Total Knowledge

Peter Campbell

  • Hypertext by George Landow
    Johns Hopkins, 242 pp, £35.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 8018 4281 6

In the late Fifties, at university in New Zealand, I did the kind of degree in which you are allowed to mix subjects. I spent my first year reading philosophy, geology and English. I never quite got a grip on these subjects, and certainly have not kept up with them, but the memory of what it is like to do philosophy or geology remains; and when I read about debates that are going on in these areas I believe I know, even if I cannot follow it all, what kind of row or celebration is taking place.

Subject-styles, back then, were well reflected in the content of bookshelves. The geologists had journals, off-prints of individual papers and a few large reference books. The philosophers’ shelves were sparsely filled with canonical texts from the Pre-Socratics to Wittgenstein and slimmish books by a few modern, mainly English contemporaries. The English lecturers had lots of books. Not just the texts of their specialty but modern poetry, criticism and so on. Shelf after shelf of them.

The state of the shelves seemed to reflect pretty well the culture of each subject. Geologists went on adding pieces to the jigsaw, paper by paper. Philosophers went on circling around the questions philosophers have always circled around. Academic critics tried to find new ways of-writing about old books, or new ones to write about (‘Why not Commonwealth literature?’).

I was an inveterate picker-up and putterdown of books because I was interested in how they looked. I got to care more about how they were put together and organised than about their content. Indeed, after the first couple of years of university I became a compositor’s apprentice. To follow intellectual history by way of the history of print is rather like getting your political history from fashion magazines. But writers began to turn up – McLuhan, Ong, Eisenstein – who suggested that the shape of knowledge and the shape of books were more than casually connected. As time went by, and electronics took over from mechanical systems for data storage and typesetting, the same was said of computers. George Landow’s Hypertext is about one way of using computers to manipulate texts. He makes high claims for hypertext, a richly interconnected kind of database. ‘Critical theory,’ Landow writes, ‘promises to theorise hypertext and hypertext promises to embody and thereby test aspects of theory, particularly those concerning textuality, narrative, and the roles or functions of reader and writer.’ Landow teaches literature, and his bias is towards the wide ranging linkages which the well-filled shelves of the English department’s offices represent. Before following his line of argument it is as well to distinguish this kind of linkage from the more disciplined nets indicated by the sparser shelves of the geologists and philosophers.

A little while ago an article in Nature, by Donald Hayes, set out to show that science journals are harder to read than they used to be. The test Hayes uses gives a numerical measure of ‘lexical difficulty’. It is crude, but probably pretty accurate. An analysis of the vocabulary of printed and spoken English gives a scale which runs from plus 50 for the hardest science, down through single figures for popular magazines to 0 for newspapers. It bottoms out at minus 60 for dairymen talking to cows. In samples from scientific journals recent issues get higher ratings than those fifty, or even ten years old. The result quantifies an obvious fact: science has become more specialised and it is harder for experts to understand what experis in other fields are saying. A few weeks earlier, the editor of Nature, John Maddox, reported on a conference about scientific journals and electronic publishing. Now that electronic mail (email) allows instant publication, printed journals carry a time penalty. Moreover, as email contributions and commentary appear side by side they mimic a primary function of journal publication: validation by peer review. One physicist is quoted by Maddox as saying: ‘technological issues are already settled ... we have learned to determine by title and abstract whether we wish to read a paper ... the small amount of filtering provided by refereed journals plays no effective role in our research.’ Although general magazines like Nature and Science still function as forums in which cross-fertilisation takes place, Maddox was given pause by a statistic from Anne Ockerson of the Association of Research Libraries in Washington who noted that of the 1.5 million items her member-libraries supplied to each other last year, an estimated two thirds consisted of single copies of articles.

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