On Stuart Moulthrop's You Say You Want a Revolution? Hypertext and the Laws of Media


    Moulthropfs essay is more like a treaty on political philosophy than an article on hypertext, so it offers a very deep and innovative insight on the theme, using Nelsonfs Xanadu as a concrete example. The comparison with Coleridgefs original unreal world of dreams is a very clever way to connect it at the same time with the literacy world and the multi parallel world. This reminds us of the cyberspace as conceived in the movies like gThe Matrixh, which presents us a world that is a simulation, a sort of virtual reality. But Moulthrop adds a sharp remark that takes away any fantasy of revolution we might be incubating in our heads: if we are part of a simulated world, then we are also simulated objects that lay at the same level as we would lay in a real society, therefore any idea of radical action is impossible, or at least as unthinkable as it would be in the world we are living in.

    Furthermore, he goes beyond the hypertext, and introduces the concept of hyperreality. At the same time, its definition as a gwriting practiceh links the term with the original idea of hypertext, where the reader can also be a potential writer, editor or even publisher. Again here, the reader is not just presented as a navigator that creates a path through his/her link options but he can also be a creator. In other words, Moulthrop is suggesting what other authors have already mentioned in their works: that we can have the power to destabilize the social hierarchies and gpromote broader definitions of authorityh.

    Nevertheless, he goes again beyond that hypothetical idea, and asks how will gsuch a reconstruction of order and authority take placeh, and who or how will redefine it. Xanadu is an attempt to reconfigure literature culture, and to reconstruct text as a variable-access database. Xanadu will be a textual universe, like an alternative reality, with its own ghypertextual Library of Babelh. It will be like the paradise of the writer and reader, a place were they can commerce ideas at almost the same level. This can also be seen as a sort of utopia, that is described by Nelson as gpopulitismh, where the popular and the elite will find themselves at the same ground level, without feeling the verticality of the hierarchies; a sort of anarchy. Xanadu will also have copyright and protection systems, so that the customer will need to pay to enjoy the services. However, when we deal with intangible items such as the ones found in the cyberspace, we have to be aware so some obvious problems, such as the difficulty of defining what belongs to who, and the potential perils of piracy and illegal access to break the system.

    On the second half of the article, Moulthrop mentions the McLuhanfs four gLaws of Mediah and applies them to the hypertext, trying to define what does the hypertext enhance, what does it displace, what obsolete item does it retrieve and what does it produce when taken to its limit. It could be said that in a sort of paranoid way it enhances the text, in a world where everything is connected. Nevertheless, Moulthrop argues that hypertext is, after all not so different from the traditional idea of literature, ga temporally extended network of relations which successive generations or readers and writers perpetually make and unmakeh. What is more, the fact that we do not posses the physical book in our hands, against the idea of many other experts on hypertext, makes us much more concern and conscious of the authority and design. For instance, when we find a remarkable writing on the net, or an incredible well designed web page, we wonder and want to know who the person responsible was. Furthermore, the author of this essay makes us aware that the interactivity of the hypertext is not unlimited, and that no matter how many paths and options we might be offered through the various links we will always be working with already-made texts, where while some options will be available, others will not, because the author decided so.

    As for the displacement that hypertext might cause, Moulthrop reminds us that the answer is not the book because the book is already dead in the sense that it is not an essential item in the commerce of ideas. Moreover, thinking in ecological terms, the web texts are not paper consuming and therefore are not limited by the availability of trees or other materials to produce more text material. The point is, whether literature will become obsolete or not. We should remember that other authors have claimed that, on the contrary, the web will be a guarantee that literature will remain alive. Although, again, it will still depend on what we consider as literature (many of the possibilities might end by just being amateur literature). What might become obsolete, according to Moulthrop, is gpost-literacyh, and that should be our main concern. As the third law states, hypertext might be a way to retrieve literacy, and therefore, be its future. But rather than speaking of retrieval, Moulthrop claims that we should be talking about grecursionh, that is gself-reference with the possibility of self-modificationh, which is, after all, the original meaning and purpose of hypertext, which at the same time contains the two domains of literacy: literature (in its most strict meaning) and gwriting spaceh. A secondary literacy might be thinkable if we accept the idea that it might be born within a system of chaos. This Neo-Chaos, however, as Moulthrop states it, can just mean an absence of order, where gnew arrangements spontaneously assemble themselvesh.

    Finally, taking hypertext to its limits, might as any other concept, reverse its characteristics. In the case of hypertext, rather than a reversal we should be thinking about a grecursion to a new cultural spaceh. The fact that even in hypertext there is a ggenuine, negotiated consensush, and that it is constructed by users for users, implies that Xanadu, will always be controlled, at least, to a certain extent. Moreover, if we think that technological development is managed by the companies (who will act as limit stoppers) and that is does not happen in the cyberspace, the worries of where might hypertext go if we take to its limit, should disappear.