Interview with Mark Bernstein
FC: Mark, thank you for providing this interview for English Matters. We appreciate your contribution to the journal.
Let me begin by saying that one problem with the web, and publishing your interview on the web, is the way information can be free floating and unrooted. I would like to begin our interview by putting the development of hypertext and your relationship to it in context. Can you start by explaining to the readers who you are and what your connection to hypertext media is?
MB: This problem has nothing to do with the Web; the problem arises from the complexity of our world. It's *always* been difficult to understand contexts deeply, because context is complicated. As Ted Nelson wrote, when inventing the term "hypertext", "Everything is intertwingled." I work for Eastgate Systems, Inc. Since 1982, we've created hypertext writing tools and published hypertexts -- fiction, poetry, and nonfiction -- for serious readers. I got my Ph.D. in chemistry back in the '80s, but even then much of my research was focused on the challenges of making computers a more flexible and responsive medium for expressing difficult ideas. My earliest work in this area was in computer languages for experimental lab work -- languages that would let people reconfigure software as quickly as their experimental apparatus. We were doing laser chemistry, which meant tearing down the equipment and building better systems all the time; conventional software engineering is ineffective when the target keeps moving. So, even in that early work, I was interested in systems that would connect complicated ideas and that would help people create and revise complex ideas. Back then, of course, computers were expensive and exotic. That's changed. It's time to build a new literary world which our literary machines can inhabit.
FC: There are currently competing definitions of hypertext. How do you define hypertext? How does hypertext differ from other forms of New Media? Do the hypertexts published by Eastgate differ from the hypertexts available on the web?
I don't think there are really competing definitions of hypertext: hypertext,
as Nelson originally wrote, is interlinked reading and writing. Links
make hypertext. "New Media" is a marketing term, and it's essentially
meaningless. In general, "new media" encompasses hypertext along with
all the other electronic media. A few Eastgate hypertexts are written
using Web technologies. In general, though, other tools are better for
creating large and complicated hypertexts. In particular, Web hypertexts
can't easily have dynamic links. Dynamic links -- links that change
depending on who reads them and what they have already read -- are almost
indispensable for large-scale hypertext narrative. Of course, the Web
is also a wonderful conduit for distributing hypertexts; lots of stand-alone
hypertexts will be purchased and delivered over the Web, for performance
on the reader's computer.