Salon


TODAY:

Let's Get This Straight
By Scott Rosenberg
Moore's Law of chip design gets revised -- but nobody's sure exactly how

Clicking for Godot
By Scott Rosenberg
Interactive art struggles to produce masterpieces

Table Talk
Junk e-mail: How do you make it stop?

- - - - - - - - - -

RECENTLY:

Working for Bill
By Jennifer New
A contractor dodges projectiles inside the dark heart of Microsoft
(09/25/97)

Apple's Apostates:
By Jenn Shreve
Why Mac developers love working for Microsoft.
(09/25/97)

Your boss is watching you
By Andrew Leonard
Programs like Little Brother keep an eye on office workers' Net use
(09/18/97)

Sexing the machine
By Laura Miller
Three digital women debate gender, technology and the Net.
(09/11/97)

Spam Bombers
By Andrew Leonard
Meet the software designers who have made all that junk possible.
(09/04/97)

Little crashes lead to big crashes By Andrew Leonard
Today's computer networks allow less and less "slack" for error. The author of "Trapped in the Net" says we're asking for trouble.
(08/21/97)

ARCHIVES

- - - - - - - - - -

____________________
ILLUSTRATION BY
WILLIAM DUKE

[Illustration by William Duke]

CLICKING FOR GODOT
[PART TWO: HYPERTEXT WASTELAND]


I'm reading Mark Amerika's ambitious and critically acclaimed "Grammatron" -- a work of hypertext fiction housed at a Web site. Screen after screen of black text on red background pops into my browser window:

'Interfacing,' she was quoted as saying
*criture
creature
I am
I am a machine
A writing-machine
Not this tragic dream that mourns the loss of unity

The text keeps flashing past in telegraphic chunks. After maybe 70 screens that offer you no options, nothing to click on, the site spits you out into a more conventional hypertext maze -- a collection of fragmentary paragraphs you can hop around, link by link, following some carefully limited pathways the author has shaped for you. The story that only murkily emerges -- if you're willing to hang out with "Grammatron" long enough -- follows a scientist named Abe Golam, who has invented a writing program named Grammatron and a language called Nanoscript, through a dystopian future.

Sounds familiar? Amerika's Alt-X site is a focal point for the "avant-pop" movement of artists who infuse formal experimentation with pop-culture materials. And "Grammatron" turns out to be a hypertext Mixmaster blending bleeding chunks of the work of Philip K. Dick, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. But something crucial is missing.

Even at their worst, the writers Amerika imitates have always found some means to engage you with their stories. The pulp conventions of science fiction, mystery and suspense novels are only partly decomposed in books like "Neuromancer," "Snow Crash" or any of Dick's tales. And each author's love of those conventions remains palpable even as he's picking his way through their remains. The conventions, in turn, serve their purpose; they keep us reading to find out whodunit, what the McGuffin gizmo really is and whether the world gets saved.

In hypertext fiction, too often, there's no incentive to keep reading. We begin reading any new story in a state of confusion, sorting out the cast of characters, where they are and what they're doing. In traditional fiction, a good author will dazzle us by creating a complex, carefully calibrated sequence of revelations to orient us and then sometimes disorient us again. In hypertext, the initial fog never lifts.

Like their companions in the computer-gaming world who have created story-games like "Myst" and "The Seventh Guest," hypertext authors hide the hearts of their stories behind barriers and challenge us to pass through. But the best games at least deliver a satisfying resolution, and fun along the way for those who enjoy solving puzzles. Most hypertexts are so devoted to ambiguity that they fail to communicate much of anything at all. The hypertext author does this in the name of empowering readers: They're free at last to construct texts of their own, to experience the joy of play. But we don't perceive this activity as freedom; too often, it feels like work.

The theorists of hypertext argue that they're engaged in a grand and noble project of undermining the hierarchical, domineering role of the traditional author. Hypertext, according to Amerika, is "an alternative to the more rigid, authoritarian linearity of conventional book-contained text." In their minds, hypertext authors are blasting a hole in the foundations of the patriarchy and letting The People pour into the fastnesses of culture.

But where are The People? There's only a minuscule audience for "serious hypertext fiction" -- like "Grammatron" or the many works published by Eastgate Systems, the small Massachusetts firm whose authors have long been championed in the pages of the New York Times Book Review by hypertext guru Robert Coover. The best hypertexts -- like the highlights of the Eastgate catalog, Michael Joyce's pioneering 1987 "Afternoon," Stuart Moulthrop's "Victory Garden" and Shelley Jackson's "Patchwork Girl" -- share an estimable gravity, an obsessive attention to detail and a fascination with the formal possibilities of digital narrative. They command respect. But they are unavoidably academic -- lab experiments produced by grad schools for grad schools.

"Grammatron," despite its pop trappings, displays all the worst failings of "serious hypertext fiction": It deploys listlessly abstract language on behalf of pretentious theorizing. It seems to aim for a kind of exuberant word-jazz, but its vocabulary is drawn from the sodden muck of literary theory. It thinks, in Amerika's words, that it is somehow getting language to "groove with the machine" -- but there's no groove of any kind to dance to. The interactive ideal of hypertext is an open-ended collaboration between artist's and reader's minds; the reality is a kind of hermetic literary pastime -- at worst, a form of computer-enabled intellectual masturbation -- that traps the reader in a claustrophobic cul-de-sac.

One screen of "Grammatron" candidly admits, "It's possible that you won't ever make your way into my work." That possibility doesn't seem to distress Amerika. But in an entirely separate universe of interactive art, artists are turning their attention away from arid formal experimentation and back to the fundamental question of interactive technology: How do you get an audience involved?




NEXT PAGE > I'LL TELL YOU MY STORY IF YOU TELL ME YOURS


SALON | ARCHIVES | CONTACT US | TREATS | SEARCH | TABLE TALK

DAILY | BLUE GLOW | BOOKS | COLUMNISTS | COMICS | FEATURE | MEDIA CIRCUS
MOTHERS WHO THINK | MUSIC | NEWSREAL
WEEKLY | 21ST | ENTERTAINMENT | WANDERLUST