Anarchy and Hierarchy, by A. Griscom


The Internet and Hypertext

Part III of the thesis is dedicated to the Digital Revolution. Presently, a similar bout of anarchy characterizes the structure of communication in American society. Until recently, the dominant ideology has been authored in large part by the monolithic print, cinema, radio, and televisual media analogous to the authorial British crown. And yet, hypertextual communication, specifically the Internet, is providing the battlegrounds for insurgence: individuals are now equipped to promulgate a multiplicity of voices over a massive scope with unprecedented temporal and economic ease.

A reporter in Wired magazine---the loudspeaker for advancements in the digital medium---rallies the anarchic soldiers of the digital revolution, encouraging a multi-vocal society:

The Internet, perhaps the greatest instantiation of self-organization the planet is evolving in its fractious decentralized way through The Internet Engineering Task Force, the IETF. Which means, in the cyber 90s, that the True Masters of the Universe are not freemasons, mergers-and-acquisitions specialists, or venture capitalists, but an... anarchic assembly of anyone (that's right anyone---an IETFer could be your mom, a former Soviet commissar of the culture, or even a director of marketing) who wants to be part of the technical working groups charged with creating the standards and pathways that will move the Net into the next century. In the IETF, there is a kind of direct populist democracy that most of us have never experienced (Borsook 110). (Borsook 110).

The IETF aside, Borsook indicates that the Internet is anarchic and yet there is a method to its madness --- not only within the political organization of the Internet, but within digital medium itself, and specifically, the hypertext format it employs. The Internet, like a hypertext narrative is self-contained and interactive, and every participant has a voice, and equal range, equal mobility. Whereas the pamphleteers exploded voices outward, the voices of the net are exploding inward, continually colliding and exchanging energy and rearranging each other like electrons. The democratization within the IETF exists as a microcosm of the democratization of voices within the Internet (and by extension, the democratization of lexias within a hypertextual document).

As much as print and computer technology seem in these two instances to affect communication similarly on a macrocosmic scale (at first), the two mediums are equipped, according to their linear and multi-linear formats, respectively, to disseminate radically different messages. That is, they position the author of a text in different ways.

According to [Marshall] McLuhan the invention of the press changed a tribal society into a fragmented, 'linear' society. Such a society, McLuhan believes, is undesirable. People are too individual, isolated, rational, and uninvolved. [McLuhan argues:] Print technology created the public. Electronic technology created the mass. The public consists of separate individuals walking around with separate, fixed points of view. The new technology demands that we abandon the luxury of this posture, this fragmentary outlook [and become interactive]. New electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village (Grunig 5).

McLuhan's position as an advocate of digtial, rather than print, media is not consistent, for he saw inimical and auspicious aspects of both. He is clear on one thing, however, as I shall discuss in part I: the format of a medium is everything; it shapes us subliminally. McLuhan quotes Wordsworth in The Medium is the Massage to explain this:

The eye---it cannot choose but see;

We cannot bid the ear be still;

Our bodies feel where'er they be,

against or with our will (44).

Thanks to digital communication, "the rigorous centralism [that] is the main feature of... print" (Gutenberg Galaxy 220) is becoming in the words of Borsook, "fractious and decentralized." Websites, the pamphlets of today, are not autonomous texts, but texts which feed off of, and modify, each other in the interactive network we call the Internet. McLuhan hails the potential of electronic technology in The Medium is the Massage:

Electric circuitry profoundly involves men with one another. Information pours upon us, instantaneously and continuously. As soon as information is acquired, it is very rapidly replaced by still newer information. Our electrically-configured world has forced us to move from the habit of data classification to the mode of pattern recognition. We can no longer build serially, block-by-block, step-by-step, because instant communication insures that all factors of the environment and of experience exist in a state of active interplay (63).

The printing press established texts in "black and white", as it were (Hypertext 173) Elizabeth Eisenstein asserts in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change that print is fixed: "positions once taken were more difficult to reverse. Battles of books prolonged polarization, and pamphlet wars quickened the process" (Eisenstein 326). We have sufficient evidence to suggest that we are presently experiencing a major paradigmatic shift that correlates directly to the shift from print to the digital medium. Robert Coover addresses the beginning stages of this paradigm shift in his New York Times Book Review article, "The End of Books,"

In the real world is said that the print medium is a doomed and outdated technology... Which would mean of course that the novel, too, as we know it, has come to an end... dead as god.... Much of the novel's alleged power is embedded in the line, that compulsory author-directed movement from the beginning of a sentence to its period, from the top of a page to its bottom... But true freedom from the tyranny of the line is perceived was only really possible now at last with the advent of hypertext (Coover 13).

I shall discuss the amenities and liabilities of hypertext, looking specifically at the fate of the author and of the linear narrative according to (a cursory overview of) post-structuralist theorists as well as the voices contemporary critics culled from interviews and such magazines as Wired, Harper's, Lingua Franca, HotWired, Feed, et al.

Acclimation to new media

I am interested in how this new medium and its cultural implications fit into a larger historical motif. McLuhan referred to media as extension of the human body: "The wheel is an extension of the foot... The book is an extension of the eye...Clothing, an extension of the skin..." What I find so fascinating is our rare privilege today of witnessing humanity in its awkward stage of acclimating to a new appendage. I don't know if this is an extension of our eyes or our ears or our feet or our central nervous system (probably all of the above)---or if we are acquiring wings. But whatever the case, as yet we (as a culture) are fledglings having a real time of it trying to take air. The calf, if you will, wobbles around for several hours---stretching out, practicing a swagger with a new set of knees. The pioneers and erudites excepted, most of us are just getting used to this new appendage. Trying out new laws, new software, neologisms, a new cultural paradigm---a lot of which meets vehement resistance. A whole lot is undecided. So much of the research for this thesis was in the form of interviews and articles--all spewing inconsistent projections about what this new technology may bring--how and if it will become more (or less) efficient and organized, perhaps even naturalized.

Contents Next Works Cited