Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Some rough notes on Stuart Moulthrop’s “You say you want a Revolution” (1991)

Moulthrop, S; "You Say You Want a Revolution? Hypertext and the Laws of Media",
in The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, Cambridge and London, MIT Press; 2003.

Stuart Moulthrop's essay "You Say You Want a Revolution?" originally appeared in 1991 in Postmodern Culture, edited by E. Umiran and J. Unsworth.  The fluidly written text is divided into roughly six distinct sections: a theoretical introduction, examinations of hypertext according to each of Marshall McLuhan's "Laws of Media", and a brief conclusion.  As a point of departure Moulthrop reviews the history of the concept of Hypertext.  He argues that when the essay first appeared, hypertext was relatively unknown, yet the concepts hypertext enables extends as far back as Vannevar Bush's Memex.

Moulthrop focuses his discussion on Theodor Holm Nelson as a central theorist of Hypertext.  Nelson, working in the 1960's, coined the term hypertext, and developed a model for a worldwide network of information he called 'Xanadu' many years prior to the advent of the internet, even prior to the advent of the personal computer.  Moulthrop outlines and examines Nelsons propositions in great detail, focussing on Nelsons statement that "tomorrows hypertext have immense political ramifications".  Yet, at the time of writing, Nelson points out the startling absence of the information revolution that was anticipated to change the way we read, write and think.  Nelson touches briefly on many other theorists who in their work anticipated the change brought about by hypertext, and sets out the shifting interest, and expectations, from one 'bleeding edge' technology to the next.  It is at this point that Moulthrop arrives at the central proposition of this text, the (mis)understanding of technology and revolution within the postmodern framework.  In the examination of the political and social ramifications of hypertext and other information sharing systems that follows Moulthrop continually returns to the definition and expectations of revolution, contrasting and comparing.

In all of these investigations Nelson's conceptualisation of Xanadu takes centre stage as the analysed example.  Eventually Moulthrop arrives at the uncompleted final work of Marshall McLuhan, the fourfold "Laws of Media", which where to "form a framework for a  semiotics of technology" (Moulthrop ,697).  These laws pose four questions that can be asked of any invention, assessing the extent of which it is transformative in its field.  Moulthrop proceeds by asking each of these questions of Hypertext, and evaluating the results.  What does Hypertext Enhance or Intensify?  What does Hypertext Displace or Render Obsolete?  What does Hypertext retrieve that was Previously Obsolete?  What does Hypertext become when taken to its Limit?

Moulthrop examines these questions in relation to hypertext in great detail, concentrating on a post-modern analysis of socio-political implications, again returning occasionally to Xanadu to concretise the theory in practical example.  In conclusion he returns to the question he posed at the beginning of the text: "Do we really want a revolution?" (Moulthrop, 703)  As well as using Xanadu to concretise the question, he examines the political climate at the time, sighting examples of resurfacing conservatism and economic pressures.  His conclusion still however remains hopeful, if cautionary:  "Yet, in the face of all this we can still fond visionary souls who say they want textual, social, cultural, intelectual revolution.  In the words of Lennon: Well, you know… We all want to change your head.  The question remains: which heads do the changing, and which get changed?" (Moulthrop, 703)

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