The Cultural Metamorphosis of the Internet:

Hypertext and Publishing in the 'Digital Culture'

(Notes regarding Communicative Convergence)


Part One


Written and translated from the Spanish original

by Marta Graupera Sanz

Proofreader: Malcolm Lawrence




1. Introduction

2. Digital environment

3. From Gutenberg page to Web page

4. Social loneliness

5. Hypertext and hyperfiction

6. Hypertext, periodical publications, research and teaching

7. Publishing facing free circulation of information

8. Online journalism. From information to knowledge?

9. Times of equivocal ending


Gutenberg pages

Web pages


"The communication code could be called the direction code, too. Communication has to be understood in a restricted sense; it does not cover the whole signification which is in a text, still less its significance; it solely designates every relationship that is enunciated in the text as addressing someone -- it is the case of 'phatic' code, in charge of emphasizing the relationship between the narrator and the reader -- or as an interchange." -- Roland Barthes, Ensayos críticos


"Imagine sailors who, far out at sea, transform the shape of their clumsy vessel from a more fishlike one. They make use of some drifting timber, besides the timber of the old structure, to modify the skeleton and the hull of their vessel. But they cannot put the ship in dock in order to start from scratch.

During their work they stay on the old structure and deal with heavy gales and thundering waves. In transforming their ship grows out of the old one, step by step -and while they are still building, the sailors may already be thinking of a new structure, and they will not always agree with one another. The whole business will go on in a way we cannot anticipate today. That is our fate." -- Otto Neurath, Foundations of the Social Sciences



1. Introduction

This research focuses on hypertext and online publishing possibilities but it bears very much in mind the cultural landscape where social, economic, scientific and technological transformations are taking place.

First I bring forward one of the main conclusions arrived at by this inquiry (the remaining ones are easy to find through the text): The present technological "leap" brings human adaptive ability into question; faced with the imbalances which arise between both of them, the need to develop our multidisciplinary competence is clear.


2. Digital environment

The screen of a computer is a strange skylight to peek not only at our own projects but also anybody else's in a curious process of "collectivist introspection", as Paul Virilio says. The computer was a working tool until it started to be connected to other computers becoming a member of a community that almost (What about "digital illiterates"?) extends the world over, a network that covers -- with high or low density -- the Earth surface. That screen is now not solely a window but an access point, too. The Internet is being understood as a place with plenty of paths leading to a panoply of various sites; one may ask what are we doing when we are moving through it and where do we start from? The beginning of a new estate of culture -- the digital one -- is being declared from numerous places and various social ambits.

A sample of those who think that the future is already present is offered to us by the ideas revealed by José B. Terceiro in his essay that has been published recently: "Socied@d digit@l. Del homo sapiens al homo digitalis." Apparently the sales records researched by this book indicate that there is considerable interest in Spain in the many subjects related to what is called the "digital society" by the author and other writers. The book has been favourably critiqued unanimously on both sides of the Atlantic. According to the author in a recent interview:

"The conversion of homo sapiens into homo digitalis, is it a matter of something which will happen in the future or is the future already here? I have struck on the expression "a present future". We are all turning into homo digitalis, consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly. The digital revolution is changing our life in every field: the cultural, the social, the economic..."

I got into the Web one day in January 1999, when Telefónica did not provide real stability. The worry generated by the uncertainty regarding links has been revealed in various forms in different stages; let us use as a sample some lines from the 'Editorial' in El país digital (1/2/1999) which also takes into account the "digital illiterates" alluded before:

"The Internet is not a new toy for a few outstripped people. It is a tool increasingly needed by more and more ventures and citizens and it has to run as smooth as silk -- not just to give satisfaction to the web users, but for the pedagogy of the rest of the citizens who have to understand clearly that the use of networks will be the border between development and poverty sooner or later."

When globalization is the topic, it is not enough to discuss the economic convergence exclusively. The "communicative convergence" does deserve a special study because nobody should get lost -- by means of individualized pedagogy -- in the snags of the "information society," (or "digital society" or "post-industrial society," or "cyberculture," or "intelligent communication society.")

Before discussing the extent and approach of this research lets inquire just a bit about some characteristics of information technologies (by the way, I'm aware of the insufficiency of this kind of study when it needs to wonder about modifications of ideas, habits, expressions and values generated by those technologies and about the contexts where they have arisen, who or what stimulated them and which rationality is ruling or articulating them, too.).

On a planetary scale, society could develop unforeseen organization levels (auto-organization levels, to be precise); it is hard to lay out these levels without resorting to Theories of Complexity. Edgar Morin notices how the technological development being sheltered by the economic "growth of growth" generates the sustainable development problem -- which has been studied by many people for some years -- and, moreover, the "bearable civilization" problem. Quality of life is still an all too often ignored question. And, if the case to consider the subject arrives, it is usually forgotten that butterfly effects are also crucial in moral individual evolution, in the -- barely linear -- "construction" of subject (or whatever the subject rests after its announced post-Kantian 'death'). As an exception let us use the following lines by J. A. Rivera:

The intraindividual butterfly effects are at least so decisive in the conformation of internal order of a person as the supraindividual ones are decisive for the institutional order.

The controversial and paradoxical situation we are going through is openly shown in the cultural ambits -- without keeping to Snow's division -- where the increment of complexity obliges to set up a new conception of knowledge to understand what the anthropologist Mª Jexús Buxó calls "the nuclear problem in our age: the articulation of techno-science and humanism". We place the background problem on record by means of the outline that Jose Luis Brea offers -- in Nuevas estrategias alegóricas -- to characterize our epistemological field starting by marking:

(...) the absence of a consistency plane able to hold up the discursive interaction.

It is that absence, the absence of a stable discourse horizon, the absence of a paradigm, which defines our position, which (...) articulates our place -- not in the history -- but in the Time: an invertebrate, demolished, bald place, where for lack of any orderly references, the register of the succession of the ways of doing, of the techné looks to have become unthinkable.

Unthinkable in the strongest sense, in the Foucaultian one (if you want). That sense referred to orders of discourse which articulate the event and, at last, delimit the fields of what's thinkable, of what's merely visible indeed.

The articulation of techno-science and humanism, the "resemantization" reclaimed by so many people, has become a basic problem in our time. Some people think it is necessary;

a new cultural design which determines the reasoning and learning forms that constitute our reality, in a society where knowledge is not anymore a reflection of the world, but from what we are able to think and not to think. (...) Under the all-inclusive title of New Technologies, the sciences and society are wondering which new forms of cultural construction of reality are introduced by biotechnology and the information and communication technologies. So, they are facing up to questions concerning the cultural invention, that is, to the design condition where idea and action are combined to build up probable social futures, in the creation of a new order for life production by means of the biotechnological intervention, and in the creation of a global cultural organization -- globalization -- which is only possible with technologies of complex telemathic networks, too.


3. From "Gutenberg page" to web page

As a precedent of the Internet, some people point out the medieval network of monasteries that spread throughout Europe and copied all of the valuable manuscripts. For many people, the revolution in process is similar to the one which arose with the invention of the printing press. "Gutenberg page" had its detractors at the beginning, just like the written manuscript had. Many centuries before the objections that were raised to the printing -- until the 18th century you can not really talk about a typographic culture properly -- manuscript writing also had detractors at the beginning: a paradigmatic case is Plato's one, particularly the position displayed by him in the Seventh Letter and in the myth on Theuth narrated in Phaedrus: the Greek philosopher's attitude towards written texts focuses on the critique of the new invention which involves the loss of the author's presence; by this absence the author's words were able to stay alive without losing the original communicative richness.

Objections disappear when the technologies that carry innovation are assimilated and, once the technological imperative (Winner) has been fulfilled, they stop being strange and become integrated into their environment. If every technological innovation implies invention, adaptation and modification of the systems of knowledge, beliefs and values, we should not disregard how cultural innovation is being orientated. Right now the Internet continues being a source and a field of misunderstandings while our perceptions and sensibility we had of towns and other physical places are changing and, in addition, the ways of interpersonal relationship and the forms to create an identity between interlocutors, so often virtual interlocutors, are being modified. Many people think proposals "of resemantization effect" are indispensable.

Nowadays we are witnessing a technological development process which is characterized by the acceleration of changes and it looks like it's leading us towards a society controlled by the mediatization ("control society" or "cybercracy") or auto-regulated and creative: a trans-national Telepolis.

One of the first European thinkers who studied the technique, Ortega y Gasset, considered the transition from some ways of relating between the human being and the exigency to be adapted to the environment by means of a technique to different ones paying special attention -- at the end of his Meditaciones sobre la técnica -- to those processes which allow "remote action". In a curious page in that work, according to Ortega, some time ago it was noticed that the "remote action" was not sufficient in a particular moment -- action made possible by the gunpowder, the magnetic needle, the printing press and the compass -- "actio in distans which is the background of present technique".

At the beginning of this century "the reality" (what is available to be collectively shared, "what is accessible" as Raymond Williams says, or, -- like systemic researchers said some years ago -- as the product of human communication) was escaping. A harsh description for the malaise at that time, indeed it is more complicated to describe the present malaise. As Alejandro Gándara so accurately and concisely put:

Via epistemology or via civilization, the conviction that there is something out there, objective and shared, is diluted in a tide of subjectivity, of constant redefinition. (...) The thought begins to wonder about what is wrong, about what is wrong everywhere and, mainly, about what is wrong inside old ideals, in the dark interior of human nature. Before there was something diaphanous, luminous and linearly perceptible out there. Now, there is something dark, indescribable, here inside. The two World Wars, beyond their congenital causes, run away with this unknown factor like an illness and, far from solving it, the conflagration will spread it like the smoke of wildfire through the century. Progress is dead, life as we have lived it till now no longer makes sense: Where do you look? Gutenberg page shines because it hides, it does not shine because it reveals.

You can say the same thing about our present malaise and the Web page, with regard to Heraclitus: the Web page shines because it hides; it does not shine because it reveals. Gándara's pages on four narrative movements refer to describing where the narrators wonder how to afford "what is out there"; in the four studied types, "the disfiguration of what's real has as a background the rupture in global terms of perception and what is perceived" (by an unmeasured attack on any configuration of what's real, that is to say, either on every iconography or as a hesitation about perception itself). At the end of this century, in philosophy and literature, there are numerous critiques of the constellation of what's real at the supraindividual and intraindividual scope, as we noticed before.

Formerly, in the Neolithic revolution and in the Industrial revolution, human energy and precision were in charge of transforming and exploiting nature. Present knowledge technologies tend to intensify the human ability to act and decide in problem solving and potential development of more complex ways of thinking. New technologies do not lead just to a new conceptualization of reality. They are agents of social and cultural production: they reconvert objects, times and physical spaces; but identities, the subjective and intersubjective references are changed, too. So, unforeseen communicative forms are favored and affect the markets, the knowledge systems, the homogeneity of life styles and the formation of hybrid cultures in the diffuse frame of migration and the configuration of plural societies.

In Meditaciones sobre la técnica in 1933 Ortega said the technology then did not have as an objective satisfying human needs any longer, but it was often generating products, processes and services that the need was artificially created for, a need that was fictitious frequently. Nowadays it's hard to affirm the technologies keep on the traditional target to satisfy needs.


4. Social loneliness

Like what is happening today, in other ages the culture moved itself in tessituras where there were some factors giving rise to social atomism (incidentally we are going to mention the position held by the sophists and the debates between individualists and cosmopolites in the Hellenistic Philosophy). The extent of this essay does not allow us to stop and study those historical milestones where, in other ways, people were already speaking about the presently hackneyed globalization. We are going to stop briefly to look at more recent features of the European civilization.

"Social loneliness" arose -- between the cracks -- with the crack of the medieval socio-symbolic system (the shared representation order of the universitas) that encouraged the schism between the public and private spheres and, as Fermín Bouza points out, "this loneliness itself does not look to be the best context to continue the individuation process favored by Modernity".

For myself, the most remarkable feature from the outline -- offered by Alejandro Gándara -- is the tide of indefinition, a tide where perhaps there flow more streams into it than into Heraclite's river, this tide which may be carrying us is a notable coincidence: the chosen narrators, all of them, start descriptions which they know -- at the beginning -- are impossible. So, they will "describe" in a quite problematic and interrogative way what's out there, or "the unknowable community", or "the reality", or whatever the case is, in case it is communicable. They notice subtly the departing ignorance of the questions of the creative process: "what do you write?" and, sometimes, "how?". Nevertheless, once being plunged into the copious page, who would care about about questions such as that?

Fiction, textuality in general, depends, in the penultimate instance (the last word is granted to the reader, according to Barthes), on the author's intention, intention that involves the reader in advance and the reader will never be "beyond" the text. There are some people who talk about the end of the style called personal, of the "distinctive individual touch"; in change, other people insist on the possibility of tracking the one who starts the communicative interaction by the ineludible evidence that anyone attending their reading will take into account in a certain way "an intention present and exercised in the text" as Thiebaut tells us:

the voice that appears in the text (...) but could be called the self's trace, not less metaphorically. Perhaps the metaphor of the trace has an added advantage: it suggests what remains is not what happened there, like the trace of a particle which once arose and was smashed in a few microseconds.

In a study on English romance from Dickens to D.H. Lawrence, Raymond Williams exposes first an author's work as coincident with the moralization which affected the eighteenth-century romance and drama in other places. In the restless period from 1847 to 1848, the British novelists explored the community because -- with the Industrial revolution -- "the meaning of living in a community" had become problematic. The problem refers to the observable facts (what is out there, as Gándara said) and to the position the observer has to take in order for the community to start being available (what is accessible: "what is desired to convoke and needs to be known"). Dickens is one of the great urban novelists who creates absolutely original ways to give an answer to a worrying situation, like Kafka and Dostoyevsky. Dickens ironically questions the technological optimism of his time and moreover points out that his society attends a perturbation with no historical comparison; but he does not limit himself to point out that "terrible disorder" and he tries to find out what is coming into form when a system (the system particular to the industrial revolution) looks to dominate and cancels the very possibility of choice and yet also precariously acknowledges relations for the benefit of the unnatural "decreasing of the sympathy" and the oversight of the common aim to try to improve the world, not less surprising for Dickens' readers.


5. Hypertext and hyperfiction

At first, there is a place the communicative convergence could call home: hypertext. In various ways, literature is understandable as the Internet through the centuries, as A. Tabuchi does. The new existing resources look to be the exact structural anticipations by authors such as Proust, Joyce and Cortázar, for example. The rupture of the linearity and the new forms of writing and reading were an essay by various authors restricted to the limits of the printed page, a long time before electronic hypertext became a reality. Such a rupture would have repercussions not only on the reader which the theory of reception describes, or on the (un)finished work or the "open" one in Eco's terms; it would also have repercussions on the increasingly complicated creative process, on the address (remembering Barthes' quote at the beginning of these pages) and the feedback which is not always reciprocal.

Hypertext consists of text and some nexus (links) which directly connects to other texts and when activated form a contextual net with neither beginning nor end, since you can jump from some texts to others as you are choosing new options to browse constantly. We are going to follow Landow considering non-textual elements, too.

Because of the nature of hypertext, being able to connect a passage of verbal discourse to pictures, maps, diagrams and sound so easily as to another verbal fragment expands the notion of text beyond what is merely verbal, I will not make the distinction between hypertext and hypermedia. With hypertext, then, I will refer to a computer medium that relates verbal and non verbal information. The electronic nexus joins both lexias which are external to a work -- for example, a commentary on it by another author -- or parallel or comparative texts, and lexias which are internal; so they create a text which is experimented by the reader as a non linear one or, to speak properly, as a multilineal or multisecuencial text.

Hypertext looks to fit some of the latest trends in philosophy which insist on dialogue, the interaction finally; notions such as center, margin, hierarchy and discursive linearity or sequentiation are abandoned or questioned. It is thought in multilineal intervention, networks, nexus, nodes. Iser's or Eco's active reader chooses their own endings and paths in the hypertext. There are people who augur the author is left without control of their work. Other people insist that someone's trace is always trackable at least, the trace of someone who once decided to address the word to others.

In addition, hypertextual literature allows the collective creation. Susana Pajares Toska points out two kinds of hypertextual fiction which are already on the web:

Two types, which are distinguished by many authors -- following Michael Joyce's proposal -- as "explorative hyperfiction" and "constructive hyperfiction". Explorative hyperfiction has got only one author and the constructive one has got many authors, requesting a collaboration by everyone and deleting the author-reader limits.

Constructive hyperfiction or authorship in collaboration works likewise on IRC or Internet Relay Chat, which are "chats" done by writing through the web where various persons can communicate simultaneously. Explorative hyperfiction has got only one author, but the reader chooses which links to set up every moment. This approximates the roles author-reader but does not confound them because the reader selects between the nexus the author has previously proposed.

There are numerous failures in explorative hyperfiction and their solutions look to rest on being more careful with the nexus, the essential characteristic of hypertext according to Jurgen Fauth. The links coordinate everything. You do not need a lot of them but they have to be excellent and it requires, in Susana Pajares Toska's opinion, that the authors acknowledge the semantic-organizative implications of the "links", that foresee these implications so the readers do not find irrelevant or badly connected "links", in such a way they lead to absolutely unexpected texts in the path of personal reading.


The Cultural Metamorphosis of the Internet:
Hypertext and Publishing in the 'Digital Culture'
(Notes regarding Communicative Convergence)
Part Two