Assistant Professor of Computer Science, UC Santa Cruz
Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at UC Santa Cruz, is one of the leaders in the field of electronic literature and new media arts. After receiving his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Brown in 2003 and while serving as one of Brown’s Traveling Scholars, he co-edited both The New Media Reader (MIT Press, 2003) and First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game (MIT Pres, 2004), which have been influential in establishing the field of new media studies. Wardrip-Fruin is a member of the Board of Directors of the Electronic Literature Organization. His many collaborative works of electronic literature include Gray Matters, The Impermanence Agent, the installation Talking Cure, and the Cave piece Screen. He is also a founding member of the well-known electronic literature and new media group-blog, Grand Text Auto. His most recent book is Expressive Processing (MIT Press, 2009).
Links: Home page | Grand Text Auto
Research Sample: From “What Hypertext Is” – a short paper for ACM Hypertext 2004
How can we answer the question, “What is hypertext”? Our most respected scholars offer answers that span a wide range. In the literary community, the definitions offered often focus on the link. Marie-Laure Ryan , for example, states that, “In hypertext… the reader determines the unfolding of the text by clicking on certain areas, the so-called hyperlinks, that bring to the screen other segments of text.” Espen Aarseth  offers a similar view of the term, writing that, “Hypertext, for all its packaging and theories, is an amazingly simple concept. It is merely a direct connection from one position in a text to another.” In the computer science community definitions can sound somewhat different. In a forthcoming article a number of well known hypertext researchers from the University of Southampton  argue that link-based understandings miss “some of the more profound aspects of hypertext” especially “hypertext-as-interaction with information to build associations, and through associations to build knowledge.” In a similar vein, Peter J. NÃ¼rnberg’s  closing keynote for the Hypertext 03 conference (“What is Hypertext?”) offered “structured knowledge work” as a summary of the focus of the hypertext research community.
Given these incompatible definitions, we could argue that one group or another has more right to define the term. But intellectual communities must be home to arguments over the definitions of key terms – as these are arguments about the meaning of the field, necessary if we are to avoid stagnation. Better, instead, to understand the history of our terms, so that we may see how competing definitions of the moment are movements in different directions from a common starting point. That is to say, when we ask the question, “What is hypertext?” we are asking a question fundamentally similar to questions such as “What is psychoanalysis?” “What is natural selection?” and “What is communism?” We are asking about the meaning of an intellectual term coined by a particular thinker, around which further thinking has grown. While such terms are often taken in a variety of different directions after they are coined (much as Stalin took usage of the term “communism” in a direction that Marx is unlikely to have imagined) it is generally agreed that serious discussion of the meanings of such terms must begin with the work of thinker who coined them.
In the case of “hypertext” the term was coined by Theodor Holm (“Ted”) Nelson. This paper examines two of Nelson’s early publications of the term in order to provide a starting point for historically-informed definitions of the term.
We can now, based on our examination of Nelson’s texts, provide the first two sentences of a historically-based definition of hypertext appropriate for a world familiar with the Web: “Hypertext is a term coined by Ted Nelson for forms of hypermedia (human-authored media that branch or perform on request) that operate textually. Examples include the link-based ‘discrete hypertext’ (of which the Web is one example) and the level-of-detail-based ‘stretchtext.’”