Tag Archives: hypertext

Hegemony and hypertext

Hegemony is designed into objects

  • The object is discursive.
  • Designers must engage semiosis.
  •  Ideologies hide in tech writing.
  • *The UX* is *the sales pitch*.
  • Hypertext is no escape.

Englebart Display SystemConsider how a device or program carries or even enforces a hegemony or ideology. The object is discursive. It makes an argument, it makes a claim, it is grounded in particular warrants. The ideology is encoded in the object, which makes the values designed into the object invisible but decipherable. Feenberg calls this the technical code – cultural hegemony design into the object.

We can see how these values get encoded if we take a design perspective. Your design brief is to Devise a new application to, say, navigate through an airport. The brief itself encodes the values implied in the design: a traveller, in a new space, who needs or wants independent assistance in moving through it. Why does one need this? To move safely? Quickly? Unthinkingly? through. The user has a smartphone, carries it, uses it. Is this an appeal to convenience? That’s telling. An appeal to efficiency? Telling again.

Now consider an alternative brief: an app to navigate through Tehran. Or one to help explore the Notting Hill-Maida Vale-Paddington districts of London. Or rather than an app, consider that the design brief calls for a 16 page booklet – with local advertising designed into “appropriate” pages. The appeals to convenience and efficiency are now more openly at the call of commerce.

With each shift, the values change, the ideology shifts. The object makes a different claim, grounded in different warrants.

One manner with which to approach such questions is through Andrew Feenberg’s concept of “technical code” that he describes as the “background of unexamined cultural assumptions literally designed into the technology itself.” This background of assumptions is a crucial mix of values, ideas, concepts and cultural norms that are essentially part of the technology itself both in terms of material form and application. A given piece of technology, such as a Palm Pilot, for instance, is thus more than a handy new tool but rather a discursive and ideological object that speaks to the cultural, economic and political voices that went into its creation. What does the Palm Pilot “say”? For one it is a testimony to the changing nature and experience of space and time in the twenty-first century where the boundaries between work and leisure time have blurred into one constantly connected present. Second, it speaks also of the dominant values of our postmodern, post-industrial information society where mobility, access, media convergence, information and time management are paramount for a socially and economically successful life. Accordingly, the Palm Pilot and a host of other technologies effectively confirm the values and mind-sets of the dominant social order, which in the case of most Western societies can be represented by global capitalism. For Feenberg, this means that the technical code can be linked to what is known as the hegemonic forces within a society, which is another way of describing these dominant values that determine, often “invisibly,” how we live out our day-to-day lives.

The UX is never neutral. It rarely (never?) places the agency of the user’s needs and desires at the center of attention. The UX defines the user’s needs in its own terms: the command to consume.

Capitalist social and technical requirements are thus condensed in a “technological rationality” or a “regime of truth” which brings the construction and interpretation of technical systems into conformity with the requirements of a system of domination. I will call this phenomenon the social code of technology or, more briefly, the technical code of capitalism. Capitalist hegemony, on this account, is an effect of its code.

technical code and hegemony

To some, Feenberg may seem to be overstating his case, especially through the use of such loaded terms as “conformity” and “domination.” Most of us, I think, would balk at the notion that we are controlled by our technologies or that we are all just pawns in a world ruled by evil capitalists. However, it is important to consider how Feenberg is using such terms and also how concepts such as “power” and “capitalism” are being framed within his argument. Similar to another philosopher, Michael Foucault, concepts such as power, capitalism, conformity and domination are not necessarily being employed as negative terms but rather as descriptive indicators of how the world works. Consider, for example, the concept of “power”as used to describe human relationships. To a large degree the manner in which we define and understand our relationships with one another is based on a balance of power: a mother has power over her child in a manner that she can control the child’s circumstances in order to make sure that the child avoids injury, learns important skills and so forth. One could describe teacher-student or doctor-patient relationships on a similar basis. Even a simple friendship is structured by power relationships in which one friend may take on certain “roles” that grant him a measure of “authority” over activities and exchanges. In terms of technology, similar mechanisms are at work insomuch that “social purposes are ’embodied’ in the technology” and are, thus, more than just the practical results of a neutral tool:

The embodiment of specific purposes is achieved through the “fit” of the technology and its social environment. The technical ideas combined in the technology are neutral, but the study of any specific technology can trace in it the impress of a mesh of social determinations which preconstruct a whole domain of social activity aimed at definite social goals.

and hypertext

Hypertext doesn’t (can’t) escape encoding. That’s clear to see (from today’s distance) in The Englebart Demo of NLS (youtube). A commercial hegemony is encoded into the NLS from the beginning.

What then are the technical codes of hypertext and more specifically what does the history of hypertext tell us about the meaning and potential direction of such codes? Think back to the topics covered in this chapter’s brief historical overview:

  1. The oral/literate distinction and the manner in which hypertext is often linked to certain characteristics of the oral tradition as well as compared to the revolutionary impact of the first printing press.
  2. The tendency to situate the creative use of hypertext within the experimental traditions of modem and postmodem literature.
  3. Vannevar Bush and the memex.
  4. The visions of pioneers such as Ted Nelson, Douglas Engelbart and Andries van Dam.
  5. Equally pioneering applications such as Intermedia, Storyspace, HyperCard and Mosaic.
  6. The use of hypertext by publishers, educators and creative writers and how such individuals describe and characterize such use.

In the first case hypertext as a technology is often linked to a particular historical trajectory that for the most part is progressive in nature. In other words, hypertext represents an important evolutionary development that is not only more appropriate for current conditions but also represents a marked improvement over previous technologies and practices….

Hypertext cannot be the revolutionary mode we want to cast it as. The augmentation of human intellect is still focused on a hegemony of commerce that defeats itself. It’s a bootstrap.

Kitzmann, Hypertext Handbook, p 26-28.  Also in Slate.

What I’m reading 13 May 2016 through 30 May 2016

What I’m reading 7 Mar 2016 through 16 Mar 2016

What I’m reading 15 Jan 2016 through 17 Jan 2016

how we might link

Cat considering the building of a henge.

Mike Caufield’s latest post about FedWiki reminded me to get my finger out and start thinkining about how we might link in FedWiki. I started to in an earlier blog post, so here’s a continuation.

First, a synopsis. Keeping links separate from the content has been a long-standing idea but rarely practiced on the web. As the web came into being, we started to add links to content in such a way that understanding the content becomes dependent on following the links. This is signaled by how we tend to embed links into the syntactic flow of sentences. So in my opening statement, I signal two directions for understanding by linking the phrase latest post about FedWiki. First, you can read on without reading Mike’s post and (probably) will be able to follow what’s coming next. But the link also signals that you’ll want to refer to the post I linked to if you really want to understand what I’m going on about.

Technically, the link is a deixis. It points to something not present that is necessary to complete the meaning or to extend the meaning. In this case, it points to something I don’t own. It’s Mike’s blog post, and it’s worth reading. The issue at hand is how I have embedded it into my own content.

This is the way we have learned to link, the way we have taught people how to link. “Embed those links, gang. Make them follow the sentence, but also write so that readers do not have to follow the links to understand you.” I’ll leave it to you to search for the web writing advice on linking, both hackneyed and sophisticated.

Wrong. As Pound wrote, “Wrong from the start – No, hardly, but, … ” (Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, if you’re interested.)

Mike reminds us, by re-considering Bush and Englebart and Nelson, that we can re-think this idea of linking in the text.

[L]inks as imagined by the heirs of Bush — Engelbart, Nelson, Van Dam — formed a layer of annotation on documents that were by and large a separate entity.

Links as conceived by Bush are separate from the document: annotations, trails, value added, paratextual … By being links, they specify that they lead to other material outside the immediate text, not material that is integral to the text we’re reading. That’s what the link means: this is an annotation, a supplement to what I am offering here.

This doesn’t necessarily make links merely suppplemental. There’s no merely about it – any more than the paratexts of novels or articles are merely extra. But it does place links on an independent layer. I want to explore this idea of independent in more detail some other time, but for now I’ll say that the document can circulate without the links an still be understood. The links add but the document doesn’t depend on them. By the same token, the links can circulate on their own and, very likely, mean something, if not the same thing as they do when circulated with the document. Paratexts.

For all the wonder behind the embedded link as links to sources, as Mike points out, the link doesn’t point to anything the author doesn’t already know. So, while the writer might point to a source, we’re still confined, even in the linked text, to what the author knows rather than bringing in something the author was unaware of, or something the author just doesn’t want to mention.

So you can link your history of the Polaroid ID-2 camera up to suit the engineering people, or to suit the history of corporate boycotts people, but you can’t set it up the links serve both without overlinking the crap out of it.

Upshot: For all the breadth the web and hypertext promises, it is still limited by single authors getting their stuff out there as their single perspective. To develop multiple perspectives in a single documenbt using links to other content would overload the text and send Carr into even more neuro-cognitive apoplexy. For the rest of us, it would just be really really hard to read. (That reference to Carr is an old-fashioned link: an allusion. It serves a rhetorical function in my post, arguing that what I’m talking about is not what Carr is talking about.)

The thing is, we’re not talking about just links here. It’s about the entire system of which the link is only one element.

To recap, even with links, the document will present “only one valid set of relationships, inscribed by the author.” Ok, so now we get to the core:

Federated wiki deals with this issue by keeping links within the document but letting every person have as many copies of that document as they like, with whatever links they want on each. It’s a simple solution but in practice it works quite well.

Think about that a moment. It means one person can fork and consequently work with three or four or howevermany versions of a document. There may be little point in keeping exact copies (but who knows). There may be a big point in keeping an original (as in the sense of the first version to be distributed). But it’s the other versions that make things happen.

I’m not talking extreme differences so much as potential versions of a document that can still be identified as that document.Mike’s version with his annotations. Ward’s version with some of his annotations. My version with some of Mike’s annotations and some of Ward’s, and some of my own. I don’t actually need to maintain three copies. The fedwiki does that. I fork Ward’s or Mike’s version to my fedwiki and adds what I want, move paragraphs around, add other stuff to create my own version. If I need to, I can see who added what. If the new version is going to depart too far from the one in circulation, I start a new document.

Here’s how it might look, and is starting to look:

In the newer style, content is kept fairly short, and fairly link-less. But at the bottom of the articles we annotate by linking to other content with short explanations of each link. … People seeing your links can choose accept or reject them. Good and useful connections can propagate along with the page…. as federated wiki pages move through a system they are improved, and that’s true. But the more common scenario is that as they move through a system they are connected.

As Mike suggests, it’s the federation that makes this style of linking valuable, with links accruing as the article circulates through the neighborhood. The design of the fedwiki page facilitates accrual. Each paragraph is a dragable object, which lets writers create an annotated link that can be placed into the stream of an article at any point. A few fedwiki style guide suggestions also help. Links to external content are created using single brackets, and the fedwiki style guide suggests these links designate the kind of content being linked to (blog, video, academic article). Links to existing fedwiki pages are created with double brackets and the exiting page can be forked to the user’s fedwiki. If the writer changes a page, the page is forked by the system so that a writer starts with a copy – her own copy – that is still connected to the other copies in circulation by way of the flags in the upper left hand corner of the page.

What we develop is a neighborhood.

Fedwiki starts look like a new genre, differentiated from other online text genres such as blogs, listservs, sms exchanges – and the more traditional wiki. The orignal wikis asks visitors to contribute to the common document. Fedwiki asks users to fork what they will and create a variation for their own purposes, as well as contribute to the neighborhood. This also means that using fedwiki involves a different set of social negotiations than traditional wikis. That is the subject for another time.

Fedwiki becomes a genre that operates not using multiple authors to create a common document but a chorus of voices each creating a version. Fedwiki starts to look like the place where those authors do their work.

Chorus stems from chora, and chora [khôra] is a potent term in my field of rhetoric, meaning, variously, the discovery of ideas, the space outside the walls of the city where ideas are born, or as a place of “emerging possibility”. Wikipedia will probably tell you all you want to hear. But if you want the most recent hubbub, try a paper by Michael Souders, “Khôra, invention, deconstruction and the space of complete surprise” [PDF].

What I’m reading 11 Jun 2015 through 18 Jun 2015

What I’m reading 20 May 2015 through 22 May 2015

What I’m reading 15 May 2015 through 18 May 2015