Hypermedia Theory

Like Paola Arosio and Diego Meozzi, I "enjoy computers and megalithic sites". This work has thus been written as a hypermedia document (in HTML) for the World Wide Web and can be read like other web pages. It contains 328 different text and image files on 159 individual pages, each with their own 'address', which all stand independently as well as forming part of a larger whole.

'Hypertext theory', or better, 'hypermedia theory' is a fairly new, yet exciting field of study within literary studies. At its heart are several characteristics that make hypermedia documents unique in comparison with conventionally written documents. One of the main scholars in the field is George P. Landow (1991; 1992; 1994). Some of his work is available on the World Wide Web, e.g. a brilliant discussion of the history and potentials of hypertext.

Non-sequentiality of the argument

Hypertexts and hypermedia documents transcend the linear, bounded and fixed character of the conventionally written text (Landow and Delany 1991; Landow 1992; 1994; Nelson 1993; Edwards 1994; Mosher 1999). For that purpose, they often (though not necessarily) use computers. As Bob Cotton and Richard Oliver have put it (1993: 41):

"Hypermedia marks the beginning of the adoption and exploitation of the computer as a medium, rather than simply as a tool."

In the hypermedia format the longer units (sections, chapters, appendices) and shorter units (footnotes, digressions, figures) of a conventional piece of work are brought into a single format. Hypermedia documents consist of a bricolage of 'nodes': blocks of texts, sounds and images composed, and to be read, in no specific order. In contrast to conventional texts (and perhaps especially conventional Ph.D. theses), there is no linear sequence in which a hypermedia document's pages are meant to be read and understood. A hypermedia document minimises the traditional status differentiation between the often sequential elements of a book or article, for equal status as independent pages is accorded to all elements (such as a work's table of contents, preface, ordered chapters, digressions, conclusions and implications for the future, notes, bibliography, appendices, indices; etc.). Each reading experience is different, and the sequence of pages read remains undetermined by the writer. I am suggesting, neither explicitly nor implicitly, a specific order in which it ought to be read (after the title page), nor an essential sequence of my argument. Instead I am stressing, in both form and content, the power of making connections as an interpretive tool. All I am offering you are a couple of access points that will lead you right into the work. After that, be investigative! Be an archaeologist! I hope that, in the end, Paul Rabinow's aphorism for his recent book (1989: 14, slightly modified) will not prove true for this work: "While the parts may seem too simple, the whole may seem too complex."

Underlying hypermedia documents are two main principles. One is that every 'page' has its own physical address (in the case of the World Wide Web, their Uniform Resource Locator or URL). The second principle is that the reader can move freely from one page to another by clicking on a hyperlinked word, or hyperlinked sequence of words, or hyperlinked image. Clicking on such a link connects to that page, the address of which appears in most web browsers on the bottom of the open window when the cursor moves over this very link. Normally, every page offers a fairly large selection of possible links. It is up to the reader to decide which one to follow, or instead to manually type in a completely different address.

Interestingly, a presentation in hypermedia format may come much closer to key characteristics of memory, free oral presentation and story-telling than do conventionally written texts (cf. Winkler 1994). As David Lowenthal points out (1985: 208):

"Memory retrieval is seldom sequential; we locate recalled events by association rather than by working methodically forward or backward trough time."

Although others now disagree with this, George Landow and Paul Delany believe that hypermedia provides a

"model for the mind's ability to re-order the elements of experience by changing the links of association or determination between them. ... Hypermedia takes us ... closer to the complex interrelatedness of everyday consciousness; it extends hypertext by re-integrating our visual and auditory faculties into textual experience, linking graphic images, sound and video to verbal signs. Hypermedia seeks to approximate the way our waking minds always make a synthesis of information received from all five senses. Integrating (or re-integrating) touch, taste and smell seems the inevitable consummation of the hypermedia concept. Consciousness itself is a continuous linking and restructuring of images selected from ... the real and the imaginary; from the internal and external realms of experience" (Landow and Delany 1991: 7-8).

This then is another reason why past and present are so firmly connected.

In a way, an open non-sequentiality is also more honest to the actual practice of reading and understanding, because the different pages correspond to various interconnected mental 'chunks' into which we tend to break up complex issues in order to make them intelligible (Landow and Delany 1991: 6, 23; Edwards 1994: 262-3; Bermudez and Palumbo 1994; Storrer 1999). This corresponds to central assertations of associationism and connectionism (cf. Landow 1992: 26). In the words of hypermedia pioneer, Ted Nelson, sequential presentations are artificial and "spoil the unity and structure of interconnection" of thoughts and ideas, which hypermedia can express (Nelson 1993: 1/14, see also 1/16). Moreover, hypermedia can

"provide a revelation, by making visible and explicit mental processes that have always been part of the total experience of reading. For the text as the reader imagined it—as opposed to the physical text objectified in the book—never had to be linear, bounded or fixed. A reader could jump to the last page to see how the story ended; could think of relevant passages in other works; could re-order texts by cutting and pasting. Still, the stubborn materiality of the text constrained such operations: they required some physical task such as flipping pages, pulling another book from the shelf, or dismembering the original text beyond repair" (Landow and Delany 1991: 4; see also Nelson 1993: 1/18).

These sort of statements are obviously written with a certain amount of unbound enthusiasm (or hype) for a new medium. Recent studies have warned that this is not the only view on how we think (e.g. Dillon 1996).

Similarly to a key claim of reception theory, hypermedia openly encourages the reader to be active, to make choices, and to give a text meaning based on the individual reading experience, rather than on something inherent in the text. The hypermedia document, itself, does not privilege any particular order or perspective of reading (see also Bolter 1991: 156-9; Landow 1992: 11-13). This new way of expressing and receiving ideas may revolutionise education (e.g. Bermudez and Palumbo 1994; but cf. Dillon 1996!).


Intertextuality refers to the numerous implicit references in each text to other texts. No text is written completely isolated from other texts and can stand entirely for itself. Hyperlinks in hypertexts and hypermedia documents emphasize such intertextuality in way that is impossible in printed texts: they can lead directly from the hyperlinked terms, phrases or images to other contexts in which the same terms, phrases or images are meaningful, whether inside or outside the given hypermedia work itself (Bolter 1991: 163-4; Landow and Delany 1991: 9-13; 17-18; Landow 1992: 10, 53; Nelson 1993: chapter 2.2; Edwards 1994: 242-3).

Nelson argued (1993: 1/19) that it is desirable for presentations of thoughts to represent all the interconnections within a text the author can think of, and this is precisely what hypertexts make possible. Perhaps, at some stage in the future, all relevant academic texts in a given field will be available in hypermedia versions, with a large number of links connecting them with one another, thus establishing a huge network of academic reasoning and writing: a gigantic multiple-authored intertext of academic research (cf. Project Xanadu discussed in Nelson 1993).

The living text

In principle, a hypermedia document is never finished or final. Not only is it read and experienced in ever new orders, as well as be constantly re-written and up-dated by the writer, but it also offers various forms of direct involvement of the reader. In some Hypermedia formats, the reader can actually directly add to, or change (parts of) the given document on his or her screen (Nelson 1993: 2/32-39; Landow 1994: 14, 16, 35-6; Edwards 1994: 231-2; Bermudez and Palumbo 1994). On the World Wide Web, every reader can, in principle, download each document in its entirety and then create a completely new version by independently editing it on a personal computer, a process similar to re-writing, deleting or adding to a published book.

More importantly, the reader can also send feed-back, such as criticism, questions, and suggestions, by electronic mail directly to the author, who may then make this feed-back available to other readers by connecting it with a relevant page of the 'original' document. This offers possibilities of a democratisation of academia, because every reader can easily, and with the same status, contribute to a discussion either within, or in direct connection with, the hypermedia document from which it originated. (Maybe this hope is a little naive though: see Ess 1994; Huggett 1995). Given this potential, a reviewer of my work would fulfil his or her role best by becoming engaged in 'participatory criticism' (Robert Coover, cited after Landow 1994: 36), i.e. by writing comments which are designed to become part of the document itself. Reviews, other relevant discussions, and direct comments in other publications on the World Wide Web, at any point in the future, can also be made accessible from the original document (Landow and Delany 1991: 13; see also Kris Hirst's similar ideas!). Moreover, justified criticism can lead to changes of mistaken parts of the original document.

The author retains ultimate control, being free to constantly transform his or her document. However, input from readers is welcome and can easily be integrated into the document, thus reducing the status division between author and reader (cf. Bolter 1991: 153-6; Landow and Delany 1991: 29-31). Such proceedings might one day transform academic discourse as we know it, but it is difficult to tell if the consequences will necessarily be desirable.

There is another sense in which I intend my work to be open-ended. I refer to the fact that my work has neither a formal Conclusion, where my argument draws to a close and eventually formally ends, nor a Table of Content, which could indicate to the reader when he or she has read all parts deemed interesting and can therefore stop reading. As Landow and Delany put it, "hypertext materials are by definition open-ended, expandable, and incomplete" (1991: 13). After arguing not only that meanings are varied and keep changing, but also that people can make sense of something by making connections, I could hardly 'close' my work and thereby prevent more meanings and more connections from being made. Similarly, a Table of Content would have limited the degree to which every reader creates a completely unique reading, or browsing, sequence through my work. Without one, the reading experience is in practice never 'complete': there is always more to be found, more connections to be made. This, by the way, is not an advantage that relies on the electronic medium alone. In the best print books, with or without a Table of Content, there is always more to be found too.

One problem that may emerge in the future is how to refer to and access previous versions of a document, when they do not exist anymore (cf. Burk et al 2000). One possible solution is a commitment of the author to keep all versions of a document available and simply add links to all newer or older versions on every page (Nelson 1993: 2/36-37, 2/43). This is not possible in the present electronic monograph which works more like the World Wide Web than like Xanadu: you always reach the most recent version, although sometimes this may mean that your link leads nowhere or not where it was once meant to lead. My own justification for this publishing strategy is mainly pragmatic. Basically, in my opinion it is not worth keeping countless numbers of outdated pages in which only minor details, such as spelling mistakes, have been changed or to which a reference has been added - although this is by far the most common way in which I update my documents. Were I to keep copies of every old version of all documents, my e-monograph would not only rapidly explode in size but also become very unwieldy and aesthetically clumsy - losing some of its beauty and elegance. The vast majority of readers will want to understand my own position and argument and do not worry whether at some point I changed a comma or added a reference. Those who do check up references by others to my work should extend the same trust they are prepared to invest in the presentation of my research results to the authors of the other texts they have read: if somebody quotes me, but this quote has since changed or disappeared in my work, it may be assumed that I once said so but would no longer like to say so now.

For those who disagree with me on this, there is also the Internet Archive where you might be able to find previous versions of my pages. Should the situation arise in which I considered it worthwhile to keep an outdated version of any particular document available as part of my work itself, I am still free to save it separately and provide a link - but this has not happened yet.

Hypermedia rhetorics

Key problems of Hypermedia rhetorics (cf. Landow 1991) include

Hypermedia in Archaeology

The use of hypermedia in archaeology is only beginning, but archaeologists are becoming more and more aware of its potentials (Thomas 1996; Denning 1998; for early radical proposals for ethnography see Howard 1988). A pioneering attempt to use the benefits of a hypermedia document for an excavation report was carried out by the Wadi Ziqlab Project in Jordan, using HyperCard software (Banning 1993).

Nowadays, more and more archaeological hypermedia documents are available on the World Wide Web, e.g. Constanze Witt's thesis Barbarians on the Periphery? and Graeme Warren's article on Seascapes in Assemblage 2. The Çatal Höyük Project in Turkey also offers hypermedia presentations of its work and results (Thomas 1996; Hodder 1997). A version of Robert Dunnell's textbook Systematics in Prehistory has been on the Web in hypertext format for some time. A fantastic resource for ancient Greek and some Latin authors is maintained by the Perseus Project.

The best up-to-date overview of archaeological resources on the World Wide Web, some of which are using hypermedia technology, is now provided by Kris Hirst on About.com's Archaeology pages.


Banning, E.B. (1993) Hypermedia and Archaeological Publication: The Wadi Ziqlab Project. In: J.Andresen, T.Madsen and I.Scollar (eds) Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology, CAA 92, pp. 441-7. Århus: Århus University Press.

Bermudez, Andrea B. and David Palumbo (1994) Bridging the gap between literacy and technology: hypermedia as a learning tool for limited English proficient students. The Journal of Educational Issues of Language Minority Students 14, 165-84.

Bolter, Jay D. (1991) Writing Space. The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Ass.

Burk, Alan, James Kerr and Andy Pope (2000) Archiving and Text Fluidity/Version Control. In: R. Siemens (ed.) The Credibility of Electronic Publishing: A Report to the Humanities and Social Sciences Federation of Canada. (URL expired?)

Cotton, Bob and Richard Oliver (1993) Understanding Hypermedia: from multimedia to virtual reality. London: Phaidon.

Denning, Kathryn (1998) I Link? or Ink? Therefore I Am: More Ruminations about Electronic Publishing and Archaeology. Assemblage 3. URL: http://www.shef.ac.uk/~assem/3/3kdrumin.htm.

Dillon, Andrew (1996) Myths, misconceptions and an alternative perspective on information usage and the electronic medium. Draft paper.

Edwards, Paul N. (1994) Hyper Text and Hypertension. Post-Structuralist Critical Theory, Social Studies of Science and Software. Social Studies of Science 24, 229–278.

Ess, Charles (1994) The Political Computer: Hypertext, Democracy, and Habermas. In: G.P.Landow (ed.) Hyper/Text/Theory, pp. 225-67. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hodder, Ian (1997) 'Always momentary, fluid and flexible': towards a reflexive excavation methodology. Antiquity 71, 691-700.

Howard, Alan (1988) Hypermedia and the Future of Ethnography. Cultural Anthropology 3, 304-15.

Huggett, Jeremy (1995) Democracy, data and archaeological knowledge. In: J. Huggett and N. Ryan (eds) Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology 1994, pp. 23-26. British Archaeological Reports, Int. Ser. 600. Oxford: Tempus Reparatum.

Landow, George P. (1991) The Rhetoric of Hypermedia: Some Rules for Authors. In: G.P.Landow and P.Delany (eds) Hypermedia and Literary Studies, pp. 81-103. Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press.

Landow, George P. (1992) Hypertext: the convergence of contemporary critical theory and technology. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Landow, George P. (1994) What's a Critic to Do?: Critical Theory in the Age of Hypertext. In: G.P.Landow (ed.) Hyper/Text/Theory, pp. 1-48. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Landow, George P. and Paul Delany (1991) Hypertext, Hypermedia and Literary Studies: The State of the Art. In: G.P.Landow and P.Delany (eds) Hypermedia and Literary Studies, pp. 3-50. Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press.

Lowenthal, David (1985) The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mosher, Mike (1999) Write me Disconnectedly: Assembling Hypertexts. Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life 44, June 1999.

Nelson, Theodor H. (1993) Literary Machines. 1993 edition. Sausalito: Mindful Press.

Rabinow, Paul (1989) French Modern. Norms and Forms of the Social Environment. Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press.

Storrer, Angelika (1999) Kohärenz in Text und Hypertext. In: H. Lobin (ed.) Text im digitalen Medium. Linguistische Aspekte von Textdesign, Texttechnologie und Hypertext Engineering, pp. 33-65. Wiesbaden: Westdeutscher Verlag.

Thomas, Susan (1996) Online hypertext: Telling stories on the web. Paper given at the Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference, Liverpool 17 December 1996.

Warren, Graeme (1997) Seascapes: Navigating the coastal Mesolithic of Western Scotland. Assemblage 2. URL: http://www.shef.ac.uk/~assem/2/2war1.html.

Winkler, Hartmut (1994) Medien—Speicher—Gedächtnis. Paper given in the Hochschule für angewandte Kunst, Synema, Vienna 15.3.1994.

more relevant literature, and more still; even more electronic resources here.

© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 19 October 2004