Hypertext misses the point of the Abbey habit

April 7, 1995

I was sorting some old papers recently and came across an article I had written 12 years ago. Reading through it, I immediately began editing: mentally red-marking and highlighting, changing the positions of sections, correcting the odd spelling mistake or typo and adding clarity where the argument was only just hanging on to the rails.

And yet I remember quite clearly, in working on the piece, how it had taken me several attempts to get it to publishable quality. How come I was able now to make so many obvious changes? Had I really improved that much in the intervening period?

I have probably not "improved" at all; but the undeniable change in the way I now approach writing has been down to technology - in this case, the word processor. This allows me all kinds of freedoms quite out of the question even a few years ago. I can, for example, amend at will.

I now have a confession to make which may, actually, be widely shared. When I reach a certain stage, and am beginning to think that something has been created that could be used, I want to see a hard copy. I want to hold the pages in my hand and read them carefully, all the way through: this, in turn, brings up the need for further revisions.

Some tell me that this craving for paper is because I am such an old fuddy-duddy, having been brought up on a diet of Eagle, Disc and the first years of Private Eye, and that despite my immersion in McLuhan in the 1960s, I am bound never quite to come to terms with the imperatives of the new technological culture.

I cannot accept this argument. Last week, I saw a student studying Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey on a screen. She could see only so many lines at a time, it looked about a dozen or so. She could, therefore, have no idea of the organic quality of the poem, the overall structure, even its length. True, there probably was a button somewhere which might bring up the message "page 1 of 10"; but this does not address the problem. After all, Tintern Abbey is like a musical piece, with its theme stated in its overture and triumphantly re-stated in the finale, modified in the light of the intervening movements.

Somehow, its majesty on the printed page is lost when it is chopped into screen-sized chunks: that immediate reflective run-through of the whole poem when it is first finished, so important as a key to understanding, is simply not possible. The reader is alienated.

If we turn for a moment to computer games and ask what we can learn from their success, it surely lies in their stress on engagement, on forcing the user to be forever active, on creating an environment which is, in essence, interactive - the very opposite of alienation.

It is precisely this interactivity that is missing when I am presented with text on a screen, not to re-work but to read. If I want to read, I want the form which has lasted quite well for quite some time: the book. I can slouch on a sofa with it, lie in bed with it, sit at a table with it. I can sense the bulk of it perfectly well from its size; and I can skim through the pages, or look at the index, or glance through the bibliography. I can grasp its wholeness. The computer screen cannot allow me that relationship.

I find it interesting that those who are engaged in putting text onto screens - often as a cost-efficient means of delivering courses to students - are aware of this overwhelming need for interactivity but quite unable to come up with solutions that complement the reflective nature of the process of reading.

Thus, the Tintern Abbey example not only failed because of the physical limit of the amount of text on screen; it plumbed even greater depths in the hypertext facility offered to the reader. Clicking on individual words in the text resulted in all sorts of definitions being presented in a box at the bottom of the screen. It is possible that some of this might be useful to the student - but I am afraid any highlighted words in a text are going to be pressed simply out of curiosity, and that each of these presses further destroys the continuity needed to read the text as written by the author.

The very process of reading is thus perverted.

I want, therefore, to write with a computer - but not to read through texts on screen. I shall now print this out, go and sit on an easy chair with a coffee, and read it on paper. And, doing so, I will, after all this time, still be surprised by the ways in which the text will need to be amended one last time - on screen.

Which I shall then read - on paper.

Head of the learning methods unit, Liverpool John Moores University.

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