The Parts and the Whole

By Robert Kendall


Hypertext aspires to the organic. Narrative paths and thematic threads stretch out through the text like roots through soil or tendrils through air. As they branch and cross--perhaps even entangle--each of them has its own unique impetus yet is governed by the DNA of the organism as a whole. The collective goal of these individual parts is a reading that grows and matures successfully, regardless of the reader-soil it's in and the nutrients it receives there.

It's the DNA that I am particularly interested in. The more sophisticated the instruction set encoded in the genes, the richer the life that emerges from it. How can we expand our resources for programming behaviors into the components of emergent text? How can links, paths, and image maps better serve the organic whole?

In A Life Set for Two (Eastgate Systems, 1996), I used conditional links, floating links, variable-text nodes, and other elements of dynamic hypertext in an effort to create work that was more organically responsive to its environment--that is, to the reader (see "Hypertextual Dynamics in A Life Set for Two," Proceedings of Hypertext '96). In my poem Dispossession (Eastgate Reading Room, 1999), I brought some of these techniques to the Web, where I expanded upon them. My poem-in-progress Penetration is a companion piece to Dispossession, sharing its technical approach, as well as thematic and visual elements.

Penetration doubles as a demonstration of the Word Circuits Connection System, a library of JavaScript functions that brings dynamic capabilities to Web hypertexts. Jean-Hugues Réty and I are currently developing this system to meet the unique needs of hypertext poetry and fiction--needs that differ from those of nonfiction and therefore are often overlooked by commercial applications. In its finished form, the Connection System will offer such features as conditional and random links, conditionally and randomly generated text, path management, and globally controllable link styles. It will allow authors to define sets of nodes and treat these as objects, establishing properties and behaviors for them. Some of these features have already been implemented in Penetration and some short demonstration pieces, and I hope to receive feedback on them from other conference participants.

At the conference I will also be moderating a discussion session on the question "What do we want from our software?" This will be largely a software features brainstorming session, during which we can trade ideas about capabilities we would like to see in hypertext delivery systems. I would like to learn about the specific problems that other people are wrestling with in their work and explore ideas for solving these problems as well as those that I have encountered. How can we parlay existing software resources into new solutions and what can we do to encourage the development of new resources? I also hope to get valuable feedback from this session for planning the future direction of the Connection System.

These are among the issues and questions I would like to introduce for discussion:


Dynamic Elements

Paths and Sets

Spatial Representations of Structure

Backtracking and the Reading History

Temporal Development and Closure

Reader-Configurable Elements


Multiple-Frame Hypertext


Backward Compatibility

The Authoring Interface