Summer 1996

Experiments in hypertype

Book or CD-ROM?

‘If it makes a better book leave it alone,’ argues a recent CD-ROM. How do we decide when it does?

To a writer, the sensation of difference that occurs on seeing a first laser printout of a text composed, read and re-read onscreen is often dramatic and always surprising. The ‘voice’ of a text can change entirely, as if seen anew; the sense of scale alters, new errors are picked out. This difference between reading words on the screen and reading words on the page is not simply one of eight-times greater resolution, or the glare of light, or even absence of texture, but one of expectation. We expect permanence from what we read in print, and we expect ephemerality from the screen.

Time and materiality are the opposing qualities of screen and print typography and determine what kinds of text each medium lends itself to. Paper holds ideas more firmly than the screen; there is no slippage. Print fades and paper disintegrates, but as an imperceptible process. The physical imposition of ink on a material surface has permanence and authority. Printed characters retain their command, as if the effort of the process of setting and binding has sanctioned the words, raising them beyond mere scribble.

As a medium of the material world, print appears to us to be inherently stable, communicating and recording its information in human language, making its mark as a physical manifestation of human memory. Once the mark has been made it is fixed and unmediated by technology- we don’t need a paraphernalia of hard-wired silicon to interpret it, and the medium of record and reproduction are the same. The essence of screen, by contrast, is instability and immateriality, existing in an unsteady state of sweeping rasters and transient bitmaps. The tangible presence to which we are accustomed is missing, sacrificed to speed, mutability, variation and animation – all factors of time.

The influence of material presence – and its absence – is one of the themes in Michael Worthington’s Hypertype, the screen-based MFA thesis which he produced as a graduate student at California Institute of the Arts. ‘Matter matters,’ states Worthington, before sending a cascade of trompe l’oeil stone, wood and metal type across the screen. The loss of surface in screen typography is, he says, immense.

‘With typography that lives on the screen, there is a loss of the tactile nature that comes with the printed surface/object. You get the same sensory experience from touching a computer screen universally and it is an experience that remains the same.’

Hypertype proves its own point. Worthington’s text was written for the screen and is essentially demonstrative, type describing type. My first reaction on reading (or is it watching?) this precocious experiment in time-based screen typography, which can be found hidden away in the desktop folder of the CalArts 25th Anniversary CD-ROM (also designed by Worthington) was born of a habit of book reading: I needed to know its scale, what I was in for. How many words were there? How many images? In what approximate relation to each other? The privilege of this knowledge, which is one of the first things a book tells us about itself, is unavailable. CD-ROMS have no heft, no binding; they look and weigh the same no matter what their content. But this is a bookish question to ask of a medium which makes a virtue of being boundless.

Worthington’s emphasis on tactility and ‘surface’ may be incomplete. Not only do we miss the texture and smell of paper, but also this sense of scale, the sense of the commonality and reliability of machine produced texts, and that, at a practical level, time-based type defies attempts to freeze itself for future scrutiny. The experience of reading the text exposes similar difficulties of awareness of context and extent which are not necessarily the inherent properties of the medium, but do seem to come with the territory. Hypertype is largely performative and, like television, it can be implacable, having no ear for its audience and strengthening rather than weakening the author’s hegemony over the reader: you click to start a sequence, watch and read until it finishes, and click again. Moving backwards isn’t easy without starting over again. Skipping forward is possible only from section to section. For casual reading, let alone critical purposes, this can be a nuisance – we lose register.

Worthington regards the ‘variety of visual and virtual textures and illusion of depth’ that the screen allows to be partial compensation for the loss of surface. We can also enjoy the kaleidoscopic games that Worthington plays with type, the control he allows us over form and style, or the poetics of choreographed typography synchronised, sized and vectored to express thought and emotion – the essence of screen-based text. Lack of register is a problem created by the flux which is also the screen’s greatest strength. Where speed, connectivity, multiplicity, indexation, instant duplication and mutation are desirable, the screen is a better medium. Wherever permanence, consistency, proof and commonality and, above all, a material and textural presence (which might mean a human presence) is required, print retains its ascendancy. ‘If it makes a better book, leave it alone!’ Shouts Worthington. ‘It is imperative that book and interactive media are viewed as separate items.’

This still begs the question, What makes a better book? In her forward to S.H. Steinberg’s Five Hundred Years of Printing, Beatrice Warde identified ‘three great privileges’ that the printed book allows its reader: turning back the page to review what we have read; turning forward to the end to see what conclusion is being driven towards; and stopping short to meditate on or verify a statement. A reading of screen-based text might reveal by its absence a fourth privilege of print, operating at the micro scale of the page, which the reader scans in an almost unconscious process of review and preview, briefly casting glances backwards and forwards for reference and registration.

The screen seems to lack these essential registration marks, and not just because of our greater familiarity with the book. A better book is a contemplative text. Long texts don’t take kindly to the screen. Short, snappy sentences do – muscular phrases that do a job of work, ask a question, point in a direction. On the screen we ride on trailers of text that carry us somewhere else, pandering to a state of perpetual dissatisfaction with stasis, valuing the journey over the destination.

When our early experiences with the screen have not been with writing, they have been with process – taking money from an automated teller, or searching databases, scanning new headlines, tracking numbers. None of these activities combine reception with contemplation. Nor does the Web, and not just because the clock is ticking. A common experience of the Web is to burrow even deeper into pages nested within pages, like Russian dolls, at the bottom of which we find only a last empty page, or if we are lucky, a crock of shit. Another Web experience is the satisfying seamlessness of a shift from the review of the site to the site itself, receiving instant gratification. Sites merge with sites and the Web coagulates into a lumpy amorphousness.

Expecting the Web to resolve its complex structure into separately comprehensible components – like books with their privileges – would be foolishness. The irony of digital computing, which is a system based on fragmenting physical data into numeric quantities for easier manipulation, is that it encourages inclusiveness and defuses definition. This is what the Web does. Its connectedness blurs edges. Where does one site end and another begin? Books have texture, and physical separation at the level of the object itself and of the page. The Web’s parts have discernible form but the individual sites – and isn’t this the point of connectivity? – can slip all too readily into others.

So we mustn’t look for bookish texts on the screen, and shouldn’t complain when we see them – as we will – they aren’t so easy to read, because they shouldn’t have been there in the first place. In this prototypical stage of new media, we also face the danger of confusing our unfamiliarity with screen-based text with some kind of intrinsic weakness, and yet it may be perfectly possible to replace (and not replicate) the mechanical characteristics of the page and the book with something equally privileging, something to satisfy Beatrice and me. What that thing won’t be, of course are those pathetic simulacra of material forms which we now suffer on the Web - the page view and the scroll bar, which hide rather than reveal their range and scope. Web sites don’t have pages, they have stages, on which characters and objects perform and initiate events and even possess ‘knowledge’ of themselves. Screen text is a language of action and display.

William Owen, design writer, London

First published in Eye no. 21 vol. 6, 1996

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