Mola

The Mola project is a densely linked web of surfaces which attempts to defuse (diffuse) hierarchy by spatializing and weaving its links-- inspired by (literally:breathing in) the successive adjacencies and eddying of multiple conversations which have for centuries accompanied quilting and other traditional forms of embodied collaborative art. The web was created by Carolyn Guyer, Michael Joyce, Nigel Kerr, Nancy Lin, Suze Schweitzer and sampled voices from various networks.

Mola will be published May 1995 online at World3. URL to be announced.

Mola Project current URL: http://www.sil s.umich.edu/~nancylin/projects/Mola

Mola Essay

Mola Essay URL: http://www.sils.umich.edu/~nancylin/Mola_Essay.html

Nancy Lin
April 1995

I was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief as I put the finishing touches on the ismapped front entrance into our Mola collaborative writing project.

The first reaction I heard was:

Is this art or a political statement?

I pondered over this and thought the question could serve as an appropriate introduction for this documentation/essay about hypertext and my experiences writing in the Mola project. My main goal at the beginning of the semester was to explore hypertext a s a new medium for artistic expression. I (along with Suze Schweitzer) was eager to experiment with writing and creating using digital formats. We did not view our projects as "political" endeavors, but rather as explorations into the possibilities of hypertext. However, in our attempts, we inevitably make powerful statements about authorship, hierarchy, multiplicity and representation. We may even succeed in challenging the sanctity of print. Some may call this political.

When we look at hypertext theory, we see that ideology cannot be easily ignored. Most hypertext theory is presented with claims pronouncing hypertext's revolutionary influence on such issues as access, pedagogy, authorship and even democracy. Theory from Vannebar Bush and Ted Nelson to the modern writings by Lanham, Landow, Bolter and Joyce have had profound impact upon the practical application of hypertext systems. Theory and ideology certai nly influenced our project. However, rather than presenting hypertext theory as orthodoxy, we are more interested in exploring and experimenting with hypertext. We want the reader to join us in our journey and discover alongside us, the potential of this new medium.

Hypertext

Hypertext theorists claim that hypertext is a medium of expression which more closely embodies the fluidity and multiplicity inherent in human thought processes. Hypertext possesses the following characteristics:

- small units of text
- networking and linking of these texts
- de-centeredness, lack of hierarchical order, non-linearity in representation of these units
- interactivity
- blurring of the role between author and reader

This type of electronic writing allows for fluidity, openness and dispersed control. Theorists suggest that hypertext can help break down traditional barriers created by hierarchy and authority. Hypertext gives more control to the reader or student, and thus can function as a powerful educational tool. Many even claim that this technology may bring about empowerment and democratization in communication.

These ideals bear a striking similarity to ideas in critical theory. In The Electronic Word, Lanham states: "I came to think that the most interesting thing about digital "text" was how directly it fulfilled the expressive agenda of the strand of artistic thinking and practice we nowadays call postmodern." (Lanham 30) Landow goes as far as to say "that hypertext creates an almost embarrassingly literal embodiment"(Landow 1991, p.4) of the ideas of Derrida, Barthes and other poststructuralist the orists. I find it surprising that some hypertext theorists treat these similarities as a convergence(Landow 1991) or a parallel phenomenon. Poststructural literary theory most likely directly influenced the development of hypertext theory. Or at least, the hypertext theorists were influenced by the pervasive intellectual trend to consider multiplicity and question authority, meaning, etc. Anyhow, it is quite interesting to look at the similarities, especially when one considers that the literary theor ists were not writing with reference to the computer.

Both hypertext and poststructural literary theorists questioned the authority of the fixed, printed word and looked for forms that supersede the linear, static, discrete texts of the print tradition. For example, hypertext theorist Ted Nelson says. "By 'hypertext,' I mean 'nonsequential writing' -- text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen. As popularly conceived, this is a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways." Nelson calls this web of documents a 'docuverse.' Vannevar Bush's memex also possesses such inter-linking functionalities. Similarly, Roland Barthes says, "In this ideal text, the networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signified; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main." Barthes calls each of th ese small units of texts, lexia. Furthermore, both schools question the role of the author -- Barthes says "birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author" and Foucalt asks "What difference does it make who is speaking?" Both schools espouse the concepts of de-center edness, non-linearity, non-hierarchy. They question the finality or fixity of meaning. Nelson says "There can be no Final Word. There can be no final version, no last thought." Derrida's theories state that "if meaning is related to context, there is with respect to the very structure of language, no proper context to provide proof of a final meaning..."(Lechte 109) We could continue finding many examples of such similarities. We could also easily move beyond critical theory and look at psychology, c ognitive theory, Eastern philosophy to find parallel models of orientation which emphasize fluidity, multiplicity and reticulation.

Mola

In our Mola, we experiment with many of these ideas from hypertext theory. More than trying to validate theory, we are interested in exploration and creation. I hesitate to *define* the Mola, so instead, I will talk about some of the ideas we work and play with.

Polyvocality

We view the hypertext web as a writing space (Bolter 1991). In this space, we collaborated and worked to represent the conversations of multiple voices in multiple conversations. We used the metaphor of a quilt to represent the weaving of these pieces ( voices, conversations, ideas, stories) into a whole (web). Two voices (Michael Joyce and Carolyn Guyer) were in New York, two voices (Nancy Lin and Nigel Kerr) in Michigan and one voice (Suze Schweitzer) in Darmstadt/Prague. The pieces were taken from s everal moo sessions at the Vassar and Hypertext Hotel Moos, emails, stories, collected snippets. However, some of these pieces were written "alone" (as opposed to moo sessions and emails where more than one was present). I wrote a story about my name, S uze wrote about her experiences at the World Wide Web conference, Carolyn wrote about her Mola quilt. Pieces were woven together so that no one voice/conversation/story dominated. We wanted to both keep our identity (individual stamps) as well as meld o ur voices into the web. Hypertext allowed us to capture this polyvocality.

Process

versions of what they are becoming, a structure for what does not yet exist(Joyce)
We are very interested in *process* as an important function in hypertext writing. The Mola is a discovery process; we discovered what we were creating as we wrote. The reader discovers also as s/he is reading. What is interesting is that at the beginn ing, when Michael Joyce suggested his ideas for a collaborative writing project, no one understood what he was talking about. However, the Mola project had started -- we were already in the moo. We learn in the moo what's a Mola and the specifics of Mic hael's plans. Still, no one (including Michael) was sure what the Mola would develop into. Struggling, searching, confusion are all part of the process that we encountered. I (and the reader) search for the meaning of my Chinese name; we search for Suz e in Darmstadt, always waiting to see if she will appear. This attempt to include the creative process as a substantial part of the web brings to light the question of what in writing should be considered marginalia. What should a writer include in a work? Perhaps what has been traditionally considered marginal, i.e. notes, record of the creative process, should not be relega ted to a subordinate position. We see that more and more authors are including sections in their texts to address this desire to put in something "marginal." For example, Ede and Lunsford interspersed "intertexts" throughout their book to include short quotes and casual snippets. Joyce intersperses sections called "interstitials." Lanham calls these "headnotes" and says "I've supplied headnotes to the essays because the often perplexed - perhaps I might say hypertextual - genesis of the argument const itutes part of the story and I don't want to hide it."

An Intertext, Interstitial, Internote

Suze likes to snap a picture several seconds *after* she says "ok, smile. 1,2,3"
Michael loves typoes
Carolyn is collecting different kinds of cloth with "stains"
Nigel studied the interface(!) of emacs
Nancy saves mounds and mounds of colored index cards from all her papers
It's not surprising that we were attracted to this collaborative project. We all possess the desire to look at process, capturing what isn't "right" or finished. Suze says people look more natural after they pose for a shot. Michael finds immense pleas ure in typoes and puns such as "uniquitous," "bread down barriers" and "defuse (diffuse)." Carolyn is collecting stains (like that spaghetti sauce stain on your once favorite white shirt) for a piece of artwork she hopes to create. Nigel chose to study emacs, a program with almost no interface, for his human interactions class, because he was struck by how without a domineering interface, users tended to mold the program more to their own needs. I feel more attachment to my colored index cards, because I know that most of my thoughts were best captured on the cards, rather than the 10 pieces of black on white paper. Working in hypertext environments like Storyspace (software), resembles working with my thought processes in "index card-like" format.

Openness/Fluidity

Another quality of hypertext that we explore in the Mola project is that of openness and fluidity. Openness means that a web is never truly "finished." Anything may be added, taken away, changed. Suze could not join us in the moo, but Nigel was walking by and jumped in the conversation. I wrote the story about my name as the others were working on the moo sessions. The electronic medium allows for more unpredictability and serendipity in creation. Writing in the digital medium, we grab from here and there, cutting and pasting. This is why CD-ROMs are so unappealing -- I want to cut and paste and re-arrange things. This is why "View Source" on Netscape is so appealing. I want to propose that the "View Source" function has had a great influence on c reativity on the WWW; when we see something we like, we "View Source" and capture the writer's creative process as well as the content.

Order of Things

The part of the Mola that jars many readers is the linking of almost every word/phrase. We are playing with the concepts of hierarchy, linearity and order. When we read documents on the WWW, there is the immediate reaction to want to click on the highli ghted word, without ever reading the surrounding text which gives contextual support to the highlighted word. We ignore the black around the blue so we said, "Make 'em all blue!" This strips away the hierarchical relation of the blue link dominating the black words. We play with this relation when we deliberately leave some words black (unlinked), giving emphasis to those highlighted (in black) phrases. Linking everything also let us play with issues of order and context. The node B may have a differ ent meanings depending on context; the meaning of node B may be different if you read B on the path A-B-C versus Y-B-D. Furthermore, in collaborative projects with multiple voices, the question of hierarchy and order in the presentation of ideas is often controversial. The linear format forces you to merge and order those ideas, while hypertext lets you present ideas without strict statement of hierarchy. Some theorists proclaim that this gives more power to the reader, student, female voice -- the "op pressed" ones.

Linking

Linking is the most interesting and powerful quality of hypertext. Linking is a new kind of semantic device which conveys meaning, not through a sign, but by relation. There is no signifier to describe the signified. This causes much frustration on the WWW. One does not always know what a link means. The author writes some words and links them to another document. Is this a link to a bibliographic citation or to a comment? What is the semantic relation between the linked documents? The reader need s to question whether a link is "worth" taking. In the Mola, we have fun playing with this semantic confusion. In the future, we will definitely see development in presentation and use of links. Standards will develop, like footnote superscripts in pri nt, that help the reader understand the meaning of certain links. Storyspace software (developed by Bolter and Joyce) does exploit more possibilities of linking semantics. For example, you can name a link using any word or character you choose such as " is a" or "supports" or "note." Storyspace also allows you to create guard fields that lets the reader go to links only if they fulfill certain criteria, i.e. have read a certain node.

One fascinating phenomenon that I experienced writing in hypertext was the novelty of writing and reading through the action of linking. When we write with words, we pick and arrange words to embody what we are trying to say. When we read, we absorb the words before us and try to understand their meaning. When you make/follow a link between two nodes, meaning is also being conveyed - i.e. B is linked to A because B is a comment on A. However, often no word or sign exists to convey the meaning of the l ink. The action of linking is what made the Mola "fun" to create. We started out with several nodes of text, then each Mola author went through the texts and created links between words and phrases. I would read a word, phrase or sentence and think wh ere else in the text do we talk about this topic, or this statement highlights that node, or it would be funny to link these two phrases. We had one master copy of the Mola in Storyspace and ftped it back and forth. As the web grew, we created more link s. Bolter and Joyce state that "writing is connecting." In the Mola, and other hypertext works, meaning is conveyed not only through the words, but also through the links that connect the words.

Reader As Writer

If linking or connecting is "writing," then it follows that a reader who links and connects becomes a writer. Thus, we have the blurring between the roles of the reader/author. .I agree that I felt "authorly" when I was creating links in the Mola - I was creating something, a link. Bolter says with linking "each reading is unique, the first reader becomes the author for a second reader..." We experienced this when we passed the master Mola web between the authors. I would get the web with some of the text linked, "read" those links, then I would create (write) more links and pass it on to the next reader who would then read and create (write) links. In some sense we do this when we make links to other sites on the WWW. One major frustration of the c urrent WWW is the inability to add to a web. As Carolyn Guyer says in the Mola, the web is not truly ideal unless it allows for reciprocal linking and the ability to "put" files. Joyce calls this "constructive hypertext" which "requires a capability to create, change, and recover particular encounters within a developing body of knowledge." (Joyce 1995, p.179)

What About Confusion?

The common complaint about hypertext is that it is confusing; one can easily get lost in the sea of webs. There are certainly times when this confusion is unproductive. I do not want my library catalog or medical encyclopedia to be so confusing that th ey do not serve their purpose; however, a well-designed system offering hypertextual functionalities (such as being able to jump from "text" to "text" through interlinked words) can enhance my abilities to retrieve relevant information and offer exciting new ways for me to interact and use information. In the Mola, we deliberately use confusion as a creative device. In Eco's Open Work, he quotes Mallarme "To name a object is to suppress three-fourths of the enjoyment of the poem, which is composed of th e pleasure of guessing little by little: to suggest . . . there is the dream." (Eco 8)

Dreams

The Mola is now a space of contours. Contours created from the weaving of voices, stories, emails, quilts, stamps, calligraphy. Contours which will continue to change as we (and you) weave in a new piece here and a new piece there.

In the electronic writing space, we were able to interact, communicate and create. The interaction with others stimulated me to write and draw. I am still astounded by the intensity of our collaborative writing experience. Still the best part of it all , was getting to know others, enriching friendships simply through the act of collaborative writing. Electronic networking enabled us to communicate across miles. The interaction in a virtual space did not feel at all "virtual," but the exact opposite; I felt with every interaction, I learned more about someone in a real, physical sense, if one considers, as I do, ideas, relationships, mental processes as physical (part of one's essence - real). Finally, I think all the creators were surprised that we had so much fun. Every day I am amazed by the creativity and community that I see on the Internet. People create software, Home Pages, guides for fun, to help others. As Joyce says, "the new writing is more social than so- called normal social-ti es." I share the optimism of most hypertext theorist about the exciting potential of electronic writing.

Endnote: Nightmares

"the war goes on for the ownership of dreams" (Joyce)

As I come to depend on electronic communication and the Internet more and more, I become increasing concerned about access in the future. Will I have access after I graduate? I certainly will not have access to expensive equipment like scanners or certain software. The community with access to the Internet is growing but is still just a small elite minority. And the majority of this minority are male. My family and friends who are not affiliated with a university do not have any access. Well *most* people do not have access. We discussed in the Mola, that as we move toward higher bandwidth, we will see the divide grow even more. I and others without acce ss to production power will only be able to consume, and never be able to add or create. How will schools without economic resources give students access to technology, this supposed revolutionary educational tool? The big companies sign deals, strategize, and collaborate; the newspaper write haunting essays. This is all going on, and I want to shout at them, explain to them and show them the wonders that happen in our electronic networked community.

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