Léna Robin is a graphic design student of the École des Arts Décoratifs, in Strasbourg, France. She is currently is investigating “non-linear publications in the age of Internet network” for her master thesis, so she asked me a few questions on the subject. I took the opportunity to write down a couple of ideas I had in mind for some time now. I opened up the comments’ section (why didn’t I do it before?) so feel free to let me know what you think!
Léna: And what I’m trying to find are non-linear books from actual production, which are influenced by the “post-internet area” we are living in. I mean, I wonder if the roles playing by the web, the internet and the hypertext (biggest networks in the world) can affect the way that artists and graphic designers create books and how it is possible to transpose the figure of the network in the book.
When I think of the current state of the Web, I have the impression that we inhabit an hyperlinear environment. It’s true, we can link and be linked back, but most of the contents of the Web seem to be subsumed by the linear structure of our social media feeds. The stream seems to be the most representative form of the internet nowadays. We follow the linear paths traced by search engines and social media algorithms, whose criteria are often opaque.
Recently, Michael Connor described on Rhizome what could be seen as a backward trend in online publishing: posting texts without hyperlinks or including just a few of them. He goes on explaining why hyperlinks matter:
Our web habits are changing, but there does seem to be something worth retaining in the idea that the hyperlink proposed: that we should acknowledge the interconnected, collective nature of our writings, the porousness of the boundary around each text.
More than an open door to sudden deflections, now the hyperlink seems to epitomize a literary perspective around texts as interconnected entities that it is not directly influenced by the internet. Here I think of Genette’s notion of intertestuality (By the way, I often just look at the URL of the hyperlink without clicking it).
One of the most radical promises of electronic literature was to break the linearity of literary works, a product of their traditional material form: the book. Artists and researchers in that field imagined a near future in which that the standard novel would have multiple reading paths chosen by the reader. A glimpse into this hope can be found in Writing Space, a book written by Jay David Bolter in 1991. No need to say that things didn’t go exactly like that: interactive fiction exists but it still belongs to the realm of experimentation. Softwares for interactive narrative like Twine are gaining popularity, but, at the same time, new devices like the Kindle Voyage work well only for linear content.
If not in hyperlinking, where do we experience non-linearity? You mentioned “post-internet”, a pretty fluid label that made me think of printed publications – like Junk Jet n°5 or O Fluxo – deliberately inspired and influenced by networked technologies. The aesthetics derived by such influence doesn’t seem to produce the kind of non-linearity we find in Queaneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes. On the contrary, these publications have linear structures, with a traditional table of contents, page number and so on. There is no emulation of hyperlinking. 1980s’ Choose Your Own Adventure books are way more adherent to such notion of non-linearity. When transposed to print, the aesthetics of the internet is reproduced thorough means of collage and juxtaposition. These techniques visualize the inner workings of platforms like Tumblr, where users build their own mood boards, by creating relationship between otherwise disconnected visual artifacts.
In general, I’d say that maybe non-linearity is not the most suitable category to look at contemporary internet aesthetics in print. On the contrary, some art influenced by the net – here I think of some projects included in the Library of the Printed Web – is about developing a linear, meaningful narrative out of the endless possible connections of this gargantuan database that make us feel overwhelmed. It is reassuring to know that there is only one possible choice. In this sense, the book still represents a comfort zone.