Imagining the Borgesian Hypertext

Almost every online news piece or blog post published today includes hyperlinks to either a source story or related articles.   Depending on the organization in question (and RM is no exception), these links are either listed peripherally to the body of the story or included in the text itself.  Links help drive traffic on the site by increasing the number of clickthroughs, and the reader benefits by having immediate access to a more thorough scope that print, radio, and television news cannot provide.

As we work to digitize all of our physical pieces of written information and scholarship, the hyperlink offers unique promise beyond simple references to other work.  The ability to connect a main body of writing with almost any other piece or format of information is an exciting development in connecting unorganized information.  Individual works are no longer isolated from the material from which they were composed, and further incorporation of links will eventually reduce cumbersome associations with variable keywords.  This possibility of establishing specific ties between related pieces for holistic analysis or consumption has the potential to shift how we read, study, and comprehend.

The evolution of the research paper and the bibliography is a case study in the practical possibilities of increased connection in scholarship.  Current medical and scientific journals reference previous studies as bases for their tests, but the print copies of these journals require readers to look up the studies to understand the experiment’s full context.  Theses and longer scholarly papers list hundreds of references or additional resources that, while of potential interest to the reader, are either difficult or time-consuming to acquire.  The bibliography or works cited page is a necessary summation of these references but often appears as an accessory to the work itself.

A thoroughly hyperlinked research paper or scholarly article creates a dynamic ecosystem of information to buttress the author’s thesis.  The ability to shift from article to article, study to study, allows for more immediate connection with previous scholarship.  The bibliography is now an integral part of the argument by showing readers how a given insight or point of argumentation was derived.  (Check out this recent JAMA article for an example.)  And should the reader not want to view all of the associated resources, they’re not mandatory viewing- the main narrative will still make sense despite the presence of links.  The ability to create this kind of cohesive backing network streamlines our ability to connect data and draw conclusions by allowing easy reference or comparison to related scholarship.

Beyond the applications for academic work, I’m particularly excited about the potential for hyperlinks to change how we experience literature on electronic readers.  The ability to reference other pieces of literature within a particular piece sounds ridiculous and unnecessary, especially since many readers value the immersion of a good book and wouldn’t want that spell broken with constant link-outs.  Taken to the extreme, though… that’s where things would get interesting.

I’m imagining a short story in which each word, phrase, or sentence links to another story or concept.  Even a story that’s ten pages long could have dozens of linked stories associated with a given paragraph.  Perhaps a link from the word “rhythm” would tell about how the protagonist’s band got its start at the Paradise Rock Club in 1982.  Or an entire sentence could link to another entirely unrelated story about a set of characters experiencing the same kind of situation under entirely different circumstance.  And all of these various linked stories or pieces would also be completely composed of links that present references to the same body of stories.  Think of it as a quilt of hundreds of stories all stitched together through different references and links.  The result would be a disorienting reading experience with few guidelines for best understanding the main narrative, but I would find the sheer depth of content (and the challenge of experiencing it all!) exhilarating.  Of course, the stories would have to be interesting for readers to make everything click.

I think of this kind of story as a Borgesian hypertext, a modern-day application of Jorge Luis’ Borges’ famed labyrinths.  Many of Borges’ stories, such as The Garden of Forking Paths, involve the fantastic interplay between multiple narrative levels (think Inception’s dream-within-a-dream concept but with more poetic subtlety and craftsmanship and fewer BWAAAAAAAH sounds).  The hypertext would combine this stacked narrative form with the idea of linguistic permutations and combinations Borges discusses in The Library of Babel and The Book of Sand.  The latter describes a text in which “the number of pages… is no more or less than infinite.  None is the first page, nor the last.”  In contrast, the hypertext narrative would be a minor self-contained infinity lacking a set beginning, end, or story arc.  It would ideally envelop readers in labyrinths of words, history, and perspectives and leave them trying to piece together a multi-dimensional narrative puzzle.  It’s impossible to do something like this in print text, but it would be one of the most unique developments in what an “eBook” can entail.

The ability to create this kind of a totally interlocking story has been possible for many years now; any website developer could have slapped hundreds of linked pages together in the last two decades.  So why is this concept particularly germane now?  There are a couple of basic reasons: improved design capabilities allow for greater cohesion, and the ability to experience this content on a tablet in a devoted app makes exploring the story a more immersive and easier-to-navigate experience.  These reasons inform my primary argument for the hypertext’s relevancy today: there’s finally a demand for its model of an evolutionary reading experience.  eBooks have opened the door to increased readership on computers and screens where the boundaries of print need not apply, and this new market for experiences that go beyond the traditional limited text is producing some amazing work.  I’m particularly interested in Invisible Islands, a text / app by Caden Lovelace and Laura Grace that the former calls “a map the size of the world, a ‘dream archipelago’ accessed via GPS, a topography laced with hidden stories.” This new method to tell stories is immensely exciting and the Borgesian hypertext slots neatly into the same market.

Is this hypertext a categorical model for what stories and reading should be like in the digital age?  Certainly not.  If anything, this concept would become tiring if applied to more than a handful of stories.  But it’s a novel imagining of what a “book” now entails, an initiative that has seen some amazing entries in the last five years and will continue to grow in the next decade.  Much credit should be given to those who are paving the way, and I look forward to seeing what’s on the horizon.

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