Saturday, 5 July 2014

Hyperlinks as Punctuation and Possibility

I’m finishing up the book I have to deliver to Palgrave in September (I’ll post a more thorough breakdown soon, but it’s about what technology is in the popular imagination; by definition; in phenomenological experience; and as an embodiment of knowledge. It uses e-reading, and people’s resistance to e-reading devices, as a case study for the discussion of how we skilfully use equipment as cognisers who spread our cognition over brain, body, tools, and environment). The book is based, in part, on my thesis (LINK) which explored the resistance to the then-new e-readers (mostly the early Kindle and iPad models). I found the following in my notes and it probably won’t make it into the final draft, but I still like the general idea: hyperlinks are a kind of punctuation and they do things to the way that we conceive of words on the page.

If it's always going to be a part of e-reading from the start let's return to hyperlinking, and to what it might mean. A hyperlink, most typically represented as an underlined blue word, when clicked takes the reader from the page that they are on to somewhere else, known or unknown. The author of the document sets the hyperlink marker, which word or image is clickable, and they set the destination; the reader chooses whether or not they are going to click the link. This doesn't mean, however, that an unclicked link has no meaning. Steven Johnson describes hyperlinks as an entirely new linguistic element, “the first significant form of punctuation to emerge in centuries” (Everything Bad Is Good For You 111), and this is an apt description; hyperlinked words do not change the words themselves, at the level of letters, but instead augment and alter their meaning and capacity to mean. In early writing systems pictographic script represented spoken words; the spoken “bird,” in the simplest pictogram, would have a representational or symbolic parallel with the image of a bird. A text was accurate if the interpretations of each image matched some value of what the author intended. A chirographic or typographic written word is different: it is more precise, and part of its ability to better capture specific meaning comes from its representing, or coming to represent, a spoken word inscribed many times with its own history and context. For instance,

[l]inguists classify English as a morphophonemic writing system because it represents both morphemes (units of meaning) and phonemes (units of sound) in its spelling...[T]he linguists Noam Chomsky and Carol Chomsky use words like ‘muscle’ to teach the way our words carry an entire history within them …For example, the silent ‘c’ in ‘muscle’ may seem unnecessary, but in fact it visibly connects the word to its origin, the Latin root musculus, from which we have such kindred words as ‘muscular’ and ‘musculature.’ In the latter words the ‘c’ is pronounced and represents the phonemic aspect of our alphabet. The silent ‘c’ of ‘muscle,’ therefore, visually conveys the morpheme aspect of English. In essence, English represents a 'trade-off' between depicting the individual sounds of the oral language and showing the roots of its words (Maryann Wolf, Proust and the Squid 42-43).

To look at a pictogram of a muscle, it would always mean the concept of “muscle”; whatever the culture dictated that concept to be, the image would always suggest to the reader their current interpretation of that conventional concept. But if we look at the word “muscle”, with its silent “c,” then we get the full morphophoneticism of English coming to the fore: the Latin root, with its pronounced “c,” hides within, a conceptual trace, a history more or less known, and more or less affective to the reader. But now paint that word blue and underline it, put it on a screen and it becomes imbued with possibility. This contraption now means the interpreted cultural concept of the spoken or inscribed “muscle,” like the pictogram; it contains “musculus” and a history of use, like the inscribed word; but it also reminds us, without our even clicking it, in fact without, now, it even being a hyperlink, of everywhere it might take us: anatomical diagrams, bodybuilding, bodyguards, seafood even, or somewhere we have yet to learn. Hyperlinks represent a personal aspect to every underlined word, of choices made to access (or not) a unique link or combination. They are hypermorphophonemic: conceptual, historical, possible.

But if every e-reading space is tied to hyperlink-inflected reading then suddenly any particular word need not even be a visible link, instead every word carries this new weight. Hyperlinks exist to remind us that we can head out into other texts, out into the world, that where we are is not the final say, and that the boundary lines we have revered in print are blurred at best, and potentially inconsequential. In the webs of text online, hyperlinks chart an authored path, whilst simultaneously reminding us that with Google only ever a few clicks away we can always break out from the document we’re reading to wash ourselves in information whose connections are of a much more arbitrary and idiosyncratic variety. That promise of hyperlinks now exists in all digital texts, whether they appear online or not, and this weaves a gentle magic, existing as a fundamental, conscious or unconscious breakdown of the privileging of the boundaries set by the author or typesetter, and the immutability of bound paper text.

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