• Paradigm, No 15 (December, 1994)
  • The Hypertextbook

    John Pickering
    Department of Psychology,
    Warwick University,
    Coventry CV4 7AL


  • When technology extends our senses a new translation of culture occurs as swiftly as the new technology is interiorised. 1
  • Tools are objects fashioned for a purpose. Texts are clearly fashioned and crafted, as much as any tool. Some texts, like workshop manuals, are born purposive. Others, like Shakespeare’s works, have purpose thrust upon them by being coopted into the curriculum. Yet others, like the Declaration of Independence, achieve a purpose by becoming a symbol of national identity. Textbooks, which can have purpose in some or all of all these ways, are thus clearly tools too.

    Texts as cultural tools are part of the symbolic resources available to people to carry out their lives together. Cultural tools, whether they are objects, practices, ideas or texts, help to create and to support human consciousness. As McLuhan pointed out, when the technology that produces these tools changes, human consciousness changes with it.

    Contemporary educators are produced by, are producers of and are participants in a culture of textuality, components of which include reading skills and habits, books, journals, newspapers, textual icons like the Lord’s Prayer and the Bible (which simply means ‘book’). The authority of textuality is shown in phrases like: ‘Get it in writing’ and ‘Going by the book’.

    A culture of textuality means that almost all forms of education, at some stage, involve a written text. Hypertexts will perform a similar function for a culture of hypertextuality. Now, since texts and hypertexts are tools and since tools have evolved, what is meant by hypertextuality may be clarified by putting both it and textuality into a common evolutionary perspective.

    The slow, Darwinian mode of biological evolution is now virtually imperceptible when placed beside the more rapid, Lamarckian mode of cultural evolution. Cultural evolution is the purposive accumulation of practices and knowledge. This accumulation accelerates the growth of human consciousness far beyond the biological norm. Looking at the evolution of textual tools, this acceleration is clear.

    About fifty thousand years ago tool culture took a sudden leap forward, although tools had been made for perhaps two million years. One of the reasons for this was the emergence of orally transmitted culture, that is, textuality carried by discourse. About five thousand years ago written texts mark the start of written textuality as the property of literate elites. About five hundred years ago the Gutenberg Bible ushered in textuality as popular written culture. About fifty years ago meta-textuality began as, with the appearance of such works as Sassure’s Cours de linguistique générale, Derrida’s Of Grammatology and Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge, textuality became reflexive. Meta-textuality is founded on the recognition that texts are the products of human consciousness which in turn is produced within a semiotic space of discourse, the material traces of which are the texts of critical philosophy, religion, science and the arts.

    Each phase in this evolution of textuality appears ten times more quickly than the last. Continuing with this acceleration, as media technology approaches, surrounds and then enters education, hypertextuality is perhaps five years old. Unlike metatextuality, but like the Gutenberg Bible, hypertextuality is a technological rather than an intellectual revolution; but, McLuhan observed, the one becomes the other in time. By hypertextuality is meant the transformation that media technology will make to the textual basis of contemporary culture. Hypertexts integrate written text with speech, images, sounds, the voice, and virtual worlds of embodied experience. Hypertexts are dynamic, changing with use and with the purposes of the user. A participant in metatextual culture is still a reader, albeit a critical one. A participant in hypertextual culture will not only be a reader but also an explorer and creator, hypertextuality is not coming; it came.

    Hypertextuality is part of a media technology explosion that began quite a while ago. As anyone in contemporary education will know, there is no shortage of opportunities to find out about such things as: Multimedia, Hypermedia; Virtual Reality, the Information Superhighway, Internet; Janet; Bitnet, The Worldwide Web; CD-ROM’s, Online databases, Electronic Mail; Electronic journals, Electronic Bulletin Boards, Gophers, FTPs . . . . and yet more. The tide of jargon bears in upon us, new, ever-changing and, to lovers of old-style textuality, threatening.

    We have the sense that an immense change has begun. We may also feel scepticism too since, as well as hypertext, there is hype. So many loudly-trumpeted displays of media technology make a dramatic entry but then fade away. Who now remembers the new Domesday project? Others make a more modest appearance but eventually bring about a major transformation. Word processors, for example, are not just intelligent typewriters. They offer tools for text production such as line and section numbering, cutting and pasting, footnoting, inserted graphics, tables and charts, spelling and, more recently, syntax checkers.

    Skilled use of these hypertextual tools changes the way work is written and how it is that students have anything to write in the first place. Essay-writing with references and bibliographies is now done to a generally higher technical level, partly because automated searches for combinations of names, dates, titles, subjects and, more subtly, for citations, are becoming standard study skills. Lecturers are finding, with mixed feelings, that students can often provide more up-to-date references for a topic than those given out in lectures. Automated access to vast and constantly updated bodies of reference materials is now a commonplace. Such hypertextual scholarship skills are rapidly appearing within the resources that students bring to education.

    Hypertextuality is not just the existence of hypertexts but the cultural production of skills to use them. With hypertextual culture will come the hypertextbook. It is in fact prefigured in current educational infrastructure, where materials are passing at an increasing rate into an arena of electronic texts and images accompanied by sophisticated ways to search them. It is within this powerful and rapidly growing arena that the hypertextbook is taking shape. The next section traces this shape without the mundane constraint of realism.

    ‘Janet studies Criticism, John explores the Brain’

  • Criticism, as well as other discourses, cannot assume that its province is merely the text. It must see itself as inhabiting a much contested cultural space in which what has counted in the continuity and transmission of knowledge has been the signifier as an event that has left lasting traces upon the human subject. 2
  • Janet’s hands move between keypads and an array of touch-sensitive screens. On them pictures, symbols and words come and go, while snatches of music and voices are heard. In the middle of the array, a newspaper-sized screen shows the Penguin edition of Leavis’ D. H. Lawrence: Novelist. Janet is reading, on page 219, about Hermione Roddice, who is described by Ursula Brangwen, as: ‘. . . a tall slow, reluctant woman with a weight of fair hair, and a pale long face . . . ’. Janet touches the bottom of the page and it turns over. She reads Leavis’ opinion that ‘Hermione’s presence and her manner are as vividly evoked as those of any character in fiction’. To one side of the screen ‘Professor Grieve’s comments’ is written in orange. She touches it. Phrases in the text go orange, including ‘vividly evoked’. Janet touches that and another screen lights up with a video of Ted Grieve, the author of the hypertext Twentieth Century Criticism on which Janet’s course is based. He discusses Lawrence’s and Leavis’ treatment of visual imagery. He illustrates what he has to say with snippets from various film versions of Women in Love and with recordings and pictures of Leavis himself. His point is that for critics and writers of nearly two centuries ago, visual imagery may have had a different narrative force than it does now. In a time of multimedia art, different sensibilities are brought to the written word.

    After a few minutes, Janet cuts off Prof. Grieve’s comments but leaves a marker to show where he had reached. She returns to the book and turns back a page or so, she wipes her finger along the description of Hermione. A variety of things appear: one is a box displaying comments made by other students, others are pictures of the Roddice character in films, others are paintings by Lawrence himself. She touches one of these and it changes into a short passage by Leavis on Lawrence as a painter. She goes back to the students’ comments; one is about the word ‘reluctant’, which was what drew her attention to the sentence in the first place. It directs her to passages elsewhere in Women in Love and in other works by Lawrence. She types a few instructions, and a list appears showing places where Lawrence used ‘reluctant’ and cognate words like ‘disinclined’, ‘unwilling’, ‘averse’, and ‘loath’ to qualify an animate noun. She looks at a couple of them, leaves a few remarks of her own in the comments box and then closes Leavis’ book. All the things on the screen that had appeared while she was reading it close too. She surveys what is left. She notices that a red icon, a mouth and an ear, has appeared. She collects her thoughts for a moment and then touches it. Prof Grieve’s voice asks her a question. These unannounced viva voice examinations are his specialty. She thinks his question over, replies and what she says is stored for Grieve to hear later. The red icon goes away.

    She types a few notes, reads and sends some e-mail and then looks at her clock/diary/timetable. It’s time to go home. She closes down the various screens. One shows the map-like index of Twentieth Century Criticism. Names, icons, pictures and text are linked into a web. Some of the web is green, some red. She sighs. Red means ‘still to do’, and there is too much of it. Still, she has a copy of The Common Pursuit in her bag, which she can read on the bus.

    On the way out, she stops by the door of the VR unit. Inside, John has just climbed to the top of the superior colliculus. Guider’s voice reminds him that ‘Colliculus is Latin for little hill’. From where he stands, he can see the base of the hippocampus. He slowly scans it, and runs his hands over its surface, feeling for the minute ridges the brain atlas had said would be there. ‘Where’s the amygdala?’ he asks. ‘Down and to your left’, replies Guider. ‘I’ll light it’. A portion of a nearby surface slowly pulses with a blue light. ‘OK now if I go straight ahead do I get to the third ventricle?’ ‘That’s right.’ John walks carefully on, feeling the slight incline.

    The ventricle as it comes in sight appears like a narrow corridor with irregular walls, some five times taller than John. He walks forward, looking for the section of the thalamus where he had left a marker earlier in the session. He finds it and stops for a moment to settle down in his memory the journey he has just taken. He prods the wall. ‘It feels firmer here than on the cortex’ he says to Guider. ‘That’s because this is white matter. The cortex, being made of grey matter, is more fluid.’

    ‘I’m closing now’ he says to Guider. ‘OK goodbye.’ In front of him, the inner walls of the brain fade and are gradually replaced by a rather featureless room in which there is a console of screens and keypads and in the middle of which John is standing on a low platform. Another voice, Librarian, tells him: ‘Wait for the signal before removing your gear.’ After ten seconds a chime gently rings and, taking the VR helmet and gloves off, John sees exactly what the VR helmet had been showing him. He gets off the platform and goes over to the console. He moves the neuropsychology texts to one side of the screen and expands a three-dimensional atlas of the brain. Through its translucent surfaces he sees the winding blue thread of the trip he has just taken. After a few minutes rotating the atlas, he closes it and adds his comments to the project report his group is writing. Bringing up the map-like index of ‘The Compleat Brain Explorer’, he notes with satisfaction that nearly all of it is green now. Even better, there is a note from Jane saying she is waiting for him outside.

    ‘Nothing is true, everything is possible.’ Back to reality, of which the virtual vignettes above are not presently a part. However, every detail from which they were composed exists at this time. Communication by electronic mail grows apace. Systems for combining images, voices, sounds and texts are commonplace tools of industrial and commercial practice. Virtual reality is used in industrial design and academic research. Using virtual reality sub-systems chemists build molecules by picking up groups of atoms and feeling how they might fit them together. Architects take their clients into the buildings they are designing to see if things are satisfactory. If they aren’t, they can be altered there and then. On leaving virtual space, the architects know that they will find that, back on the drawing board, the design will have changed accordingly.

    Virtual reality in this form is happening now. If resources were made available, media technology of the forms suggested could be in use in education within months rather than years. But they will not be available; industry and the military will have first call. But once systems have been developed in those areas, they will begin to percolate into other areas of culture which will gradually be able to afford them. The percolation may be more rapid than in other cases of technology transfer.

    Every five years the same amount of money buys ten times the computing power; power being related to how much memory a computer has and how fast it runs. Power is nothing without software, but here too, the means to create software are themselves increasing.

    Media technology is well past the development phase. Hypertexts like those imagined in the previous section are feasible now. The only question is how quickly they can become affordable. An interesting issue here is obsolescence. Like cars, computers are replaced by new models very quickly. However, computers do not wear out as quickly as cars and software does not wear out at all. It becomes obsolescent by becoming too difficult to integrate with new systems, but if it is to be used on its own, it remains usable indefinitely.

    Powerful computers are replaced long before they become unusable, and powerful software is replaced by newer versions, at which point copyright protection tends to lapse. In the next decade or so remarkable amounts of computing power could pass into the education system as affordable used systems become available. This pump-priming will result in increasingly sophisticated expectations and skills passing down the educational system. Such great expectations will create a demand for media technology at a time when the system may increasingly be able to afford it.

    Madness in the Library and the Fate of Paper

  • A text is an object-event that copies itself, fragments itself, repeats itself, simulates itself, doubles itself and finally disappears . . . 3
  • But there is a text called Women in Love. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. We know who wrote it and when. Many of us have copies of it. Equally, there are critical appreciations of Lawrence, created just so that the quality and stature of a great writer might be recognised and so endure. Why, then, should a text disappear?

    Some cultures are said to be wary of photography. They feel that something that gives such a lifelike image of a person must necessarily involve taking something lifelike away from the person to do it. We don’t feel so protective of the texts that hold our culture, but perhaps we should. Like any famous text, Women in Love is subject to mimeomania, a reproductive disorder that breaks out in libraries as the examination season approaches. The photocopying machines run hot and mountains of paper are used as the vivid presence of Ursula Brangwen and Hermione Roddice becomes an object-event that copies itself, fragments itself, repeats itself, simulates itself, doubles itself.

    Perhaps Women in Love could also disappear. Aided by hypertextual skills learned in primary school, the writers of the early 2000’s will compose post-modern narratives interwoven from original writing and ironic quasi-quotations of other novels. Such novels will be treated within the hypertexts of the 2100’s. In them, Women in Love, by then found in paper as frequently as Beowulf, may have all but vanished.

    Perhaps it will not be necessary to wait until 2100 for this Foucaultian disappearing act. When media technology has become central to educational practice, in twenty or so years time, paper texts will have been marginalised and textbooks will have been the first to go. Although paper textbooks presently remain the backbone of most pedagogy, there are numerous signs of the approach of paper-free hypertextuality. Paper textbooks are often accompanied by electronic media which offer tests, backup materials, demonstrate effects, offer programs and provide data. It is not hard to see this trend increasing to the point where the electronic media hold the text as well. Very few textbooks are so big that they could not be put on one of today’s compact disks. Future compact media will hold a library.

    Students are increasingly equipped with media technology skills that downgrade paper, like word processing, electronic communication, data retrieval and the ability to write programs. Paper journals are being supplemented by electronic ones. Books and articles are circulated in electronic form before publication. Indeed, some authors now make the entire text available electronically. New ways for text to be written are emerging. Email passes in an ever denser cloud between academics, students, researchers and the business community. Out of this cloud condense special interest groups whose communications, collectively edited, occasionally turn into books or articles. These texts have many authors and arise from dialogue rather than being a monologic narrative. Texts are monologues and solos while hypertexts are dialogues and choruses.

    There are new ways too, to read such texts. Linear access is only one of many options. There may be many entry points. It is easy to search text, indexes or section headings for words, phrase or other targets. Hypertexts will not so much be read as explored. In their exploration, hypertext readers could write comments, respond to the comments of others, place pointers, put in links, add, delete or re-group material. Reading, responding, speaking, listening, pointing, drawing and writing become mixed together. The next edition of a hypertextbook could compose itself.

    Automated citation searches mean that student essays can now refer to more recent sources than lectures. Lecturers raised in a culture of academic one-upmanship may find this difficult. Hopefully they will recognise, eventually, a co-operative means to keep courses up to date. The textual base of a course is no longer the exclusive property of teachers.

    With such a blossoming of the means to read and produce texts, many questions are raised: authenticity, for example, that is, who owns what text? Students have always shared ideas; that is good. They may also share notes, that is allowed. Sharing essays is not allowed. Unacknowledged sharing of text with sources is plagiarism. With the growth of hypertextual skills like word processors, optical character recognition, cutting and pasting the boundaries here have become bluffed. It gets harder to decide whose work is whose.

    Hypertextuality poses many challenges to those of us who are the products of conventional textual culture. Authenticity and stability of texts and the originality of responses to those texts are the stuff of life for the way we educate now. After a century of growth at the pace at which media technology is currently growing, the way we educate will be very different.

    At their blandest and dullest, predictions about media technology are that it will merely amplify current pedagogy. A few innovative practices and resources will appear here; some ink on paper will convert to images on screens there. Some teaching methods may be broadened by electronic communications, and so on. Despite this tinkering, the conclusion is that the basic image of pedagogy will remain the same: a teacher who is in some sense in charge of a text guides students through that text in a roughly linear fashion.

    This conclusion would be the natural reaction to some of the hyperbole about media technology. Although scepticism is justified, experience with previous extravagant pronouncements about the impact of technology shows that the conclusion is probably wrong. For example, the claims made for Artificial Intelligence have not come to pass. Computers do not have the vote, make legal judgements, write creatively or have feelings, although all this was predicted to have happened by now. However, what has emerged from trying to make these claims good has proved to be enormously important. Computers do most of the translation in the European Commission, they land jumbo jets with hundreds of souls on board and they have eliminated millions of jobs. Likewise, even if speculations about media technology prove to have been overblown, what will come from trying to turn them into actualities will even so have an important effect on education.

    At its wildest and most exciting, media technology will utterly change economic, social and intellectual practices. The impact on education will be greater than the invention of movable type that created the culture of the text. The Gutenberg Galaxy will have been merely a local province in the empire of multimedia hyperspace that was to unfold. Instead of linear texts owned and doled out by authoritarian teachers, future pedagogy will deal in parallel hypertexts obtained, explored, played in and organically assimilated by participatory, autonomous life-long learners.

    Once the glowing clouds of such rhetoric disperse, there is likely to stand revealed a more middling state of affairs. Nothing is going immediately to blow away the familiar tools of textuality. Books, textbooks, journals, newspapers, libraries, marginal notes and a pleasant read in the open air are with us for many decades, perhaps forever. But ignoring the hype about hypertextuality reveals enough to make us realise that change really is on the way. Media technology will not just alter the way we will carry out what we already do; it will bring about fundamentally new modes of pedagogy.

    As McLuhan pointed out, technology extends the senses and changes consciousness as it is interiorised. Interiorisation proceeds apace. Over the past century or two, technology has approached, surrounded and then entered the body. In Don Quixote, the Sad Knight fights a technology which, driven by the wind, is placed quietly in the countryside. The heat engines of Hard Times are in noisy factories in which people tend the technology. Now, walkmans are organs of the adolescent body and microtechnology implants are being attached to the sensory nerves and to the brain.

    Technology does not need to enter the body to enter the mind. Hypertextual skills are learned earlier and earlier in the curriculum, as they should be. A few years will see media technology in the primary school; another few decades and it will be in the cradle. As hypertextual culture is absorbed earlier in life it will become a deeper and deeper part of human consciousness. Hypertext, being multisensory, does not extend any particular sense. Instead, Hypertextuality may amplify the sense of self by changing our sense of what we can do and what we can know.

    Textbooks as they evolve into hypertextbooks will be a dialectical part of this change. How knowledge is stored, displayed and explored will have been utterly transformed. The linear unidimensional textbook as we now know it seems to be a necessary entailment of human consciousness. The parallel multi-dimensional hypertextbook anticipates what human consciousness is to become.

    What has been laid out here has been fanciful and portentous: over-portentous perhaps, since we cannot be certain how media technology will transform education. We can be certain, though, that eventually there will be a radical transformation. What is also certain is that those of us who have grown up within the culture of textuality will not find hypertextuality sympatiche. For media technology skills to feel as natural as those of textual culture presently do, they will need to be learned young, perhaps very young. Contemporary educators are creating the gateway into hypertextuality, but it is those who they educate who will enter and live there.



    Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962

    Edward Said, The Problem of Textuality, 1978

    Foucault, Madness and Civilisation, 1965.


    Cumming, G. and Self, J. ‘Intelligent educational systems.’ Instructional Science, 19 (1990), pp. 1-17.

    Feldman, A. Virtual Reality International (Mecklermedia, 1993)

    Heim, M. The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (Oxford University Press, 1993)

    Helsel, S. and Roth, J. Virtual Reality: Theory, Practice and Promise (London: Mecklen, 1991)

    Rheingold, Howard The Virtual Community (Secker and Warburg, 1994)

    Tiexeira, K. and Pimental, K. Virtual Reality (NY: McGraw Hill 2nd edn., 1994)

    White, B. ‘Thinker Tools.’ Cognition and Instruction, 10 (1993), pp. 1-100.

    Wooley, B. Virtual Worlds (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993).

    A longer bibliography can be obtained, by email only, from j.pickering@csv. Warwick.ac.uk. Correspondence on paper to Dr. John Pickering at the address above.


    [An earlier version of this paper was given at the Warwick Colloquium. Ed.]


    Paradigm Catalogue Textbook Colloquium