June 1997


Hypertext Illuminated

An Interview with Michael Joyce by Chris Lapham

Editor's Note: I had the pleasure to speak face-to-face with hypertext fiction writer Michael Joyce. I visited the tranquil Vassar College campus one wonderful warm day in April and talked with Michael along the shore of the college's Sunset Lake. We talked about his life, his work and his vision for the future.

CMC Magazine: When in your career did you begin blending hypertext with fiction? Which comes first?

Joyce: When I first realized the joy of doing a novel with a word processor, I also started to think of a very fundamental question that I guess wasn't as obvious as I thought then: if something belongs on page 300 and also belongs in chapter one, which is a way of telling the story as the experience goes, I started looking around (in 1982) in a very naive way for software that would let you do that. And people were telling me there was no such thing... and I kept running into dead ends.

I didn't want to be a technologist, I wanted to be a writer. But (I read) an article in Popular Computing about Natalie Dehn at Yale. She was using computers to tell stories. I contacted her and she said, You don't want to do what you want to do. She had been studying creativity. She knew that the decisions you make, the exclusions and the narrowing of the story is what made it distinctive. If you opened up the possibilities of some of them, you lost some of the art.

She said to contact Jay Bolter, a classicist. "He's as crazy as you are," said Dehn.

So I went to Yale as a visiting fellow in 1984 and (Bolter and I) essentially agreed to build a hypertext system before we knew the word hypertext. We built story space in 1984 on an IBM PC. In 1985, I became aware of Ted Nelson and the term hypertext.

The fiction came first, the hypertext second.

CMC Magazine: How do you define hypertext fiction ?

Joyce: It's important to understand what it's not. It's not choose your own adventure, it's not branching, it's not do you Do to the valley and fight the dragon.? or do you Go to the mountain and win the princess ? It's like being on a beach, going to a restaurant, going through a day. It's like having a fight with your spouse...enough to upset your equilibrium. Throughout the day, there's a sense that you want to finish, you want to talk it out. You try some phone calls. Meanwhile, many things happen. Not even things that are connected, but things that start to make sense for you. They're the story of that day.

Just as life provides unknown, attractive, and fortuitous options for us to travel, hypertext allows us to make choices, new vistas of meaning. Like life, people look at hypertext as a series of choices people make not quite certain of what they are and why they are, and you open up new vistas of meaning.

When regular readers come to hypertext, they start to see that it's a lot like their own lives. Sometimes it's frustrating. People say, I don't know what's going on. That's a pretty normal feeling, a feeling of how we long to make some meaning of the day, how we long for closure, and yet meanwhile the rest of the day goes on, going to work, getting the kids off to school. It's also like what happens in a novel when you wonder what she's doing while he does that, or when it finishes and you say, I wish I could read the next day. With that explanation, hypertext teases even more.

My students consistently report that they always think someone else is getting the real story, and they're not. When you look at people's faces on a bus or train and wonder, are they happy? are they troubled? You always think someone else's story is going a different way. It's not just that the grass is greener, you have this longing to know...Id like to be in someone else's life for a while, just briefly, and say, how do you think? What do you do?

CMC Magazine: Does hypertext fiction have a literary tradition? Did it spring from the growth of technology to support it, or was it born somewhere else?

Joyce: People were ready for an art which called them to sustain multiple versions and to bring themselves to the joys of trying to make some sense of it. It's not unlike our day to day lives. Many things going on at once. There's a great joy in being aware of all that. We don't need to close them off.

When I give talks to humanists, I tell them that technology, especially hypertextuality, didn't enable this, it provided a stage, an appropriate technology for the kinds of thinking that we've been preparing for over a century. In contemporary technology, people are revisiting these issues as if they've invented them. Virtual realities are poems. Their is an old, old tradition, of trying to summon the richness of the world we live in through abstraction. In the thrall of technology, we are loosing (the understanding that) what's happening to us now is a reflection of what happened earlier in the century.

The important thing was that this idea was in the air, the idea of trying to convey the multiplicity of our consciousness, the ways that we perceive the world and build it has been in the arts at least through the 20th century and arguably before well before that. Hypertextuality --the word was coined at Vassar-- emerged in a fairly rich field. People were ready because of the developments of physics, psychology, and science in the 20th century and modernist like Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Virginia Wolfe.

CMC Magazine: What is the primary advantage of hypertext fiction? Is it an elevated form of fiction, or, perhaps, a whole new art form?

Joyce: I don't think my role as an artist is to give you what you want. Hypertext is most effective when it seduces you, invites you to try and understand why after sex we get a link to flowers. All of those elements are missing in the first pass of the Web because of trying to make it platform independent and (appropriate) for scientific uses. The first Web was essentially a DOS screen, (pre-Mosaic). Then comes Mosaic and suddenly Mosaic gave texture, gesture, and possibility to the Web. (But the Web is) holding back hypertextuality. Hypertextuality is much more subtle.... much more multiple. There should be easy ways that you and I, in the same way that we're having this conversation, can go on a Web journey together, and meet other people, and have a social interface....there should be ways that you can avoid being the proprietor of a hierarchy. If I go visit your Web site, and I follow a link to one of your web pages, and then I go back, I put you in the position of creating a hierarchy that you haven't intended.

What we need are spaces that are more open to readers and writers together (that) keep the promise of hypertextuality. Hypertextuality, when it first came into cultural dialogue, had an element of utopia, an element of democracy, multiplicity, community, and surely the first years of this, in the midst of this incredible, this ferociously selfish land grab of the great media now on the web, one thing that is in danger of being forgotten or unreported is the unselfish contribution of thousands of people throughout the world who helped build the Web.

CMC Magazine: You've been teaching electronic writing to students. What is the most important thing you try to convey, the one lesson you hope they will take with them?

Joyce: I teach electronic culture, virtuality and hypertextuality. When I teach, I try to teach real questions.

I try to teach (my students) to trust confusion. I tell my students that my own model for education is to try to spawn a sufficiently rich confusion (so that when you) make connections, they are real connections. I often use the metaphor of a flood. You feel caught up in so many things, but if you put two things together, you feel as if you've gotten somewhere. Mixing metaphors, if you put two straws together, you can start building a nest.

The richness and the potential of trusting our own multiplicity and confusion is underestimated in education. Too much of what we do attempts to convince people. Life is by chance -- the beauty of it, that things that sustain us -- are chance matters and I think that's not at all antithetical to the aims of a wonderful liberal arts college like Vassar. Chance doesn't mean there is no tradition. We start to realize that what has made human culture what it is (is that) people trusted themselves and one another to build and sustain these possibilities at the risk of confusion and doubt and so many other possibilities.

I tried hard to bring to the classroom the things that are currently on my mind, and in my theoretical publishing. It's not terribly important to share with people what you really, really know because they can get that from you or other sources, but it's very important to share with people the things you're trying to work out for yourself, because then there's the possibility that you can both learn that the world is open ended.

CMC Magazine: If you had one wish for the future of technology, what would it be?

Joyce: The obvious. That it remain open, many ways, two ways, up and down stream. We have to understand that we can't have a two-tier society, we have to provide access. If we don't have widely available technology, much in the same way that we don't have widely available health care and education, then there is no technology. And the technology right now is more often than not fostering divisions and is in terrible pain on that account because most of us know that's not its intent.

Chris Lapham ( is a technology writer, Internet consultant, and contributing editor to Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine.

Copyright © 1997 by Chris Lapham. All Rights Reserved.

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