The Deluge of Sense

The argument proceeds as follows: the post-modern is the world of the New Media. The schematism of mass media produces reality as an effect of selection beyond human experience. In other words: the technical media have metaphorical effects on what we call real. Reality coincides with its own image. I will argue that the main problems of the information age are selection and access to the record. The information processing system 'book' is clearly no longer up to the complexity of our social systems. The New Media unfold the grey environment of text into the spectral colours of sensuous knowledge. I give consideration to the observation that the software structure of hypermedia is identical to the theory structure of complex facts. In conclusion I will argue that the meaning of an electronic text is its use in the respective reading matter. The difference between author and reader no longer exists.

What we call modern times is synonymous with Herbert Marshall McLuhan's technological term `Gutenberg Galaxy'. Hence it follows that the post-modern emerges after the decay of this Gutenberg Galaxy. In other words: The post-modern is the world of the New Media.

At the beginning of the 19th century the acceleration of technological evolution causes processes that cannot be described sufficiently in categories of the Gutenberg Galaxy. From now on, velocity is the main issue of social reproduction. Speed puts a cinematic spell on modern Man. Style and manner are ousted by fashion, advertisement replaces art, and the reality of technical images supersedes the appearances of beauty.

Nowadays we are acquainted with the fact that not artists but designers are the driving forces of social creativity. Therefore we must reorganise aesthetics. We no longer need a theory of fine art but a theory of aisthesis in the Greek sense of the word - enhanced by the technology of New Media.

Splash and thrill are the standards of the modern pace of life. And I maintain that this speed-culture can't be reflected in books. The modern environment of texts changes incessantly. It is as omnipresent as the electric light. The message of electric light is the pure information of its radiation. That applies to mass communication, too: The true message of a piece of news is the inhuman velocity of its transmission.

I would like to make one point very clear: The flood of information does not imply knowledge. Mass communication does not provide orientation. The deluge of sense does not make sense. On the contrary: the exposure to stimuli of information overload is strongest and most fascinating if the recipient is not able to make use of it. The history of the forms of communication proves that the medium is the message: information displaces the reciprocal forms of communication, and splash and thrill supersede information. So the principles of mass media broadcasting prevail: news value, brevity, everything within everybody's grasp - and, most important: incoherence between the messages. These principles render information immune from experience.

The selection principle that turns data into events is called sensation, splash, thrill. Mass media function as a kind of schematism. This schematism of mass media mediates between people and the contingency of the world. In other words: The schematism of mass media produces reality as an effect of selection beyond human experience. Furthermore it forms the operative fiction, that everyone takes part in a common reality of one world.

Broadcasting, the transmission of messages, which is determined by the selective principle of splash and thrill, causes a new rhythm of temporal perception. The experience of development dwindles. And new aesthetic standards emerge even under the constraint of capitalistic monopoly: nobody is late; you can join the joyride of mass media at any time; and, most importantly, you can switch off at any time.

If visibility is prevailing in a medium, the distinctive features of tactility like resistance and shock do not matter. But if we go beyond the Gutenberg Galaxy, a new tactility supersedes the modern predominance of the optical sense. A matter-of-fact proximity devalues the traditional life-style. This new proximity destroys the perspective of distance. Hence it follows that the last hour of criticism has come, because criticism presupposes perspective and distance. The critic had a point of view and he enjoyed his freedom from bias. In the world of New Media, this is no longer possible. The matter-of-fact style of the New Media is incompatible with the peculiarity of different opinions. Therefore we prefer the sports news to the editorial.

The radical tactility of the New Media transforms the spatiality of the world. Phenomena of an essential distance and remoteness fade away. This, of course, is also an effect of the universal acceleration of modern life and the 'telematic' velocity of transmissions throughout the world.

The decay of aura marks the threshold between the Gutenberg Galaxy and the world of New Media. The technical condition of this decay is the reproduction of pictures in coarse numbers. We are exposed to a flood of pictures, which doubles and herewith absorbs reality. In other words: reality coincides with its own image. The world has become totally aesthetical. And this is the reason why the critical function of art ceases to exist.

Cinema was the elementary school of the new tactile perception. Cinema operates according to the principle of shocking proximity. Splash and thrill, the merger of the eye and the screen, is the technical principle of the cinematographic apparatus. The shooting of a film - strictly speaking: each shot is an operation in the sense of a surgical treatment. Each shot, each take bursts into its object and produces an image, which is cut into pieces. Therefore every picture of a movie bears the traits of the technical medium.

Hence McLuhan's thesis, the medium is the message, makes sense. This becomes obvious, if you have a look at the treatment of politics in the mass media. The display and control of recording equipment and pickup unit superimpose the real events to a great extent. Whatever is recorded by mass media turns out to be a preparation, a compound of their technique.

By bursting into reality, the camera makes structures of space perceptible, which up to now have escaped the human consciousness. We must understand that the lens, the eye of the camera, does not elucidate what we have seen already in a vague way. Movies provide us with a totally new experience. The eye of the camera discovers unknown structures in the midst of well-known phenomena. What I want to point out here is that a technical medium has metaphorical effects on what we call real. Every new medium is a prism - it is a prism which unfolds the grey environment of everyday life into the spectral colours of sensuousness and meaning.

I will argue now that the same applies to the relationship between text and images - catchword: Multimedia. The New Media unfold the grey environment of text into the spectral colours of sensuous knowledge. Let us first consider the destiny of the writing hand.

The art of writing is deeply affected by the evolution of the New Media. The liquidation of handwriting is a distinctive mark of modern times. Handwriting vanishes from the scene of writing. This is a severe grammatological incision, as Jacques Derrida would put it. Technical media have taken the weight of the writing hand. Therefore this hand is no longer the sign of humanity, but a set of commanding fingers. And by analogy, we have to realise that language is no longer the human word but information. This is the reason why Martin Heidegger's reflections on the Greek concept of Lethe - which means oblivion - climax in an ontological deduction of the typewriter. Typewriters devalue handwriting. The typewriting human hand is only the innervating organ of a keyboard. This process eclipses the meaning of writing; writing splits off. In other words: While the New Media emerge, the old humanistic world of hand, word, and man perishes.

I think we have to understand that the techniques of media have a severe effect on perception and thinking. This effect is equivalent to what philosophers call Apriori, which means: the conditions of the possibility of experience. This Apriori becomes manifest as soon as the tradition of the Gutenberg Galaxy is exposed to the New Media. The books written by Paul Valéry, Walter Benjamin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Marshall McLuhan, Gilles Deleuze, Douglas Hofstadter, and Niklas Luhmann can be understood as attempts to do justice to the New Media world at a level of technical depiction. And what is more: these books are no longer books in the strict sense of the word, but mosaics consisting of quotations and fragments of thought. They perform an art of writing which might be called cinematic - composing books as if they were movies. These books try to burst through the limits of the book form. Of course, most of these attempts have failed. But even this failure is instructive. The information processing system 'book' is clearly no longer up to the complexity of our social systems. For this reason, authors who are aware of this and yet want to remain authors, organise their books according to structures and patterns taken from non-linear information processing systems.

The most interesting books of the 20th century are hypertext avant la lettre. They can be understood as attempts to open the doors of perception amidst a field of thought that is spellbound by the book form. It is one of the characteristic traits of post-modern knowledge, that the inner form of theory does not coincide with the traditional form of representation. Post-modern knowledge is a zig-zag journey across fields of thought. The complex relationships of informational items demand intense linking. Intertextuality can be defined as a differential network of text tracks which refer interminably to others. Post-modern knowledge argues with self-strengthening resonances. These self-strengthening resonances emerge from strange loops between various levels of reflection and depiction. That would have formerly been rebuffed by traditional philosophers as a kind of infinite regress. Now, however, it is elegantly reinterpreted as the scientific aesthetics of recursion.

This post-modern design of knowledge simply cannot be sequenced in book form. In order to depict the complexity aimed at her without loss of information, it would be necessary to provide a simultaneous presentation at several levels. Depictions of complexity require complex theories which are no longer serialisable. Reflection in post-modern theories begins simultaneously at several points of entry. Moreover, every reflection entry presupposes an abundance of non-explicable prerequisites. All of this cannot be realised in linear reading matter. What we are therefore looking for is a medium of simultaneously-presented depiction.

And this is exactly what hypermedia achieve. They have a strong affinity with relational database management systems. These systems work out dynamic structures with relational operators. They work with many-to-many relations - a far cry from linear data processing. It is here that a decisive means of implementation emerges for that complex theory of the complex: elaborated hypermedia are to work with second-order-links. Second-order-links can be defined as links to links. So what is it good for? I would maintain that the software structure of hypermedia is identical to the theory structure of complex facts. Hypermedia as well as complexity are a relationing of relations. Familiar dynamic structures such as the weather can be simulated in this way. Hypermedia allow the depiction of the interaction of relations and values over and above a certain period of time.

The typed links already familiar to every user of hypermedia are also tools for complexity management. They reduce data complexity by opening up a variety of virtual navigation perspectives. This must not be confused with conventional classification processes.

Hypermedia integrate the most heterogeneous material. They also operate at a fuzzy and probabilistic level. Hypermedia process in a parallel and 'connectionistic' way. Therefore hypermedia are able to provide ideal brainstorming tools.

However, hypertext follows not only the most up-to-date technical development but also the oldest tradition. The first chapter of its history should be dedicated to the commentaries of the Bible and Torah. As early as in the Middle Ages the manuscripts of monks and rabbis produced links, guided tours and superlinks between the first documents and religious and philosophical tradition. The monks produced footnotes, glossaries, images. It is therefore only consistent for Bible research to be one of the first to be converted to hypertext.

The information sphere of the hypermedia culture has infinite dimensions. In other words: Information has no natural topography. Therefore media metaphors repeatedly intervene on the user surface, to provide orientation. If you know Apple's HyperCard You will be well acquainted with media metaphors like library, compass, network, film and Hitch Hiker's Guide.

Hypermedia thus use the characteristic attainments of older media as metaphorical navigation aids in the complex information sphere. Above all, it is the film metaphors, for example on Apple's HyperCard, which mark the parting from linear information structures - for instance: dissolution, cut, montage, flashback, zoom in, zoom out. Such non-linear structures of data management do, of course, produce a much higher linkage density than would ever be possible in the case of books. The page of a book is very simple compared with the busy screen of a hypertext. For the first time in the history of knowledge, hypermedia allows browsing between media. This is the new design of post-modern knowledge which up to now has not been implementable. Now it is possible to constitute a smooth hypermedia environment, reproduced by means of interactive information usage.

Catchword "interactive"!

At the time being, the only thing we know for sure about interactivity is how badly research is needed into this concept. I think we must become clear about the fact that in most cases to date, interactivity is only a magic word for sales promotion. Why is that so? Well, the reason for this is very simple. Elaborated computer programs take over preliminary decisions, which are presented in images or icons. The so-called user is no longer a reader but a viewer, an onlooker. The system masks the data-structure, and the user is wrapped up in an environment of multiple choices. In other words: what we have achieved so far is interactivity not between man and computer, but between different kinds of data.

Obviously interactivity has something in common with the experience of flight simulators and video games. Hypermedia are technical implementations of knowledge design. The question is: how can we add value to given information? The answer is: provide a software-architecture that enables us to set foot on these pieces of information - strictly speaking: to enter a room of knowledge - strictly speaking: to navigate in a galaxy of electronically processed data. Understanding the concept of navigation is crucial. Learning by navigating. What we have in mind is information in a new state of aggregation which renders possible a kind of knowledge which adapts to the learner.

If it were only a matter of the logic of the hyper-systems, the new society of text would resolutely take its leave of private, discreet documents. Yet there will still be 'authors' in the foreseeable future. And the reason is very simple: in order to make money, the society of text must insist on copyright. Piracy will become a key problem. The question of authorship, copyright and piracy marks the decisive point of ramification between closed and compound hypermedia.

The quest for interactive hypermedia is a symptom of the great civilisation problem of the 20th century: the fast processing of a mass of information bursts all human measure. A symbolism is required for this which allows mathematical transformations to be reduced to machine processes. Only then will relief for human thought be achieved. In the age of New Media and computers, a dream might come true that can be traced back to the philosophy of Leibnitz and the bold experiments of Babbage. The dream, as Vannevar Bush put it, of being able "to click off arguments on a machine".

The growing complexity of Western civilisation forces the complete mechanising of memory, storage and the keeping of archives. It is only against the background of these technical implementations of memory functions that man may succeed in regaining the privilege of forgetting. Relieving human brains of nevertheless indispensable complexity can also stamp a terse vocational profile. The new profession of human information processors is marked by the task of paving on behalf of others practicable ways through the maze of stored material.

The main problems of the information age are selection and access to the record. What makes them problematic is the traditional way of organising stored knowledge - namely by means of indices. Vannevar Bush answers this with the association mechanics of the human spirit which is to be technically implemented: "Selection by association, rather than by indexing". This remains the principle of all hypermedia structures. This principle situates hypermedia at the same level as Connectionist models, neural networks and parallel distributed processing.

According to Ted Nelson, literature is an ongoing system of interconnecting documents. Nelson aims at software for an online world-library. What he wants is not only a library for the whole world but also a transformation of the world into an electronic universal library. All the documents contained in this library are virtually omnipresent and ubiquitous - they take on the form of instant literature. Ted Nelson's hypermedia system (Xanadu) provides a universal data structure to which all other data may be mapped. This can also be understood cartographically: the instant literature produces a new world map. Every byte of the world can be provided with its own address. Leave taken of the discreet, private documents of the Gutenberg Galaxy is simply leave taken of the classification patterns of hierarchy, category and sequence. As Nelson put it: "Everything is deeply intertwingled". True hypertext is a rhizome.

However, the rhizome of a true hypertext requires a self-assertive user. Getting rid of hierarchy and sequence challenges the reception limits of man. If information is no longer provided discreetly and in a linear fashion, but at a high level of compactness on busy screens, there is a threat of cognitive entropy. This is the reverse of the unlimited manipulation power provided by hypermedia: getting lost in hyperspace.

And here is another severe problem: navigation in the information sphere of hypermedia is identical to a reduction of the complexity of possible 'views'. It is of paramount importance to filter out irrelevant data. A hypermedia culture will have to live with the permanent problem of 'junk information'. All documents will be headed by innumerable commentaries, 'links' and variations similar to a palimpsest. Who is now to decide on important and junk information? Who is to filter the data into workability?

Let us resume: hypertext, multimedia, interactivity - what is is all about? Simple search programmes, graphic abilities and text installation do not lead to hypertext. What is decisive is the non-linear structure of the complete text which must be explicit and easily modifiable. Film metaphors, as already mentioned, make clear the non-linear structures of navigation in the highly complex information sphere. They signal links within and between documents, but they cannot depict references between various media. Even film metaphors fail with regard to the actual achievement of hypertext. The main achievement of hypermedia is to make possible browsing between media using a single delivery device.

One of the most simple forms of depicting complexity within linear writing movements is the footnote. For this reason, the simplest definition characterises a hypertext as a generalised footnote. It does, indeed, form a network consisting of footnotes to footnotes. This can, however, no longer be meaningfully depicted in print media.

Hypertext makes explicit the network of its references. Linear writing suggests that its ideas are smoothly organised. The electronic text however allows the coexistence of various structures. At the same time it becomes clear that writing is nothing other than an arrangement of linguistic gestures. How to do things with topics! The same applies to reading matter and interpretation. The entire meaning of a text is manifest in the ramification structure of its electronic depiction. A hypertext system spells out the process of interpretation in an algorithm and embodies that process in a programming language.

The meaning of an electronic text is its use in the respective reading matter. The text structures are kinetic. And that simply means: electronic literature exists only in real time. The differential network of the hypertext therefore does not produce the feeling of postponement and delay. On the contrary it suggests immersion into a permanent present of text movement. The kinetics of electronic literature justify a new text concept which goes far enough to comprise all data. The terminological undecidedness between hypermedia and hypertext is in this respect well-founded.

Computer programmes are texts which read and write texts without it being possible to assign an author subject to them. This accounts for a central characteristic of hypermedial depictions - they are self-authoring texts. Here it becomes clear that literary work is a collective process. For the first time, technical expedients are provided to implement an old Utopia: The difference between author and reader no longer exists. Literature may arise when users navigate through a fictional data space, drawn up by hypertexts. This would be interactive fiction. The much-maligned computer games intentionally impede navigation to a desired goal - that makes them a kind of training camp of a new art of writing. For hypertexts build up simulation worlds just as adventure games do, and these can be explored by reading. The story always exists in the real time of navigation. Let me close by saying that authors are merely trail blazers in story space. They too do nothing other than that which the users of their programmes do: see, read, navigate, play. The question what is an author? then becomes lost.


updated 1993