The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Word piloting or word journey?

When it comes to writing and reading, literate cultures have never had so much choice as in today’s day and age of “hypertext”.  We are faced with the choice of being captains of our own textual ships or to sit back and be taken on a journey of discovery by trained professionals that are bound by a pre-determined itinerary.  As Bolter (2001) outlines we are entering or perhaps are already in the “late age of print” and are moving towards a remediation of print just as we have seen in the past with the advent of the printing press.  With each “remediation” there are losses and gains.  One of the strengths of the current remediation to “hypertext” is the associative capacity of the technique.  Traditional print has been described as being highly linear, patriarchal, domineering, subordinative and “non natural” given that humans naturally think associatively (Coover, 1992).  There are critics of hypertext such as Birkerts (1994) and Coover (1992) that contend that the “meditative immersion” that can only come from a master author taking the reader on a journey of discovery is something that hypertext cannot reproduce.  Whether the author is truly dead, as Foucault and others claim, and society will choose to rest control back from the corpse like grip of the author or continue to give up their control and instead be lead on a journey designed and planned by the author still remains to be seen.

Bolter (2001) makes the argument that contemporary authors have already made the transition from the purely linear writing structures, such as those seen in scrolls and codexes, to a more associative writing system.  “In a modern book, the table of contents (listing chapters and sometimes sections) defines the hierarchy, while the indices record the associative lines of thought that permeate the text.” p.34.   Footnotes and endnotes have also been argued as being associative in nature.  However, this argument applies very well to text books and scientific writing.  Where the objection falls flat is when it applies to poetry, prose and novels.   Hypertext has been promoted by technophiles as being truly revolutionary in it’s ability to link ideas that are connected but different.  Thus the reader has been given the unique opportunity to explore ideas and concepts in an almost infinite flow of information. However, despite this freedom, Birkets (1994) contends that the avalanche of choice and information that is now at literate societies’ finger tips can lead to confusion.  As Coover (1992) states:

Navigational procedures:  how do you move around in infinity without getting lost?  The structuring of the space can be so compelling and confusing as to utterly absorb the narrator and to exhaust the reader.  And there is the related problem of filtering.  With an unstable text that can be intruded upon by other author-readers, how do you, caught in a maze, avoid the trivial?  How do you duck the garbage?  Venerable novelistic values like, unity, integrity, coherence, vision, voice, seem to be in danger.  Eloquence is being redefined.  “Text” has lost its canonical certainty.  How does one judge, analyze, write about a work that never reads the same way twice. p.2

The domination of the author’s will upon the reader is one of the arguments held against the more traditional form of writing.  This imposition of will is exclusive in nature whereas electronic writing is inclusive (Bolter, 2001).  Hypertext is also touted as being far more than writing in having the capacity to incorporate multi-media components such as video and audio files.  But just as all traditional writing starts out from an associative source so to does the author of hypertext confine the writing and associative links into some resemblance of order.  Thus the author’s will is still felt by the reader/writer of hypertext.  So whether modern day texts have already incorporated elements of associative thinking is really a moot point as hypertext continues to be organized and structured by the author.

One of the most vocal critics of electronic writing is (Birkerts, 1994).  Birkerts (1994) argues that the ephemeral nature of the electronic word has been described as essentially “weightless” and thus phenomenologically the word is less than absolute.  The power is turned over from the author to the machine.  Authority now rests not in the hands of an informed and educated author but in the more esoteric computer thus conferring power to a less accountable author.  One could make the argument that in the current age of collaborative writing, especially as applied to hypertext, accountability of the author cannot occur.  Who does one question when erroneous or outright falsehoods are identified in a collaboratively developed , hyper-textual document?  Who defends the ideas and concepts developed and published in a collaboratively developed, electronic medium?  Birkerts (1994) argues that one of the most significant losses that occurs between the remediation from print to hypertext is the general loss in detail.  The electronic author does not necessarily have to weigh their words but the words simply spring forth in a torrent of information, a veritable flood of information that threatens to drown the reader.   Berkerts (1994) asks the question, “…when trained reader encounters skilled writer, will that reader ever achieve that meditative immersion that is, for me, one of the main incentives for reading?”

Like a surfer that can, with training, learn to surf the monstrous super waves, perhaps consumers of hypertext can learn to navigate the wave of information that is as far away as a click.  There could be a place for both forms of writing.  Traditional print may remain in a form that allows the author to guide the reader on a journey, very much like a cruise ship, placing ones mind in the hands of the  professionally trained captain/author,  resigning themselves to a planned itinerary and destination but trading choice for guidance.  Those that choose to compose and read hypertext can rest power from the captain and steer their literary boat wherever they will however with this freedom comes with the tendency to lose ones way.  Whatever the decision the reader/writer has choice and that “can make all the difference”.


Bolter, Jay, David. (2001). Writing Space:Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print.  (Second Edition). Lawrence Erlbaum Associations, Publishers, Mahwah, New Jersey, London.

Birkerts, Sven. (1994).  The Gutenberg Ellegies:  The fate of reading in an electronic age.  A Fawcett Columbine Book, P

Coover, Roberts (1992)  The end of books. Downloaded from on November 1st, 2009.

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.29.09 at 11:00 am }

I like the image of the captain, but I think that students need to have some training before they navigate alone.

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