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Rhetorics of the Web:
Implications for Teachers of Literacy

Doug Brent
Faculty of General Studies
University of Calgary
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A Way In

So far, most texts on the World Wide Web are little more than standard print texts posted in electronic format. There is nothing wrong with this use of the WWWeb as an electronic library linking whole documents together. In this web article, however, I am more interested in what Stuart Moulthrop calls "native hypertext": text that is originally written in hypertext and fully exploits the associative, exploratory potential of the medium. In particular I am interested in native hypertexts on the WWWeb.

Fast modems, cheap(er) connections and (relatively) easy html editors are beginning to do for webtext what Ong claims the phonetic alphabet did for writing: transforming a complex and elitist form into a communication tool that any schoolchild can master. Many, including myself, have argued that this form will revolutionise reading and writing in positive ways congruent with the postmodern view of discourse. But I am not convinced that these sunny predictions about hypertext, including my own, have asked all of the really tough questions that need to be asked if we are going to understand our role as teachers in this transformed textual world.

Hypertext clearly has a lot of potential as a medium for information retrieval and for interactive fiction But is it an effective medium for argument--what in the original sense of the term may be called "rhetoric"? More specifically, what would be the effects both on readers and on writers if discursive argument migrated to a hypertext environment? And what, in turn, are the implications of this possibility for our role as teachers?

My own responses to these questions are highly ambivalent. On the one hand, there are very good arguments to be made that hypertext, which privileges infinite hypotaxis rather than parataxis, can paralyse the ability of rhetoric to explore important questions of civil society through the creation and interpretation of rigorous arguments. Hypertext may simply not be the right medium to foster the mental discipline and social inquiry spawned nutured by three thousand years of rhetorical interaction in speech and writing.

On the other hand, another set of voices whispers insistently that a change in the way arguments are structured is not the same as a sellout of our logical/rhetorical heritage. These voices remind us that how Plato argued against writing in a form of logical discourse that only writing could bring into existence. How much of our cynicism about new media for thought is no more than fear of the unknown?

The Form of This Web

Much of our problem is like Plato's: we have hardly scratched the surface of the possibilities this medium has to offer. The present text is an attempt to explore the ambivalent aspects of this new medium by using a structure which foregrounds what I see as its most exciting and most dangerous features.

Each node can lead in a number of different directions. There are no "next" buttons that you can press to follow a path through the text, nor are there "previous" buttons, since there are several ways into most nodes.. These devices, which encourage the reader to follow a "default path" set by the author, seem to me to run counter to the most important new feature of the medium: its ability to let the reader build her own path throguh the text rather than follow a path set by the author.

The web is big and detailed--the editors of Kairos call it a "hypertext monograph" rather than a "hypertext essay." Most readers will not exhaust it, though habit may lead them to try. We are used to reading a print text completely, if we find ourselves interested in what it says. We are afraid to miss something important, some part of the argument that is a key to the author's meaning. But if we read and write discursive hypertext, we must not be afraid to be selective. Hypertext's mandate is to let the reader choose how much to read as well as the order in which he will read it.

The web refers outside itself to other material wherever possible. Thus it is "porous" in John December's phrase. It forms one piece of a hugely extended web of discourse, and allows you to venture off into other sections of the WWWeb, possibly (in theory) never to return to this one.

There is a beginning node--this one--but there is no concluding node. Stop reading when you've had enough, not when you've gotten to my ultimate message. Ultimate messages arte for print, which by its physical nature must have a last page and therefore a last thought to print on it.

On the other hand, the text does not (I hope) dissolve into what David Kolb calls "a cloud of free associations:" There is an argument of sorts here, though it is tentative and exploratory, in keeping with the oscillating mixture of enthusiasm and cynicism that I myself feel. The material goes in many different directions but it does cluster around several identifiable questions and threads of discussion. Some of these threads support each other, others conflict with and even contradict each other. Each thread has several layers of material ranging from my own arguments on the subject through supporting and digressive material to long quotations (sometimes representing several pages of print) which only the more interested and diligent will want to explore. My sense of how the material links together is of course different from what others might see in it, but it is only reasonable that I as author have more of a sense of the whole than someone who has not yet read it, and it would be disingenuous to hide that information on the pretext of letting the reader construct the text. There is a fine line between associative reading and bumbling about in the dark.

Therefore the web contains some sources of guidence which I hope walk the thin line between helping the reader sort out the material and usurping the authority which hypertext allegedly confers on the reader. Except for embedded links to references, I have placed all the links at the end of each page. This is counter to convention, but it allows you to read each chunk of the argument without distraction and allows me to give more hints as to where each link might take you. I have also avoided graphics, even for repeated links such as "home" and "index." These strike me as distracting unless they serve a real purpose, and downright infuriating if you have a slow connection.

I have also provided an index which is organized thematically according to rough associations of material. Examining the index will give you an idea of the relationships which I see between the nodes, and of the different voices I hear in my head as I read the nodes. You may hear different voices, but at least you will have some idea of how you might be able to make sense of the material.

Finally, I have tried to deal with the fact that the WWWeb does not permit readers to annotate texts. Any comments on this web, or suggestions regarding links to other webs, or for that matter second thoughts of my own, will be included in a file which I will maintain on my own site. You can access these through the "Comments and Annotations" link below. I'm especially interested in your personal reactions as a reader. Did you find the effort of following all these links back and forth across the universe worthwhile? Did you find the text an adventure in exploration or a nightmare of inconclusiveness?

So let's get started.

Further musings on the rhetorical form of this text Some of the choices I found myself making.
Summary of my own suuny predicitions An optimistic voice--a summary of my 1991 article predicting that electronic text would change outdated notions of intellectual property. Mainly background.
Stuart Moulthrop on Native Hypertext A link into "A Shadow of an Informand" in which Moulthrop introduces this term
Few Native Hypertexts Some speculations about why there are so few argumentative hypertexts in scholarly discourse. A bit digressive but sets up the context for the argument.
Is hypertext really different from print text? Print is intertextual too. Does it matter?
What's Special about Hypertext on the WWWeb? A brief argument that hypertext is qualitatively different on the Web--more background.
Is hypertext friendly to argumentative rhetoric? The crux of my argument about the rhetoric of hypertext.
Reading hypertext An opening move in my darker ponderings, based on some disturbing analogies between hypertext and television
Writing hypertext
Possible negative effects of hypertext on those who write it as well as read it.
Our role as teachers A fundamental question: do we resist or embrace the new world of hyperliteracy?
Comments and Annotations Additional material from readers and afterthoughts from me.

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