Wingert: HT 2000

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Reading and Interaction

This section, which occupied a central position on Friday afternoon, dealt with "Reading and Interaction," a subject constituting the core of HT reading. More detailed mention will be made below of the contribution by Jane Douglas, while the other two contributions will be characterized only briefly.

Insiders know that Jane Yellowlees Douglas was honored by a small monument in "Afternoon" for her particularly attentive and successful reading. Her own "hypertext fiction," "I Have Said Nothing," was accepted in the Norton anthology of postmodern American literature in 1998. Her topic in San Antonio was "The Pleasure Principle: Immersion, Engagement, Flow." She presented her argument using schema theory approaches of the kind also used in cognition psychology as well as in artificial intelligence research. A schema is a pattern of expectation indicating more or less accurately what something has to look like, how to order in a restaurant, or the design of a detective story. So-called "genre fiction" (love stories, mysteries, Western movies, science fiction, etc.) follows such schemas relatively closely, which is why we have no particular problems in following the respective story or understanding the way the characters act. According to Douglas, current opinion was like this (Proceedings, p. 154):

"The pleasures of immersion stem from our being completely absorbed within the ebb and flow of a familiar narrative schema. The pleasures of engagement tend to come from our ability to recognize a work's overturning or conjoining conflicting schemas from a perspective outside the text, our perspective removed from any single schema." If HT now adds the interaction principle, how do these two patterns of experience change? This is the key issue studied by Douglas.

On the basis of numerous examples taken both from hypertext literature and from movies and video games, she shows that a simple contrast of "immersion" and "engagement," between immediate experience and deliberate cognitive analysis of a text or a film, will not meet the issue. Instead, there are transitions between "immersion" and "engagement," and experiences of flow are possible in both situations (p. 158): "So immersion and engagement are neither mutually exclusive properties nor polar opposites, despite the assumptions and assertions of most critics." True, she also admits that, in hypertext literature, the lack of familiar schemas, the issue of freedom of choice, and the post-modern type of narration ensure that these texts require more of a critical review than immersion-type experiences (p. 157): "What makes hypertext fiction doubly engaging is its setting of what are mainly postmodern narratives - fractured, disruptive, ironic - within interfaces that are also idiosyncratic."

For a text psychologist of the action theoretical school, the question that would come to mind is how to embed interaction into patterns of tasks and action so that, in one case, more the immersion type while, in the other case, more the distancing patterns of experience will occur, and which concepts of control and attribution theory would be able to elucidate these interactions.

Robert Kendall (New School University, New York) and Jean-Hugues Réty (Université de Paris Sud), in their contribution about "Toward an Organic Hypertext," not only told these cognitive, mental, reception-immanent effects of the kind traced by Douglas with a sure hand, but in addition covered a new type of relationship between interaction and reading. For some time already, they have worked on an adaptive hypertext writing environment they refer to as "Connection System." This is to allow the author more possibilities of structuring and presentation, while leaving the reader (in their case, all readers are female) more control to be exerted over what has already been read and what still needs to be read. This is an approach highly to be welcomed at any rate.

In its simplest form, such function may consist of signaling to the reader, by different shades of color of the links, which regions were already read intensively and which ones hardly at all (I have drawn attention to this feature when referring to the HT readings above). However, this basically approaches a development in which electronic books (which may also be hypertexts) are programmed so that they refuse to be read, or so that they continually open pages and nodes which the user model implemented presents to the reader, while the reader had something quite different in mind. That the cognitive assumptions about clicking = reading = understanding are highly problematic, is known to the speakers; however, in my impression, they are still too much caught up in their obsession to advance their system. This development will have to be monitored further.

A different kind of interaction between "reading and interaction" is involved in the contribution by Gene Golovchinsky and Catherine C. Marshall (both FX Palo Alto Laboratory), who (together with Elli Mylonas) gave the tutorial about "eBooks." The system they presented, and which they use for their experiments, Xlibris, may be described as a software-based eBook variant (in contradistinction to the hardware-based forms of the Rocket eBook type). At the same time, however, very different input techniques are involved, which also implies new possibilities of interaction, "free form digital ink annotations." In this way, interactive reading does not assume the form of a "point-and-click interactivity" (based on elective actions), but marked spots in the text or handwritten annotations (i.e. manipulative actions) become inputs for the search engine in an attempt to provide the next fitting text section. This also blurs the difference between "link" and "retrieval". The material base in this case was a hypertext jointly written by Judy Malloy and Cathy Marshall, which exists in a browser format, a story space, and in this Xlibris format. Did we really need the advent of such interfaces, which encourage active interventions, in order to allow readers to play the part of collaborators in a literary work, a function claimed early on but, by necessity, remained an illusion in view of hypertexts secluded from the reader?

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