Tales Told by the Computer

Among the many things the computer is supposed to change in our lives, one of the most profound, if the change were really to occur, is our experience of narrative. For the way we tell ourselves stories—our sense of the opening, development, and closure of a plot—still largely determines the way we think of ourselves and of our progress, or otherwise, between cradle and grave.

We are not talking here about the e-book, the portable screen on which, page by page, any traditional narrative can be read. That, in the end, offers only a more economic, if less attractive, way of giving us what we already have. Perhaps the only reasons to welcome the e-book are the possibility it offers to save on school texts, to travel light with a number of volumes in electronic form, and above all, for those like myself whose eyesight is not what it was, the possibility of choosing a larger type size than any printed book will offer.

No, the development that seeks to revolutionize the nature of storytelling is the so-called hypertext narrative, a product that, whether stored on CD or downloaded from the net, can be experienced only through the computer, since access to the many choices and variations it offers can only be achieved through the use of keyboard and mouse. It cannot properly exist on the printed page. All over the world, Internet sites and university courses promulgate and promote the phenomenon. Novelists of the stature of John Barth and Robert Coover have written enthusiastic essays promoting the phenomenon and taught classes of students how to use it. In an “Endtroduction” to Katherine Hayles’s new book Writing Machines the editor remarks: “…Bibliomaniacal impulses are mutating in this world of multi-, trans-, inter-, and re-mediation, and we need to establish new categories for describing the emotional and physical relationships readers have with what (and how) they read.”

The hypertext narrative comes in so many forms that it is difficult to consider its potential with reference to just a few examples. All the same, two fundamental innovations immediately present themselves: the hypertext is free to mix the written word, whether narrative, poetry, or essay, with sound, static images, or even cinematic effects, and to deliver the text at whatever speed and in whatever form the author chooses. This is such a dramatic extension of the bookish tradition of illustration and illumination that in many cases the written text may lose much of its sense if separated from the dynamic within which it is presented.

However, by far the most revolutionary development of the hypertext and the feature that most distinguishes it from a printed book has to do with the succession in which sections of written text are read. Hypertext dispenses with the linearity that invites us to proceed from page one of a book through to the end, front cover to back. Pages are not numbered and we cannot “turn” them. Instead we are invited to use …

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