Eastgate Systems      Serious Hypertext

Forward Anywhere, reviewed by Stuart Moulthrop


Reprinted by permission from Convergence: The Journal of Research into new media technologies.

Stuart Moulthrop makes hypertexts and teaches design for electronic environments in the Institute for Language, Technology, and Communications Design at the University of Baltimore. He is the author of Victory Garden.

In an essay about their work, the authors of Forward Anywhere thank Mark Bernstein, hypertext impresario and Eastgate Chief Scientist, for arranging the creative matchup. Xerox PARC's artist-in-residence program gets credit, too, for providing initial conditions of the collaboration. Both these connections are instructive, reminding us (as if we could forget) that hypertextual writing occupies a middle space between the lab and the library, a curious zone where techne seems momentarily reconciled with "content," inviting us to muse along with Douglas Coupland's microserfs:

What is the search for the next great compelling application but a search for human identity? (15)

We may well wonder. As makers of anything virtual will tell you, middle spaces and interstices are fragile things, apt to buckle at the slightest touch of the reality principle. Imagination will only take you so far in this business; the rest is, well, business. These days most people engaged with information technology concern themselves less with visions of human identity than with social impact and economic productivity. Witness Thomas K. Landauer's enormously important book, The Trouble With Computers, wherein serious questions are raised about the practical value of hypertext and other things digital. This from the man who helped design Superbook, the only hypertext system that is demonstrably more effective than print. Unfortunately, Superbook seems to be an exception. According to Landauer most large enterprises have accepted information technology much in the way Coupland suggests, as an object of existential desire. They would have done better to put their money in the bond market. Things are looking a little stressful down in the lab.

Meanwhile back at the library, reciprocal trouble is brewing

Meanwhile back at the library, reciprocal trouble is brewing. Various Gutenberg elegists, from Clifford Stoll and Sven Birkerts to Neil Postman and Neal Stephenson, now loudly lament the death of reading and yearn for an age when texts were books (or in Stephenson's more fascinating thesis, when computers may pretend to be books). These worthies refuse to swallow the "silicon snake oil" of global telecommunications, the Internet, and hypertext among other things. Along with Landauer they imagine a world without computers; and though Landauer considers this scenario a thought experiment, some of the bookmen mean it quite practically. Differences aside, both Landauer and the elegists compel us to consider a very important question: in our headlong dive into what Pat Cadigan calls "the age of fast information," just where do we think we're going?

This is not an easy question to handle even on a good day, but happily Judy Malloy and Cathy Marshall have provided a comeback as snappy as it is deep: Forward anywhere! -- or to paraphrase Mr. Roethke and the mathematicians of chaos, we learn by going where we have to go. Unlike the (delusional) journey back to the world of books, an honest commitment to the future permits no foreknowledge of the destination. Solvitur ambulando. We'll know where we're going when we get there.

Judy Malloy and Cathy Marshall know things about hypertext that can only come from very strong engagement

This seems a good way as any to describe the reader's experience in Forward Anywhere. The work is node-and-link hypertext with a family resemblance to Guyer and Petry's Izme Pass (a connection Malloy and Marshall invite), where an evocative network of first-person vignettes (originally e-mail messages) supports a teeming ecology of pathways and connections. These connections are mediated by a number of linking devices (of which more below) including what Michael Joyce calls "words that yield." To be sure, it's now possible to see this sort of thing on thousands of sites around the World Wide Web, wherever you find a reasonably clever writer in the grip of HTML (Here's Ten More Links). On the other hand, only a handful of these sites will offer anything as substantial or revealing as Forward Anywhere. Partly this is a matter of experience: the generation branded with Coupland's "X" have a wonderful facility for hypertext, but they may have more interesting things to say in a decade or so. Partly the difference stems from craft mastery: Judy Malloy and Cathy Marshall know things about hypertext that can only come from very strong engagement. Above all, of course, Forward Anywhere is distinguished by the quality of its language. For example, this from Cathy Marshall:

An image would disturb me for days.
At Ports o' Call in San Pedro
I turned too quickly and glimpsed a wooden mannequin
without a head.
A nightmare of Lyndon Johnson climbing in a
second story window of our house, in his hand
an ax,
kept me awake all night, locked in the bathroom, with a stack of
Mad Magazines to read.

I taped Barbie in a shoebox.
I worried that stiletto-heeled doll would
harm me as I slept.
Then when the garbage man took her away, I worried
that she wouldn't have anything to wear
there in her shoebox.

Or for those who don't feel especially nostalgic about Mad, LBJ, or evil fetish dolls, there is this from Judy Malloy:

Every morning, I walked to school very slowly
along the tracks,
in the opposite direction from Boston.

In the evening, long freight trains distorted the picture on the black
and white TV we were allowed to watch for a few hours if our homework was

After dark, as I lay under layers of wool blankets, night trains
rattled the storm windows beside my bed. Over and over I
dreamed that I was being chased by a relentless freight train
that was able to follow me no matter in which direction I ran.

These passages show a marked congruence or similarity-in-difference. Both reflect on the self-conceived demons and intimate terrors of awakened imagination. Both might have something to say, if we are inclined to read that way, about female identity in world of mechanism and brutality. Yet each emerges from a particular history and sensibility, Malloy's from the postwar suburbs of Boston, Marshall's from California and the sixties. To pass from one of these moments to the other is to recognize the almost-repetition of emergent or autopoetic pattern, an experience that touches something very deep in the instinctual repertoire, perhaps demonstrating that software does speak to human identity after all.

The author is not the only one here with goosebumps.

Or something like that. Actually, there is a fairly interesting story behind these excerpts, as there always is with hypertexts. Malloy says that "[r]ereading the mystery-filled unfolding of our oddly linked lives still sometimes sends chills down my spine." The author is not the only one here with goosebumps.

Like most Eastgate products, Forward Anywhere consists of a sequential, aggregate text file from which a presentation program makes selections in response to reader choices. The sequential file can be browsed in a word processor (a real boon to critics). I culled these two passages essentially at random from the text file. It wasn't until I saw them together that I realized their mutual resonances. At this point I began to think the two "nightmare" passages must be connected by a hypertext link, so I launched the reading program and made my way to Malloy's screen about the freight trains of yesteryear.

Before going further, however, a few words about the interface. At any given point in Forward Anywhere the reader has a number of options for transition. Certain words in the text serve as departure cues or "words that yield," a term Michael Joyce invented in afternoon. As in that work, the cues here are unmarked and mys terious. The reader does not know if a word will yield unless he is willing to plunge forward anywhere (though a handy reverse button is provided should he change his mind). Alternatively, the reader can touch one of three large buttons at the bottom of the window, "Forward," "Anywhere," or "Lines." The first brings up the next passage in order from the sequential file, the second triggers a random jump through the file, and the third activates a specific link to some other part of the work.

© Eastgate Systems, 1996

Now back to our back-story: I tested each of the button options and most if not all the significant words in Malloy's screen about the trains. There were many links to other screens, mainly screens written by Marshall (this alternation of narrators is prevalent throughout the work). None of the links I followed, however, brought me to Marshall's vignette about LBJ and the headless doll. Recalling that there are many ways to read a hypertext, I next brought up Marshall's screen and tested the options there. Though my explorations were not exhaustive (authors have been known to use prepositions-that-yield, but this reader lacks the patience to investigate), I found no direct path from this screen to Malloy's.

As Forward Anywhere brilliantly demonstrates, hypertexts are structured in more dimensions than the line.

We might take this outcome as an interpretive shibboleth -- how you choose to read it says much about your approach to works like this, or to hypertext and perhaps information culture in general. The old Gutenberg Adam might describe this instance as an artistic defect: the authors should have linked these two screens but they did not, and thus we debunk the hypertextual promise of universal connectedness. There will always be missing links. But the old Adam would say that. He is a confirmed printhead, interested only in static marks on durable stock. He doesn't care much for structures of possibility or combinatorics, which to his way of thinking just breed indecision and imaginative malfeasance. Old Adam lives insistently along the line.

For those less in love with bindings, however, this case of the apparently missing link may tell a different story. As Forward Anywhere brilliantly demonstrates, hypertexts are structured in more dimensions than the line. If a link is not apparent it may be implicit, which is to say practically that a screen not available in a single move may be easily reachable in two or three; and in fact the connection between any two passages is less likely to be a specific circuit than a range of possibilities whose exact extent we may leave undefined. (Michael Joyce on afternoon: "You can't flow this thing. There's no flow chart.") Circulation and uncertainty may count for more than concrete structure.

Understanding this implicit or aleatory design may lead to a different set of expectations for texts and perhaps for the emerging hypertextual culture. The phrase "Forward Anywhere" is also a postal instruction (or imprecation) expressing the desire that a letter follow its addressee throughout her extended travels. Keep trying, it says. Sooner or later the connection will be made, if not in some appointed place, then "anywhere." But of course anywhere is not everywhere. The point of arrival or conjunction does occur eventually, decaying from the possible to the actual; what remains indefinite until this happens is the shape of the space between (Joyce's "contour"), or to return to the postal metaphor, the number of intervening postmarks, rain splashes, coffee stains.

This is a work that moves and moves with us, an

Seen in this way the hypertext becomes something more like an organism, an environment, or a life, ripe with possibilities and governed by patterns and tendencies but bound by no simple or reductive scheme. In a well-made hypertext every link is meaningful -- forward anywhere will always get us somewhere -- but the meaning of the transition is always partly in the transition, or in the history of transformations to which it adds. To speak as Espen Aarseth does of "ergodics" or the aesthetics of pathfinding is not to collapse medium and message but to see the two as consubstantial and co-evolving. Contrary to the prevailing rhetoric of the Web-phobes, we don't follow links and seek out paths as an end in itself. Or to generalize beyond hypertext and glance for a moment at Landauer's skepticism about information technology in general, what we do with computers is not a solipsistic enterprise. Though Coupland probably meant his remark about computers and human identity as yet another sardonic toss-off, not everyone receives it with a sneer. In the world of narrative at least, some of us really believe in that stuff.

Forward Anywhere demonstrates a remarkable commitment to exploration and experiment, a futurity that moves through the past but is not doomed to repetition. This is a work that moves and moves with us, an "open" work in the best sense. In this respect it promises much both in itself and for the sort of writing it represents. However, the leap here is necessarily blind; the story is far from finished. As Judy Malloy says: "Closure was never a goal of this piece."

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