterable conditions, such as the relation between subject and bodily identity, are suddenly rendered malleable (at least in theory).8

If VR may become an ontological testing ground, hypertext permits an exploration of some of the tenets of poststructuralism, creating “an almost embarrassingly literal embodiment” of such issues as authorship, multiply centered texts, and the active power of the reader.9 The rhetoric may be more modest than that of VR, but by emphasizing an active, creative, and free reader who not only follows but forges links between units of writing, hypertext, like VR, presents itself as a liberating “space” of empowerment. It also gives us a breakdown of barriers: between texts, between kinds of texts, between reading and writing, and between reader and writer. Yet even as it celebrates decentered discourses, multiple authorship, and multiple linearities, it still retains and extends the controlling power of the individual reading subject.

Paradoxes abound. While both VR and hypertext designers privilege the individual subject, both also make the formation of community an axiom, and both posit new public “spaces”—cyberspaces—to enhance or replace more traditional spaces and communities. VR communities will operate in a real-time, simulated environment. Users will coincide in time while their “real” bodies remain spatially distant. Hypertext communities, on the other hand, will “incorporate” (interesting word) temporally “distant” (also interesting) users, each using and annotating the same text over an indefinite and perhaps infinite period of time. The most active existing cyberspace community, the Internet, combines aspects of both of these modes, as users both “chat” in real time (albeit without full sensory interface) and post messages and responses for other users to encounter at their own pace.

Inevitably, as on the Internet, virtual realities and hypertexts move together. As real-world limits reduce the scope of VR’s ambitions, and increased power in desktop computing expands the capabilities of hypertext, the two forms will undoubtedly blur together. But right now (at least until next Tuesday) the separation between them remains. Their merger will generate a synesthesia of data experience, one that might finally establish the crucial relation between the phenomenological subject privileged by virtual reality and the acculturated, historical subject that grounds the hyper-textual exploration.



1. Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” The Atlantic Monthly 176, July 1945, pp. 101—108; and George P. Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992, p. 18.

2. Landow, pp. 11 and 22.

3. Jay David Bolter, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing, Hove and London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 1991. See also writings by Friedrich Kittler on typewriter “space.”

4. Landow. p. 102. Landow grudgingly allows the possibility of this organizing activity on the reader’s part.

5. Robert Coover, in a talk quoted by Landow, pp. 104–105.

6. Landow, p. 187.

7. Jaron Lanier. quoted in “Virtual Reality,” Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge, eds. Rudy Rucker, R. U. Sirius, and Queen Mu, New York: Harper Collins, 1992. pp. 257–59.

8. See, for example, Allucquere Rosanne Stone, “Virtual Systems,” Zone 6, 1993, pp. 609–21.

9. See Landow, p. 34.