Nostalgic Angels: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing

by Johndan Johnson-Eiola

Reviewed by Scott DeLoach

ISBN: 1567502814 In Nostalgic Angels, Johnson-Eiola presents a down-to-earth discussion of the capabilities and limitations of hypertext. Johnson-Eiola challenges us to avoid nostalgia and not limit the use of hypertext as a computerized book. In addition, we must not see hypertext as the reader’s guardian angel, always there to offer help and support. Instead, we must recognize that "hypertext is writing and reading" and as such it should be analyzed not strictly as information transfer but as a writer-reader discourse (p. 5-6).

The heart of the book is found in the examinations of the efficiencies, economies, and space of hypertext discussed in chapters three through five. In chapter three, Johnson-Eiola begins by recognizing the value of efficient communication and the advantages of hypertext. As he notes, "Anyone who has used a well-designed functional hypertext can recall the sensation that whatever was needed was right there" (p. 50). However, this advantage serves to distance hypertext from other forms of writing and therefore limits its analyses. The success of functional hypertext as a transparent delivery information system allows the reader to remain a user and stay focused on their task. As a result, the reader-text interaction becomes invisible and the author is completely forgotten. Hypertext becomes "the text that deconstructs itself" because it "denies unified subjectivity and pure authorial intention by giving control to the reader" (p. 89). We begin to see hypertextual interactions as "knowledge management" and "information retrieval" rather than reading and writing. Johnson-Eiola uses this analysis not to argue against efficiency in functional hypertexts, but to point out that as hypertexts become more efficient and useful, readers begin to assume that the text is all-knowing, an "angelic promontory from which they can gain total knowledge" (p. 89).

Chapter four challenges misconceptions over the economies of hypertext. The "sense of infinity rather than increase" that is identified in chapter three contracts into a specific examination of the World Wide Web (p. 125). The vast amount of information available on the Web is often seen as a complete collection of information. We become so won over by the usefulness of the medium that we overlook its limitations and ignore its inherent structure. Johnson-Eiloa challenges teachers to "reinforce the distinction between information and knowledge" (p. 107). Students must be encouraged to recognize their own role in the communication process and interpret and structure information rather than "dump" everything online. Confusion over the size of hypertexts also leads to confusions over its cost and availability. Johnson-Eiloa uses examples to show how fee-based online search tools create problems because the free nature of the Web encourages unstructured search techniques. As students apply these techniques to fee-based search systems, however, they will face prohibitively expensive searches. The success of the Web in quickly providing a wealth of information will serve to limit the use of fee-based online databases while making paper-based systems seem obsolete. Why pay money or waste time with other tools when you can search an infinite amount of information on the Web?

Chapter five explores how hypertext "breaks down the distinctions between writer and reader, especially the commonsense notions of these roles as polar opposites" (p. 143). As readers choose their own paths and begin to annotate the text, the role of the author in structuring the information is lost. Since prior exposure to information cannot be assumed in the nonlinear hypertext environment, the author cannot build upon ideas and must either repeat information or break it down into independent modules, or "chunks" of information. However, the simple lack of structure that often results does not empower the reader. Instead, they become lost because there are no destinations to reach.

Johnson-Eiola does more than raise questions and then leave them unanswered. In the conclusion, his solutions center on recognizing hypertext writing like any other form of writing: as a dialog between writer and reader. He encourages technical communication teachers to not see composition theory as esoteric, and for compositionists to stop seeing technical communication theory as too pragmatic. Instead, compositionists should recognize the complexities involved in functional texts and the effects of new technologies on the writer-reader relationship. Technical communicators should recognize the political and social issues inherent in their texts and realize that even an enormous information space is not limitless and does not guarantee equal access or rights.

In summary, Nostalgic Angels provides an accurate critique of the capabilities of hypertext. Johnson-Eiola supports his claims from a wide range of research fields and does an excellent job of identifying misconceptions of hypertext and the problems they cause. While much of the book is academic and theoretical, the information is very valuable and relevant to practicing technical communicators. For example, chapter three provides a very thought-provoking analysis of the role of efficiency in functional hypertexts based on a discussion of real-world examples. I would specifically recommend this chapter to anyone interested in Minimalist research or online information design. I would recommend the entire book to researchers and academics who recognize the need to integrate new technologies into our classrooms and into our pedagogies.

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