Everything Bad is Good For You  9/22/05 - Book by Steven Johnson

Most of Everything Bad is Good For You is about the culture surrounding hypertext rather than hypertext itself. Htext is not in the mission statement. That's a shame, because the book is about the challenges that we face in evaluating, adopting, and adapting to new media, and that's very much a hypertext issue.

The basic idea is really worth some thought: We think that popular media (esp. television and movies) are on a 'race to the bottom' culturally. On the contrary, a look at popular culture over time shows increasing sophistication, increased demands on the consumer, and a meritocratic system that rewards sophistication. Content is not the issue, but we're used to looking at that from old media. The cognitive demands of the media are the issue, and they're getting more and more 'educational'.

From Avant-Garde Fringe to Mainstream

On pg. 117 Johnson addresses hypertext specifically:

It seems almost absurd to think of this now, but when the idea of hypertext documents first entered the popular domain in the early nineties, it was a distinctly avant-garde idea, promoted by an experimentalist literary fringe.... Fast forward less than a decade, and something extraordinary occurs: exploring nonlinear document structures becomes as second nature as dialing a phone for hundreds of millions --if not billions-- of people. The mass embrace of hypertext is ... a cultural form that was once exclusively limited to avant-garde sensibilities, now happily enjoyed by grandmothers and third-graders worldwide.

His observation is absolutely true, and I've seen it personally. In June I taught a sample class for fifth-graders at an elite private school, and in a half hour the class had assembled the beginnings of a website through a wiki. I could not have done that even three years ago.

That said, I think he's being a bit glib. Readers of the web are still struggling to navigate nonlinear text, and mostly do so only to get to the bits that are linear enough to be comfortable and understandable. The 'grandmothers and third-graders' I've watched navigate the web are still more comfortable with a newspaper which has links instead of physical page-flipping than with the multilinear and conversational emergent structure of a wiki.

That said, I think even the translated, less-hypertextual media form a sort of ramp up to the more novel structures, and that's the main point of EBIGFY. The new media start out in emulation, but as they move on to innovate, they bring their readers along.

The Curve and the Knee

Johnson calls the ignored increasing intelligence of popular media The Sleeper Curve after Woody Allen's Sleeper. The 'curve' reminds me of the 'knee' of hypertext adoption. They're both exponential curves, of course, the knee being one of adoption of new (and more complicated or challenging) media and the Sleeper Curve one of sophistication in existing media.

Johnson cites the web as the great example of hypertext's adoption, and though I want to argue about how hobbled the web is as a hypertextual tool, it is htext and it is widely adopted and it is acclimating popular culture to hypertextual thinking.

The Sleeper Curve of Hypertext

So can we see the Sleeper Curve in hypertext? It's certainly visible in the generally-adopted technology, as we move from the links and static pages of 1994 to today's browsing world with search engines, tabbed browsing, blogs, syndication, archival, and web interfaces for sophisticated databases.

But I want examples of texts. Most of EBIGFY is about comparing the media of several decades ago to what we see today: to Dragnet to Hill Street Blues to The Sopranos. What are examples of hypertexts, even in the watered-down web sense, indicating growing sophistication among readers? And i don't want the elite avant-garde of alternate reality gaming. What smart stuff are the plebes reading?