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Appendix: Distinctions and Terms


More precise distinctions and terminology can help us analyze the issues raised in this article. New terms generally get accepted only gradually as people see a use for them, so I will concentrate here on the conceptual distinctions rather than on a creating a consistent nomenclature. 

Medium, Technology, and Content 

The term hypertext is often used in ways that conflate or confuse three analytically distinguishable notions. First, there is the hypertext medium, which is analogous to the functional properties of a book, as opposed to either its textual contents or its physical make-up. Functionally, the hypertext medium is one in which information units on various scales (see below) may be linked to one another (at the same scale or across different scales) in such a way that an almost effortless action of the user activates the link, causing the presented information (anchor or source unit) to shift immediately to a different unit (target or successor unit). Depending on the implementation, the anchor item may be replaced visually by the target item, or both may be displayed simultaneously in separate or overlapping visual spaces. Formally this is the hypertext “reading” medium, and it may be combined technologically with a hypertext “authoring” medium, in which a similar action creates a link. In many cases, the choice of which items to link requires a means of viewing or navigating among many items at once. For readers, there may be an “overview” function and/or a “choice” function; the former allows us to see many items, or their icons, and possibly some web of relationships among them, and the latter enables us to choose to which of several targets a link from a single anchor will take us. For authors, links may be created by marking a unit as an anchor and then navigating to the target and confirming the link, or by creating a link between the icons representing the two units in some overview. 

The medium is a functionally defined concept. It is a medium in which we can do hypertext activity (traversing and authoring). It is implemented by a technology in much the way that the functionality of the “book” medium is implemented in a sheaf of bound paper sheets. There is a difference (as noted by Arseth 1997) in that the underlying technology of hypertext (a special case of his cybertext) may be dynamic in a sense that is not true for the bound-paper book. The book takes no action on its own, it is inert. The dynamics of its use arises entirely from the actions of the reader (or writer). This is not necessarily true of hypertext technology, in which, for example, the target of a link may change as a result of prior actions by the user (or someone else), which modify the “state” of the hypertext. The technology implements a set of rules by which the response of the medium to an external action depends not merely on the physical action, but on an “interpretation” (rule application) of that action in the context of other factors (e.g. prior actions). It is always true that the dynamics of a semiotic medium depends on the material system of user-plus-technology-of-the-medium, but for hypertext (and generally for the class Arseth calls cybertext media) their interactions are non-trivial and factorizable only if you know the underlying rules of the technology. In a trivial or non-trivial sense, hypertext is an “intelligent” medium, based in an algorithmic, and so a semiotically mediated technology. The technology in which the hypertext medium is implemented consists of all the material systems (with their inherent physical dynamics) and the operations (both human and machine, typical practices and algorithmic rules-for-operation) necessary to produce the functionality of the medium (cf Harris 19.. on the technologies of writing). 

Finally there is hypertext as a count-noun, a particular hypertext web, which consists of the set of information items, their relations to one another, and whatever else defines the state of the web in relation to any possible action of the user. We can define the web across its possible states by saying that this is the set of rules for the possible succession of states (which is not of course the same as the succession of presented units).


Object texts and Meaning texts 

In the case of print media, we are accustomed to distinguishing between at least two and sometimes three notions of “the text”. There is the object-text in the sense of the material object with which we make meaning, the material signifiers. In this sense, two otherwise identical copies of the same book are two distinct texts. Then there is the linguistic text, in the sense of the sequence of linguistic signifiers at the lexical and grammatical level, and what is conceptually akin, the multimodal text in the sense that includes the “markup” of those features of the visual presentation of the linguistic signs which are significant for the genre (e.g. contrasting typefaces, page designs, etc.). It is in this second sense that we say that two different printed editions of the “same” text are or are not the same for different purposes. Finally there is the meaning-text: the interpreted sense made of the linguistic text, through the material medium of the object-text. The meaning-text is not quite so simple as a sequence of signifieds or interpretants, because it is not linear or even two-dimensional. The topology of meanings-made is still something of a mystery, though we can at least say that it includes patterns of meaningful relationships among items on many scales. The fact that it may be made in time experientially also does not imply linearity, because experiencing itself occurs on multiple, mutually embedding and overlapping timescales. 

In the case of hypertext meaning, the object text consists of the sequence of presented visual images, which may include navigational images as well as images of primary content items. The semantic or semiotic text at the level of the signifiers consists of the content and navigational items presented through these images (see below). And the meaning-text consists of the interpreted traversal through the web. We may use the term “trajectory” for the sequence of presented signs, and “traversal” for the interpreted meaning experience created by making meaning along the trajectory. Note that we make meaning with the presented signs, but not just about them, since we always bring to the meanings we make with texts, images, or sounds far more than the information value they have in themselves, or even in relation to one another. We also bring intertextual information about their typical and specific uses in other texts, and their associations with events, feelings, other signs, etc.


Units and Scales

 When we speak of any of the three senses of text in hypertext (or hypermedia): the material signifiers, the semiotic sequences of signs, or the interpreted meaning-text, we find that there is both an extensional organization and a dynamic scaling. That is there are units (syntagms) at various extensional scales (word, clause, paragraph, lexia; element, figure, grouping, composition, whole image; note, phrase, section, whole composition), and these come in various types and with various functional roles for their constituents. And there are the timescales of reading/authoring, from almost instantaneous actions and acts of recognition, to extended cumulations of sense and retrospective and prospective interpretations and expectations, to the scale of very long traversals through a web. 

Textual scales are well known, at least up to units such as those at the paragraph scale (which is really a scale of semiotic-textual organization), which tend semantically to fill roles in a rhetorical or genre structure in conventional printed texts. In traversals through and across hypertext webs, the expectations of rhetorical structures (e.g. problem-solution, event-consequence, claim-evidence) and genre structures remain relevant, but there is far more emphasis, at larger extensional scales (i.e. across more lexias) on pattern-construal of more complex kinds (semantic webs), which may be embedded in or linked to one another (not in the hypertext as such, but in the meaning-patterns of the interpreted traversal). I do not consider here the special case of narrative, which I believe is a highly simplified special case of general textuality; i.e. the meaning patterns gleaned by readers from narrative are special cases of general semantic webs (or what I have called elsewhere thematic formations, Lemke 1983), and narrative uses only a limited subset of the possible meaning-making resources of language, and does so in highly conventionalized ways that are recognizable and more easily interpretable from their kinship to experiential recounts and simple stories heard and told in childhood. 

For semiotic modalities other than written language, matters are somewhat less clear. In figurative painting and related realistic depictions of familiar scenes, there are conventions of object aggregation (e.g. the parts of the human body, whole bodies, groups of persons; furnishings, architectural elements, persons-with-artifacts/natural objects; inset scenes, whole compositions, triptychs, multi-panel series, etc.). For film, we have scales which accord with timescales, e.g. event, shot, sequence, etc. And for music, but not necessarily for other kinds of sound signs, we also have a unit hierarchy, at least in classical western music, and also tied to timescales. There are similar hierarchies for actions and some kinds of event-genres and ritualized activities. 

The dynamics of the use of a hypertext web implies timescales for various operations, actions, and extended activities. There is the almost automatic momentary recognition of a word or phrase, or of a familiar image or sound. Then the more durational cumulation of sequences of these, usually within a lexia (now in the sense of all that is presented for viewing and listening without activating a link), and making integrated sense of them. Then the longer times of looking back over a whole lexia, and of integrating its meaning, provisionally, into the cumulative sequence of lexias in memory, and imagining what items may be presented from various links, and deciding what information or presentations we want and in what order, deciding which links to click, etc. There is the timescale of actively navigating, across two lexias, back and forth along a trajectory, around loops in a web, and eventually over a timescale comparable to that of a whole “sitting” with the hypertext, and finally over many such sittings to the cumulative meaning-experience of first one traversal that spans some significant fraction of the available lexias, and then of several traversals through and across the same web. 

These dynamics are modified of course with the addition of multiple media in several ways. Complex images may take longer to interpret and recall and may be returned to more often for study than texts which occupy the same amount of visual space. If the implementation of the hypertext medium permits it, more than one lexia might be displayed at the same time to permit connections to be made between images, or between images and text. Sounds are conventionally presented simultaneously with some other (visually presented) item, but being non-persistent by their nature, may need to be repeated several times before they are as easily cumulated into the interpretation of the traversal-to-now or into its interpreted meaning-patterns. 

A hypertext web potentially includes a pattern of links among units at each of the extensional scales, for each of the media/modalities (text, images and graphics, videos and animations, sounds).