What Space We're In

Stuart Moulthrop

Much discussion of spatial hypertext so far has concentrated on technical and cognitive issues, defining experimental systems and investigating the conditions of their use in fairly conventional contexts of communication and information retrieval.  There have been relatively few attempts to situate spatial hypertext more broadly within literacy and culture.  Indeed, with spatial hypertext systems still evolving and the core concept far from well established, technical considerations must take precendence; but the tenor of recent developments in information technology suggests that cultural implications are due some consideration as well.

A recent review of the 2001 Digital Arts and Culture Conference concluded thus:

"...if the idea, as the market will certainly dictate, is to have a bigger, faster, brighter text, then it is only a matter of time before literature and the computer spit at one another and part. For we already have technicians adept at combining the many media. They work for a company called reamworks, and their movies are so powerful, their effects so dazzling, that people are willing to pay ten dollars and sit stupefied, entranced, for hours in their seats."
(Keith Gessen, "Whither E-Literature?", _New Republic Online_, 5.22.01)

While this position might accurately be dismissed as another pathetic chorus of print-centric denial, its attempt to reassert the exclusive dichotomy between "literature" and "movies" raises an interesting question for spatial hypertext.  Whether impelled by market dictates or not, are we (lowly?) "technicians" really trying to produce a "bigger, faster, brighter" version of text and textuality?  Or could spatial hypertext be allied to a more radical and sophisticated agenda?  To take this question to its root: what does Tim Berners-Lee mean when he describes "a *space* where anything could be linked to anything"--and is that space in any way commensurate either with traditional cinema, or (more interestingly) with the spatial simulations of computer-generated imaging (CGI)?

It may seem obvious that Berners-Lee uses "space" in its mathematical sense: a plenum of possible locations or values, an abstract representational system that may not be as far from William Gibson's hallucinatory "cyberspace" as we would like to believe.  Meanwhile Hollywood's obsession with CGI increasingly yokes this abstract, polydimensional concept into the service of naive photographic realism, despite such interesting departures as "The Matrix" and "Time Code," to say nothing of experimental work such as David Blair's "Wax."  By elaborating upon more complex, diverse, and abstract notions of space, spatial hypertext may offer a crucial third way between the constraining, relatively one-dimensional regimes of print and cinema.  By offering tools with which people can engage this abstract space, hypertext developers may provide the conditions for emergence of a new literacy.  It seems clear, however, that this development will be met with significant resistance from entrenched market interests; which may be the strongest reason why workers in the field of hypertext need to situate their endeavors in larger social and historical contexts.