Rhetorics of the Web: Hyperreading and Critical Literacy

(Published in Page to Screen: Taking Literacy Into the Electronic Era, Ilana Snyder, ed. (New South Wales: Allen and Unwin, 1997).

Nicholas C. Burbules
Department of Educational Studies

University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign
One of the perennial questions about reading on the Internet, particularly in reading hypertexts (Burbules and Callister, 1996a; Snyder, 1996), is whether this mode of reading is something new, or whether it is the same reading, involving the usual skills and strategies, simply being exercised in a new medium - whether, indeed, hypertext itself is even something new, or simply an application in the digital domain of attempts to deconstruct linear narrative that have existed in literature for centuries.

This way of framing the question, as a choice between "new" reading or "the same" reading, is unhelpful from the start. Reading is a practice, and as such it partakes of the contexts and social relations in which it takes place; significant differences in those contexts and relations mean a change in the practice. The act of reading on a computer screen is not the same as reading out of a book; the pragmatics of reading - the speed of our reading, when we pause, how long we can concentrate, how often we skip over material or jump back and reread what we have read before, and so forth - are clearly going to be different, and these differences will have an effect on the ways that we interpret, understand, and remember what we read (Bruce, 1995).

At the same time, there must be some continuity between this emergent practice and other, related practices with which we are familiar - it is reading, after all. Hence questions about whether it is "new" or "the same" miss the point, which is to analyze at the concrete level the ways in which familiar elements of reading have a role to play in "hyperreading" (Burbules and Callister, 1996a), and the ways in which they need to be reinterpreted in light of the changing pragmatics of reading in hypertext environments such as the World Wide Web. The volume of information that can be accessed, the speed with which it can be accessed, the structure of the Web as a series of interlinked textual points between which one moves with the click of a "link," are not the same (despite our use of familiar metaphors, like "pages," to describe them) as with other texts.*

Printed texts are by nature selective and exclusive. Any page, any volume, can only contain so many words; it can refer to other texts, but accessing those involves activities of reaching to a shelf, or purchasing the book, or going to a library, and so on; activities that are not themselves reading, activities that require energy, time, and sometimes money that a reader may not have to spare. Hypertexts on the Web are by nature inclusive: texts can be almost any size one wishes; any text can be linked to a virtually unlimited number of other texts on-line; the addition of new links does not in any significant way detract from the text at hand; and accessing any of these textual links requires little time or effort.**

The key element in this hypertextual structure is the link. In this essay I consider some of the different things that a link can be; I explore some of the ways in which a linked textual environment works, within the practice of hyperreading; and I claim that hyperreading can promote a significant kind of critical literacy, once the apparently neutral character of a "link" has been problematized. My hope is to invert the order of how we normally think about links and information points, nodes, or texts: usually we see the points as primary, and the links as mere connectives; here I suggest that we think more centrally about links - as associative relations that change, redefine, and provide enhanced or restricted access to the information they comprise.

What is a link?

The significance of links within a hypertextual environment is often underestimated; the textual points or nodes are taken as givens and the links are regarded simply as matters of preference or convenience. Their ease of use makes them appear to be merely shortcuts. They are seen as subservient to the important things: the information sources that they make available. Their speed in taking a user from one point to another makes the moment of transition too fleeting to be an object of reflection itself; the link-event becomes invisible. Their familiarity can be deceptive, and I wish to discuss three important aspects of links that need to be brought to the surface in order to counteract their apparent naturalness.

The first is that, although all links in a hypertext work in the same way, involve the same act (clicking on a highlighted word or icon), and result in broadly the same result (a new screen appearing), all links are not the same, and do not imply the same type of semic relation. Below I will describe a menagerie of links, coding these different types in terms of some standard categories from rhetoric. Here I simply want to make the point that links are not all of the same type, and that selecting and following any particular line of association between distinct textual points involves a process of inference or interpretation about the nature of the association this link implies. Sometimes this association will be one's own idiosyncratic way of making sense of the connection; sometimes it will be prefigured by certain conventions that have a familiar significance (such as the nature and purpose of footnotes) within the context where we encounter the link; sometimes it will be one's attempt to guess at the reason why the hypertext designer/author made exactly this link in this location between these two items.

This leads to a second point, which is that in one's ordinary encounters with links, they are already made. Readers can certainly design/author their own hypertexts, writing their own texts as well as incorporating or modifying material from other textual sources as well; and, increasingly, Web browsers will allow readers to add their own customized links to the hypertexts they encounter that have been designed/authored by others. Nevertheless, the initial contact users have with hypertext - and for most, even now, the only contact - is with materials created by unknown persons whose reasons, biases, motivations, and credibility are almost entirely beyond their awareness. The usage and placement of links is one of the central ways in which the tacit assumptions and values of the designer/author are manifested in a hypertext - yet they are rarely considered as such.

Third, and at a more subtle level, the act of a link is not simply to associate two givens (Burbules, 1996). Beyond this, links change the way in which material will be read and understood: partly by virtue of the mere juxtaposition of the two related texts (How is a jump from a page on teenage drug use statistics to a page on rock music going to affect how the rock music page is read?); and partly by the implied connection that a link expresses - though it is far from inevitable that the connection a designer/author intends is the one that readers will necessarily draw. Moreover, it is worth noting that links are (generally) only one-way: of course one can return from a page visited to the page from which the link originated, but the semic significance implied by the link from A to B does not necessarily accompany the return from B to A; nor is such a relation, to the extent that it does exist, necessarily reciprocal.

The link, then, is the elemental structure that represents a hypertext as a semic web of meaningful relations. Every text, or set of texts, can be read hypertextually (what I have been calling "hyperreading"); this involves the reader making connections within and across texts, sometimes in ways that are structured by the designer/author (for example, following footnotes or quotations), but often in ways determined by the reader. In on-line texts, links define a fixed set of relations given to the reader, among which the reader may choose, but beyond which most readers will never go. Moreover, links do not only express semic relations but also, significantly, establish pathways of possible movement within the web space; they suggest relations, but also control access to information (if there is no link from A to B, for many users the existence of B may never be known - in one sense, the link creates B as possibility). The assumptions and values implied by links, where they allow one to travel and where they do not, and the boundaries tacitly limiting this particular semic space will appear for most readers invisible; or, to the extent that readers do recognize that such choices have been made, they will be regarded as authoritative, since in most cases the ability to create such pages - the knowledge of the code - will attach a certain status to the invisible author, as well as the presumption that one who knew enough and cared enough about the topic to create the hyperdocument must have greater than average expertise on the subject. Now, of course, these assumptions are not inevitable, and many readers will have a more skeptical nature; a few will know as much or even more about the subject than the hypertext designer/author does; and still others will encounter particular links that they find problematic, and so become more generally discerning in not taking other links for granted. On the other side, as more and more persons do develop the skills to create such documents - or as new generations of HTML editing/word processing software make their creation a seamless part of the text creation process itself - the aura of credibility of any particular hypertext on the Web will be diminished, since there will almost certainly be more garbage than work of quality in this Brave New Self-Publishing World (Burbules and Bruce, 1995: Callister and Burbules, 1996).

What is different about reading or writing a web?

The conventions of reading, like the conventions of writing, have grown out of the structure of sentences flowing into paragraphs, paragraphs flowing into pages, pages followed by other pages. These conventions began with scrolled parchment, and were later adapted to the codex volume (Bolter, 1991): they assume a fundamentally linear and hierarchical organization of information, with passage following passage in a sequence governed by (a) relative importance, formalized in the discipline of the Outline, and (b) the narrative structure of argument, formalized in the discipline of the Syllogism. These two disciplines have constituted the primary form and rhetoric of academic writing, in particular, for centuries in the West. There are texts, and styles of writing, that resist these disciplines, and contemporary poststructural theories in particular have directly criticized them. Nevertheless, the force of these habits is so strong that most readers tend to impose such a pattern on textual material in the process of reading, even when the content is resistant to it.

It is not clear how these habits will now begin to change with the spread of hypertextual materials; but there is nothing about the form of such materials that insures more perspicuous readings or new ways of organizing information. Yet we see a great, sudden enthusiasm that new technologies, including the capabilities of hypertext, will usher in a wave of educational innovation and reform (Means, 1994). In part, this enthusiasm is understandable, for web-like textual systems are much more flexible than traditional resources, such as books: they can accommodate all the textual forms that paper and print can, and more. Where text is linear, hypertext can be lateral as well. Where traditional conventions of writing and reading depend on (or create artificially) hierarchies of importance, hypertext can also represent more complex, "rhizomatic" relationships between ideas (Burbules and Callister, 1996a). Where traditional text depends upon the disciplines of the Outline and the Syllogism, hypertext opens up the additional textual possibilities of Bricolage and Juxtaposition: assembling texts from pieces that can be represented in multiple relations to one another. These two new disciplines, it should be seen, are still disciplines themselves, contrasting in certain respects to the traditional pair (Outline versus Bricolage; Syllogism versus Juxtaposition), but as supplements to them, not necessarily replacements for them. Bricolage and Juxtaposition, more suited in some ways to the forms of hypertext, less linear, more lateral, have their own advantages and disadvantages, as the Outline and Syllogism do.

In general, then, hypertext seems to add dimensions of writing, and to that extent may encourage new practices of reading as well: ones that might prove more hospitable to alternative, nontraditional points of view and more inclusive of cultural difference. Yet all of this remains to be seen; the development of new practices of reading, as I have stressed, depends upon much more than just changing characteristics of text - indeed, traditional text can be read hypertextually and hypertexts can be read quite traditionally.

Early indicators of such a new orientation to textual materials are mixed at best. A few fairly typical reactions to hypertexts suggest, far from a new critical approach to hyperreading, a much more sobering image of the future.

The first element is surfing.* We see this phenomenological orientation not only to on-line texts, but to other multi-channel resources as well (remote-controlled cable television, pop radio stations with push-button station-shifting, CD sampling, leafing through ad-laden glossy magazines, etc.*). With a surfeit of stimuli competing for people's attention, they are, on the one hand, becoming more adept at screening information very quickly, making rapid judgments about whether it is desirable, and "parallel processing" different materials simultaneously. On the other hand, their capacities for sustained attention to any single textual source are affected as a consequence. Moreover, in a competitive market for time and attention, we can expect a premium to be placed on the catchy, instantly appealing "hook," rather than such interest or subtlety as can only emerge over time. The content of textual materials and media is being changed with the assumptions that interest must be seized and held quickly or an audience will scroll past without stopping, and that few readers are going to be willing or able to follow the text closely all the way through from start to finish. This leads to an increasing fragmentation of content. Again, these trends have been at work for a long time, in popular culture, in the political sphere, and elsewhere - my analysis here is hardly unique or original. But the structure of hypertextual (and multimedia) resources on the World Wide Web will take shape, is already taking shape, in line with such readerly dispositions.

Second, and related to this first point, is a growing consumer orientation toward information. The habits of mind encouraged by mainstream media (most newspapers, magazines, and television news and documentaries) have promoted a certain leveling, in most people's minds, of all sources of information. A generalized suspicion of traditional authorities and the emergence of fictionalized, hybrid news/entertainment features has tended to blur distinctions of relative credibility and has made all sorts of information merely grist for the mill of gossip, sensationalism, or opinion formation. As a result, the processes of selection, evaluation, and interpretation that develop information into knowledge and understanding are atrophying for many readers (or are not being developed in the first place). We see this trend epitomized in the Web, and discussions around the Web, which, as Marshall (1996) points out, tend to conflate "information" with "knowledge." The bulk of the Web is organized around information sources: facts, statistics, lists, charts, visual data, and so forth. Once accessed, it is for the reader, in most cases, to judge what it means, or if indeed it means much of anything at all. Unfortunately, this second-order reflection is discouraged by the leveling effect that puts all information points at the same level of accessibility and all designer/authors at the same prima facie level of credibility. Links, once again, are part of what can turn information into knowledge, suggesting causal associations, category relations, instantiations, and so forth; but when a link is not evaluated as such, an opportunity to translate information into knowledge of some sort is lost. Hence we need an alternative analysis that highlights the cognitive importance and potential of links (Jones and Spiro, 1995).

Third, an intimate connection needs to be drawn between general usage of computers, including Web browsers as well as other applications, and the use of computers specifically for playing games. For many users, especially among the generation of younger users who are growing up with these technologies, many of one's first experiences with computers are typically taken up with playing electronic games. This experience develops certain orientations to the machine. Some of these can be considered beneficial from the standpoint of developing into an autonomous, proficient user of the technology generally: technical skill with keyboard and cursors; learning to deal with complex environments; developing navigational skills and the ability to explore unfamiliar pathways; becoming comfortable with unforeseen obstacles; and adopting an experimental, trial-and-error orientation to the unexpected and difficult. Other consequences of adopting a "game-like" orientation to new technologies may be less beneficial from the standpoint of developing into a critical, discerning user: having a certain trivializing attitude toward what is encountered within virtual space (including particularly, but not only, violent events); a paradoxical ability to focus for extended periods of time on game-like activities, but a diminishing capacity to concentrate on less stimulating projects; and coming to accept a certain taken-for-grantedness in the terrain and structures of tasks, viewed as simply the parameters of another computer challenge. To the extent that other computer software, and particularly the operations of the Web, have come to adopt some similar game-like programming elements, their use can be intrinsically "fun" and interesting (for example, current graphics programs for drawing and painting) - but they may also lend to other activities of writing, drawing, and reading the attitudes and habits of thought developed within game environments, many of which reinforce a "surfing," casual, uncritical approach to computers and what one creates (hence the use of the Internet, in certain cases, for pornography and for writing or acting out violent fantasies within a "safe" virtual space, as if these were without serious consequence). Part of this uncritical approach involves using links without reflecting upon them.

What are some different types of links?

Developing a more reflective and critical approach to the WWW and information found on it includes learning to read the subtle and not-so-subtle implications that links make through association. A thoughtful hyperreader will ask questions about why links are made from certain points and not others; where those links lead; and what values are entailed in such decisions. But beyond this, links create significations themselves: they are not simply the neutral medium of passing from point A to point B (Burbules, 1996).

Part of developing this critical discernment, I want to suggest, is to consider how links are tools of rhetoric (for alternative treatments of this subject, see Brent, n. d., and Lanham, 1993, pp. 127-129). In the same way that links carry readers from text to text, so also do tropes or other rhetorical turns of phrase associate words and concepts (in fact, "metaphor" derives from the Greek words to "carry over"). By examining a menagerie of such tropes, I want to illustrate a kind of analysis that could be carried further: I call this a menagerie because the list of items I am discussing is not meant to be systematic or exhaustive; indeed, there can be no exhaustive list of tropes, because they are artifacts of the creative potential inherent in language itself (Lanham, 1991). But as examples, I hope that they can help us to rethink links as something quite different from what they appear to be.

Metaphor. The term "metaphor" is potentially confusing, because it is sometimes used to refer to tropes and figurative language generally, and sometimes to one particular type of trope. In the narrower sense, metaphor is a comparison, an equation, between apparently dissimilar objects, inviting the listener or reader to see points of similarity between them while also inviting a change in the originally related concepts by "carrying over" previously unrelated characteristics from one to the other. Like simile, metaphor asks us to see one thing as another: "my beloved is a rose," "the city is a cesspool," "school is jail." Note that, like Web links, these relations tend to be predominantly unidirectional, though the second term is changed to some degree by the relation as well.

Web links can be read as metaphors when apparently unrelated textual points are associated: a link from a page listing Political Organizations to a page on the Catholic Church might cause a sense of puzzlement, or outrage, or insight - or it might be taken for granted unreflectively - but considered as a metaphor it might make a reader think about politics and religion in a different way.

Metonymy. A second trope, often paired with metaphor as comprising the two overarching forms of figuration, is metonymy: an association not by similarity, but by contiguity, relations in practice. Baseball and football have affinities by both being sports; baseball and hot dogs have a metonymic affinity only because in American culture they often appear together (it would be possible to imagine that, say, hamburgers would be the food typically eaten at baseball games instead).

A Web link, almost by definition, has the potential to become metonymic, with repetition. Most users do not have to have it explained any longer that clicking on a pentagon-shaped icon will take them "home," that is to the index or entry-page of a set of interlinked pages. The icon could be, for example, a pyramid shape just as easily, and the language of return would be less domestic, and more vertically connotative. A page labeled "Vacation Spots" may take one to information about "How to Avoid Pickpockets." On a broader scale, the increase of clickable icons sponsored by private companies, crowding the screens of pages that have nothing to do with their product, creates a metonymic space that continually reminds the user that the Web is for sale, and that commercial interests (the fastest-growing category of Web page producers, by far) underwrite more and more of what is presented there.

Synecdoche. Other tropes have a more specific, narrowly defined function: synecdoche involves figurations where part of something is used as a shorthand for the thing as a whole or, more rarely, vice versa: "the mustache came back to the bar and asked for another beer; he already had a six-pack inside of him." In the context of Web links, this trope is particularly influential in identifying, or suggesting, relations of categorical inclusion: a list of "Human Rights Violations" may include links to pages dealing with corporal punishment in schools, or vice versa.

This relating of categorical wholes to particular instances, or of parts to wholes, is a matter of key importance. The power to register superordinate categories to which particulars are subsumed is a special way in which conceptual and normative leverage is exercised over how people think. Because different categorical wholes are always possible, clustering and organizing available instances in different ways, and because identifying and adjudicating particulars as instances is a way of regulating them, such determinations need to be recognized as such and brought into question. Links make such associations, but do so in a way that often is not made problematic: yet because such categorical links are often the gateway through which access to that information is controlled, clustering and relating items in one way rather than another is more than a matter of convenience or heuristic - it becomes a method of shaping and restricting how people think about a subject.

Hyperbole. One of the more familiar forms of figuration may be hyperbole, exaggeration for the sake of tropic emphasis (or its opposite, understatement for the same effect): "my office was flooded with mail" (or, for the opposite, "it was a little warm in Egypt when we visited"). Anyone who spends much time browsing Web sites will recognize these as part of the basic vocabulary by which designer/authors seek to attract attention to their handiwork. But beyond this, and at a more subtle level, the dynamics of the World Wide Web are essentially hyperbolic (starting with its name): there is a tacit implication with each collection, each archive, each search engine, of a degree of comprehensiveness beyond its actual scope. For all its wealth and complexity, the Web comprises only a fraction of culture, society, and politics, world wide; its omissions are often quite glaring, but nothing in its self-descriptions, or its link attributes - "Movie Guide," "Dining in San Francisco," and so on - suggest that what is not included may be more important than what is.

Antistasis. A less-familiar trope involves the repetition of a word - the "same" word - in a different or contrasting context ("whenever I fly in an airplane I feel trapped, as if I were a fly in a bottle"). Many Web links work in this way: using a particular word or phrase as a pivot point from one context to a very different one. Key-word search engines are based almost entirely on this principle. For example, in reading an on-line article describing someone's vacation to San Francisco, the term "North Beach" might be linked to a page of information about Italian Restaurants, on another to strip bars, and on another to the Beat Poets from the 1960s; the "same" North Beach in one sense, but in another sense very different ones, separated in time and spirit. The effect of such links, especially when the differences in context and significance are not made explicit, is to put all phenomena within the same semic space, eliding time, space, and discursive context, making all these information points simply grist for the contemporary reader.

There is a metonymic element at work here as well; as in those encyclopedias or calendar programs that connect together everything that happened on a particular day in history ("September 24: on this day, the President signed the Voting Rights Act into law; the Baltimore Orioles beat the New York Yankees 4-2; the movie 'Singing in the Rain' opened in Los Angeles; a housewife in Akron, Ohio won the Betty Crocker Cookoff with her recipe for Upside-Down Blueberry Cake; in Pakistan government troops used clubs to disperse a crowd of protesters; a panda bear in the Peking zoo became the first to give birth in captivity; etc."). As noted previously, one of the primary effects of the Web is such juxtaposition of apparently unrelated points of information and reduction of all to the same surface level of significance: a bricolage of elements, mixing the momentous and the trivial, the local and the global, the contemporary and the historic; inviting multiple - and frequently untestable - interpretations of significance that can be as personal and idiosyncratic as one wishes. As such points of information all pivot around a common date, or a particular location, or a given word, they are brought into an association that may, from different perspectives, seem arbitrary or trivial, or on the other hand meaningful and explanatory; at the same time, the pivotal word or concept shifts and broadens in significance. Antistasis invites such connections by invoking "the same" in a way that reveals difference.

Identity. It may seem strange to include identity as a trope, but it is useful here to include it as a companion and contrast to antistasis. In associations of identity, the "same" linking point is used to highlight points of commonality, not difference. Where other tropes, such as metaphor or simile, invite comparisons of similarity across different items; identity denies difference and emphasizes equivalence ("the woman who came into the office this morning is the surgeon who operated on my son last year"). Such relations typically depend on realist assumptions about co-referentiality or on logical tautologies; but here I want to emphasize the tropic effect of such assertions in practical contexts, including the Web.

Unlike antistasis, which tends to highlight the ways in which terms or concepts change significance in different contexts, identity tends to hypostasize meanings, to freeze them, by suggesting the resistance of core meaning to changing context. In the context of the Web, such associations tend to draw lines of connection through pages, from different people or institutions, different cultures, or different countries, as if these reference points established a unifying net that spans the surface multiplicity of Web content and contexts. Beneath the particular instantiations of such an association is an underlying figure of interwoven unity and commonality; one image of the Web, but one that excludes and obscures at least as much as it highlights.

Sequence and cause-and-effect. These tropes, too, could be given a very literal and nonfigurative interpretation; that they indicate real relations, not simply allusive ones. But without engaging that dispute here, there is an effect of such associations, whether based on "real" relations or not, that may be indistinguishable from the reader's side. Links that suggest "this and then that" or "this because of that" (for instance, the rock music/drug use example mentioned earlier) do much more than simply associate ideas or information points; they assert, or imply, beliefs about the world outside of the Web.* But because they do not specify or explain such connections, but simply manifest them, they are more difficult to recognize and question; they are simply followed, in many cases, carrying the reader with them to inferences that often could be drawn quite differently, or could be criticized and rejected.

Catechresis. This trope is in some ways the most interesting of them all. Though sometimes characterized as a "far-fetched" metaphor, or as a strict misuse of language ("the belly of the river," which I just made up at random), catechresis is the recognition that such apparent "misuses" are how many tropes originally begin - and that these novel, strange instances might spark reflections just as revealing and delightful as those one recognizes more readily (if a river can have a mouth, why not a belly? - perhaps the belly of the river rumbled - perhaps it is the point at which the river bends - perhaps it swelled, pregnant with fish). At a deeper level, catechresis is the originary form of changes in language generally: "far-fetched" uses of familiar words in a new context; slang; accidental malapropisms; street patter that purposely uses coded terms to mislead authorities ("horse" for heroin, etc. ) - over time, such uses become familiar and normalized, become "literal" (is "the hands of a clock" metaphorical or literal, today? (see Burbules, Schraw, and Trathen, 1989)).

In the context of the Web, catechresis becomes a trope for the basic working of the link, generally: any two things can be linked, even a raven and a writing desk, and with that link, instantaneously, a process of semic movement begins; the connection becomes part of a public space, a community of discourse, which, as others find and follow that link, creates a new avenue of association - beginning tropically or ironically, perhaps, but gradually taking its own path of development and normalization. It could be that, before long, a new word processing will be called, jokingly, "Raven"; or someone will hand-carve a desk, made with black wood, using bird shapes as a decorative feature; or the word "raven" will be used casually to refer to office furniture in general ("I wish these ravens would fly up here themselves so I didn't have to call the movers"). Far-fetched or not, such developments are indistinguishable from examples that we do not see any longer as "far-fetched" at all. Two key points follow: first, we never can know which uses will become accepted and standardized, so it is impossible to separate in any strict way proper uses from misuses (it may be simply a judgment made from within a particular time frame); second, the Web, because of its global and cross-cultural span, because of its linked architecture, and because it currently requires most pages to be filtered into and through a common language, English, will become (is already becoming) a major new avenue in which malapropisms, slang, and far-fetched associative links will become familiar and, before long, normalized.

What does it mean to hyperread critically?

I am using the language of tropes, tropically, to describe different sorts of links in order to highlight their variety and non-neutral signification. I want links to be seen as rhetorical moves that can be evaluated and questioned for their relevance. They imply choices; they reveal assumptions; they have effects - whether intentionally or inadvertently. Judging links, then, is a crucial part of developing a broader critical orientation to hyperreading: not simply to follow the links laid out for us, but to interpret their meaning and assess their appropriateness (on such critical Web literacy, see also Bigum and Green, 1993 and Peters and Lankshear, 1996).

What I have called the disciplines of Outline and Syllogism have their own sort of deceptive naturalness: as if information had an inherent organization to which it must fit; as if good arguments necessarily always lead in one way. These disciplines, so much a part of writing and reading generally, imply tacit values and assumptions with which critical reflection may find question. The disciplines of Bricolage and Juxtaposition - more typical, I have suggested, of the rhizomatic character of the Web and the way links are established within it - may appear more undisciplined, offering more latitude for interpretation and less authorial prerogative on the part of the designer/author. However, exaggerating this difference is mistaken both ways: on the one hand, because the Outline and the Syllogism are just as much rhetorical forms as are metaphor or hyperbole; and, on the other hand, because Bricolage and Juxtaposition imply just as much responsibility for the selection and ordering of information in particular ways, inviting certain interpretations and excluding others.

The credibility of designer/authors, then, is continually open for question and challenge by hyperreaders, not only through the standard criteria of expertise, impartiality, and other informal standards of credible authority - important as these are - but also, now, as creators of a semic system: their own pages initially, but then also the larger semic web from which their pages draw connections and to which they provide (or restrict) access. This latter sense of "credibility" goes beyond simple authority in the subject matters at hand, to responsibility for the particular links that they create, where and how they create them, and the larger network of information sources to which they are related. An assessment of personal credibility or responsibility becomes implicated, then, in a larger assessment of the ways in which the Web works. In order to carry out such assessments, readers need to be discouraged from a simple consumer orientation to the Web; to learn to distinguish simple information from linked information, which (as I hope is clear by now) implies a host of other assumptions and values; and to resist and suspect the seductive character of multimedia Web design, much of which (such as animated icons, snatches of music/Muzak playing in the background of Web pages, or links that flash on and off) has more to do with attracting and holding the flagging attention span of casual users than with communicating anything useful.

A crucial aspect, I would argue, of developing this capacity for critical hyperreading is to learn about the mechanics of Web design/authoring itself. Just as specialists in other fields (from poetry to acting to political speech writing) can be the sharpest critics of other practitioners because they know the conventions, tricks, and moves that establish a sense of style and elicit particular effects in an audience; so also should hyperreaders (whether or not they actually design/author material for the Web themselves) know what goes into selecting material for a page, making links, organizing a cluster of separate pages into a hyperlinked Web site, and so forth. The more that one is aware of how this is done, the more one can be aware that it was done and that it could have been done otherwise. This discloses the apparent "naturalness" or invisibility of such designer/author choices and grants the hyperreader the opportunity to stand outside the particular forms of information available to question, criticize, and imagine alternatives to them. Links are made, not givens; and they are made by specific individuals and groups having their own assumptions, prejudices, and limitations.

Another dimension of this critical reading is to recognize that however flexible a structure the Web might be, it is still a structure with particular organizational and connective features. For one thing, these will not be equally hospitable to all cultural groups and individuals; a medium always advantages certain voices and perspectives and disadvantages others. The Web is no different. Moreover, to the extent that the structure of the Web is the outgrowth of certain A.I. (artificial intelligence) assumptions about the way thinking works (or should work), the Web will not simply represent externally the way (certain) people think; ironically, and significantly, it will have feedback effects that influence and alter the way people think - the tool we have created to serve us actually shapes us in return. To the extent that users can become aware of this, it can become a choice or locus of resistance (for example, by pointing out these structural features and perhaps playing them off against themselves).

Finally, critical hyperreading also includes an apprehension of the limits of any organization of information. As large and inclusive as the Web is, important things to know or care about are not included in it: and this will be true no matter how "World Wide" the Web becomes.* Because the Web is a complex, interlinked semic network, one can move almost infinitely within it without ever encountering an explicit "edge" or limit: like physical space itself, the Web curves in upon and contains itself. Yet even though there are no edges, there are limits‚ limits which are therefore very difficult to determine from the inside (Burbules, 1996). It is a special skill of hyperreading to be able to recognize this, to imagine what is not or may not be there (the dog that does not bark), to read the absences as well as the presences of information - in short, to think differently, to be able to stand outside the particular set of associations and assumptions that define the information space one occupies. Every link excludes as well as includes associative points; every path leads away from other avenues as it facilitates one passage; every trope conceals as it reveals. Appreciating all of this is a feature of critical reading generally; yet because of the apparent inclusiveness of the Web and because of the apparent neutrality of the associations it establishes, such an awareness needs to become a particular virtue of hyperreading. Given such capabilities, the Web can provide to readers an enormous opportunity for discovery and synthesis. Given the lack of such capabilities, the Web can be a frightening medium of manipulation and distortion - all the more effective for its flashy, user-friendly facade.*


* Here, as in other work, I am using the word "text" broadly, to encompass as well other sorts of information media (sound, video, graphics), all of which can be "read." A more complete treatment of "hyperreading" will need to address the related, and distinctive, aspects of reading these different materials; as well as how one integrates information from different media sources.

** However, for users accessing the Web via commercial service, and using a modem, there is a non-trivial cost difference, compared to those of us who have the privilege of free, unlimited access. There are significant equity issues implied by these different levels of access (see Burbules and Callister, 1996b and Burbules and Callister, forthcoming).

* It was suggested to me by Noel Gough that "surfing" is a term that alludes to a particular group of users, particularized by gender, class, region, and culture; he suggests an alternative term, "cruising," for the same phenomenon (which, of course, alludes to a quite different group). That term, unfortunately, is particularized in its own way, too - as any such slang term probably will be. The point, in the end, is not to find the perfect term, but to realize the potential slant of any particular term one might use. Thanks to Noel for raising this crucial concern.

* Or, as is becoming more and more prevalent, doing several of these at once.

* Yes, there is such a thing.

* The question of globalization and the spread of the Web to become a medium in which more and more cultural groups and individuals are trying to find a space to express themselves makes the question of distorting or slanted content of growing importance.

* Previous versions of this essay were presented at Cowan University and Deakin University, Burwood, in Australia. Thanks to participants in those seminars for feedback that helped me to improve this essay. Thanks especially to Ilana Snyder for her helpful suggestions.


Chris Bigum and Bill Green, "Technologizing literacy: or, interrupting the dream of reason," in Allan Luke and Pam Gilbert, eds., Literacy in Contexts (New South Wales: Allen and Unwin, 1993), 4-28.

Jay David Bolter, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing (Hillsdale, N. J.: Erlbaum, 1991).

Doug Brent, "Rhetorics of the web: Implications for teachers of literacy," available on-line (no date). The URL is: <http://www.ucalgary.ca/~dabrent/webliteracies/pointer.html

Bertram C. Bruce, "Twenty-first century literacy," Technical Report #624, Center for the Study of Reading, University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign (November 1995).

Nicholas C. Burbules, "Aporia and knowledge: Passages of learning," Keynote address to the Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia (October 1996), manuscript.

Nicholas C. Burbules and Bertram C. Bruce, "This is not a paper," Educational Researcher, Vol. 24 No. 8 (1995): 12-18.

Nicholas C. Burbules and Thomas A. Callister, Jr., "Knowledge at the crossroads: Alternative futures of hypertext environments for learning," Educational Theory, Vol. 46 No. 1 (1996a): 23-50.

Nicholas C. Burbules and Thomas A. Callister, Jr., "Access to new educational technologies: Democratic challenges," forthcoming Critical Forum.

Nicholas C. Burbules and Thomas A. Callister, Jr., "Issues of access and equity for new educational technologies," Insight (1996b).

Nicholas C. Burbules, Gregory Schraw, and Woodrow Trathen, "Metaphor, idiom, and figuration," Metaphor and Symbolic Activity, Vol. 4 No. 2 (1989): 93-110.

Thomas A. Callister, Jr., and Nicholas C. Burbules, "Public spaces and cyberspace: Issues of credibility in educational technologies," Insight (1996).

Robert A. Jones and Rand Spiro, "Contextualization, cognitive flexibility, and hypertext: The Convergence of interpretive theory, cognitive psychology, and advanced information technologies," in Susan Leigh Star, ed. The Cultures of Computing (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1995), 146-157.

Richard A. Lanham, The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

Richard A. Lanham, Handbook of Rhetorical Terms, 2nd Edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

James Marshall, "Education in the mode of information: Some philosophical issues," in Frank Margonis, ed., Philosophy of Education 1996 (Urbana, Illinois: Philosophy of Education Society, forthcoming).

Barbara Means, ed., Technology and Education Reform: The Reality Behind the Promise (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994).

Michael Peters and Colin Lankshear, "Critical literacy and digital texts," Educational Theory, Vol. 46 No. 1 (1996): 51-70.

Ilana Snyder, Hypertext: The Electronic Labyrinth (Victoria; Melbourne University Press, 1996).

Return to My Home Page