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

July 29, 2002*: My greatest fear

Six years of writing these columns on a monthly basis have caused more than a bit of tension. Over the years I've found myself fearful of possible problems. There were times, for instance, when I finished writing the column early but didn't succeed in uploading it to the university server because of technical problems, either there or on my home computer. There were times when an inadvertent "Save", clicked in a second of impulsive thought, instead of an intended "Save as..." brought about a loss of my only copy of a page I had (almost invariably satisfactorily) completed.

There are, of course, ongoing fears which I've learned to incorporate into the essence of the columns themselves. The assumption that nobody reads these columns is, for instance, an ongoing theme which has given a certain degree of character to the Boidem. Though there's little I can do about it, just the idea of linkrot destroying my well chosen links makes me uncomfortable. On the other hand, though I can do quite a bit about it, I also admit that at least a handful of spelling errors creep into almost every column, and often I don't find these until months, or even years, later.

All of these are understandable fears which one can expect in any column, especially one that has become as long-running as this. Three fears, however, stand out well above the others, fears which penetrate deep into the possible essence of these columns themselves. The first two are somewhat related, though still clearly distinguishable from each other: that I'll run out of material to write about, and that I'll repeat myself. Actually, writing about them in the future tense, though perhaps logical, misses the point of these particular fears. What I'm fearful of is that long ago I ran out of material to write about, and that I've been repeating myself.

The third fear is the central one, the quintessential issue in the light of which all others, whether inherent or transcient, pale. I call it The Bluff of Hypertext. These columns deal with various aspects of our digital lives. They attempt to do so in a manner that makes logical use of the possibilities of hypertext. In other words, it's not only what gets said, but also how it's said. Sure, this is true for anyone who writes anything, but in this particular case I make a conscious effort to incorporate a use of hypertext into the very fabric of my writing. Is this use of hypertext absolutely necessary? Probably not - it's a choice made on my part, a sort of ongoing experiment in the possibilities of what is still a rather new genre. But once I've made the choice to be hypertextual, certain elements seem to necessarily spring into place. Choosing to use hypertext means that I'm purposefully associative. It means that I'm going to allow myself to stray, and sometimes even to pick up seemingly insignificant threads and allow them to blossom. It means, perhaps, that the title of a column isn't necessarily what the bulk of that same column is about, but instead no more than the glue that holds a handful (or more) of almost unconnected thoughts together.

But what if hypertext, fun as it may be, is only that - fun. What if when it comes to actually examining an issue it's nothing more than an excuse for not thinking things through? What if I continue to link and link, but instead of constructing an associative web that casts new light on my subject, a web that permits us to see that subject from different perspectives and to more clearly focus my own, all I'm actually doing is obfuscating the obvious? In other words, if it's fears we're dealing with this time, let's not beat around the bush raising second-rate issues. Let's sink our teeth into the true sources of Fear and Loathing.

Is a birthday column the proper place to confront a fear such as this? It's definitely not the first time I've tried to deal with it. In the thesis itself I gave critics of the promise of hypertext an opportunity to make their point. But of course what concerns me isn't the fact that these critics may have a valid point to make, but that perhaps I even agree with them. That sort of feeling could quickly remove the smile from a birthday-boy's face, or perhaps make the birthday cake sink.

In a recent article Sven Birkerts, one of the best known and most consistent critics of hypertext seems to give a good deal of credit to the possibilities of associative fiction. Admittedly, Birkerts is concerned with the differences among printed sentences, not the difference between the printed and the electronic sentence. Birkerts opens noting that in the era of the sound byte and the instant message, "one might naturally expect American fiction ... to reflect" a certain "contraction" of speech, and "the rhythms and diction patterns of our times". Instead, today's writers "are forging styles of notable complexity and of cultural, if not always psychological, nuance". But shouldn't an article such as this by Birkerts (along with my almost heavy-handedly inclusive take on it) alleviate my fears rather than accentuate them? After all, I can now use Birkerts to claim that I'm part of a legitimate branch of writing. Yet I continue to feel that the dividing lines aren't necessarily drawn where I'd like to draw them. What Birkerts is telling us, after all, is that carefully crafted writing takes many forms; that true craft isn't defined by style, but by the use of that style. And that only makes me jealous because I know that my writing gets nowhere near Birkerts' examples.

Yet another recent article, this one as well concerned not with hypertext, but instead with proper punctuation, also brings my fear into focus. And focus is perhaps the best word. Paul Robinson, in The Philosophy of Punctuation is concerned with clear thinking, and he's convinced that proper punctuation, or at least a consistent approach to punctuation, would vastly improve our writing. For Robinson, the whole purpose of writing is clarity. He thinks that we write in order to get a particular point across, and that the best way to do that is, well, by getting to the point.

So I continue to play around with the notion that the point is forever shifting, continually offering us ever-changing perspectives. I cling to a perception of hypertext that senses that multiple ways of understanding are constantly vying for our allegience, and that my writing should reflect this; that choosing only one perspective and rejecting the others would be a sign of defeat rather than of victory. I still believe that hypertext may well make good on its promise of creating a new way of reading and of understanding. But even as I allow myself to celebrate hypertext's wonderful elusiveness and its ability to play with our minds, I can't help but hear yet another voice - perhaps only one among the many, but still a voice that quite clearly makes itself heard. Even as I celebrate six full years of columns, the sound of that voice is enough to strike fear in my soul. And what is it telling me? "Nu, get to the point already."

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

Jay Hurvitz

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