April 6, 2003
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A Fine Report

The second installment of Baldur Bjarnason's trip report on Dust Or Magic is everything you can ask from a trip report: detailed, thoughtful, judicious, and opinionated. He titles it Hypertext, and Other Ways of Lying (April 6, no permalinks), and he disagrees with me quite on a number of topics.

Eastgate's more famous hypertexts were an interesting exercise but if you want confusion then Pynchon and Paul Auster did it in a more emotionally effective way.


The HTML hypertexts in Eastgate's Reading Room do not look promising. Ugly, ugly, ugly.

But, in contrast to so many new media pundits, Bjarnason doesn't try to stack the deck. He does a fine job of reporting, and teases out the ideas in which he finds merit and the identifies the arguments he thinks incomplete. He's got a theoretical slant -- he thinks open source matters more than I -- but he doesn't let it override the discussion.

It's only recently that the web began to, in my mind, fulfill its promise of being a public medium. The well crafted equivalent of a good pub chat...Mark Bernstein's talk ( The Eastgate Story ) on the second day of Bob Hughes's Dust or Magic conference makes me think that the same might be happening to hypertext literature.

Bjarnason emphasizes one key point that has, I think, been insufficiently addressed in the long debate about the position of Storyspace and Eastgate,

Being indebted to a large corporation and tied to a closed proprietry format is destructive for a small scale, cottage industry, digital publisher. You are not independent anymore. You are just another soiled organ, a serf in our world of corporate feudalism.

Which highlights how advantageous it has been for Eastgate to be in control of their own main authoring tool. That's what allows them the luxury of being a small publishing house in an industry full of worn cogs.

Control is empowering, and knowing that you can exercise control can be empowering even if you never have to actually use your power. I've long argued that people actually do control their authoring tools -- that whether you work in Flash or Director or HyperCard or Storyspace, you can easily retain the power to jump ship if your platform is sinking. Perseus showed us how to do this back in 1987.

But, though people should know this, and though I've certainly shouted it often enough, I don't think people really believe it. I've stripped Storyspace to the bare bolts, spread it out on the floor, and built it back again. Twice. I know its a manageable task.

But really believing is another story. I've built computers from parts. I used to build lasers from parts -- sometimes from parts I machined from brass and steel in the basement of the Harvard science center. But, when my car starts to act up, I'm terrified; I can work out the thermodynamics of internal combustion, but I've got no idea how to change a spark plug because I've never tried.

Bjarnason's paraphrase of Bob Stein's peroration is worth repeating.

It's only a matter of time before we get too subversive and they come down on us. The great firewall of China proves that the internet's freedom of speech is an illusion they allow us because it sells. Believing in technology does not make sense. People—not hardware—change the world.