Book review: Hypertext 3.0

Hypertext 3.0: Critical theory and new media in an era of globalization.
George P. Landow.
Parallax Re-visions of Culture and Society, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

This 400-page brick of a book challenges the reader, not just because it’s long, not just because it’s multidisciplinary, not just because the language is often technical, and not just because of the density of thought. It’s a challenge because it invites (and nearly requires) readers to place themselves in more than one position: as a student of communication theory, as a student of computer science, as a student of academic publishing, or as a student of literature. And as if 400 pages weren’t enough, another 20 pages of bibliography refer to print material sources and another five pages refer to electronic materials and video sources.

George P. Landow is professor of English and art history at Brown University, where he has long used hypertext in his teaching and publishing.

The Web has obviously already had a major effect on colleges, universities, and other cultural institutions, Landow says, but it has not realized many of the more utopian visions of hypertext. The limitations of our own ‘mentalware’ are more to blame than the limitations of our software, he says. “Many of us remain so deep inside the culture of the book that we automatically conceive of digital media in terms of the printed book. We base our ideas about the nature of teaching, the purpose of documents, and their relation to courses, disciplines, and universities on the mistaken assumption that electronic documents are essentially the same as printed ones. They’re not.”

Landow writes that hypertext systems have dramatically changed the roles of student, teacher, assignment, evaluation, reading list, relations among individual instructors, courses, departments, and disciplines. No wonder so many faculty find so many “reasons” not to look at hypertext, he says. “Perhaps scariest of all for the teacher, hypertext answers teachers’ sincere prayers for active, independent-minded students who take more responsibility for their education and are not afraid to challenge and disagree. The problem with answered prayers is that one may get that for which one asked, and then. .. .”

Discussions of hypertext all raise political questions, Landow says: questions of power, status and institutional change. The logic of information technologies tends toward increasing dissemination of knowledge, and so implies increasing democratization and decentralization of power. “Technology always empowers someone,” Landow says. “It empowers those who possess it, those who use it, and those who have access to it. From the very beginnings of hypertext its advocates have stressed that it grants new power to people.”

Landow says we can count on hypertext and print existing side by side for some time to come. And when the eventual shift to hypertext makes it culturally dominant, “it will appear so natural to the general reader-author that only specialists will notice the change or react with much nostalgia for the way things used to be.”

The history of the print technology and culture also suggests that, as the Web becomes even more culturally important than it already is, it will do so by enabling large numbers of people either to do new things or to do old things more easily, Landow says. The enormous number of online diaries, political and other parodies, examples of self-published fiction and poetry, and conversion tales by people with alternate lifestyles reveals that for many such a change has already taken place.

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