What's Going to Become of the Written Word?


A new generation of technological inventions -- most of them involving some variation on the home computer -- is now poised to invade our daily lives. The two most intriguing invaders are electronic newspapers and ''hypertext'' writing.

Experts differ on how long it may be until this next wave of change arrives -- until commuters read their morning news on portable screens and novelists dream of writing the Great American Floppy Disk. But the consensus is strong that it is coming and that its effect will be at least as great as was the advent of television.

The new communications technologies have a great potential to impact the ways we read and write, even the way we think. Some people wonder what will be left of the written word a couple of decades from now. Many fear that the new technologies will have an individualistic, socially fragmenting effect -- bringing a further erosion of the cultural unity that traditional written works sometimes created.

Electronic news transmission is, in a small way, already here. Commercial computer network services such as CompuServe and Prodigy now routinely offer on-line news bulletins.

So far this hasn't had much of an impact on the everyday habits of most people -- or most newspaper publishers. The big change now being discussed involves the mass-production of flat computer screens -- the size of a written page -- that will in effect be electronic newspapers.

These screens will display a front page with an index. The user can tap a pen to the screen to call up a story, flip a page, turn a still photograph into a TV news scene, or even make a dinner or theater reservation from an ad. The screens will be battery-powered, and the news will be beamed to them from a broadcast satellite or perhaps from digital transmission systems like those that are now being used for cellular telephones.

How long will it be until we start getting the news this way? According to media-technology specialist Roger Fidler, the big transition (he calls it the ''mediamorphosis'') is about five years off.

More skeptical observers think the technical and economic problems -- getting readable flat screens and making such a system competitive with conventional newspapers -- will not be solved until after the turn of the century. But nobody is dismissing the idea out of hand, and several major news chains are reportedly thinking very hard about how to make the transition into a paper-free future.

Then there's hypertext. It's already here, too, in a moderate way.

Hypertext is basically a computer software system that makes it possible to create all sorts of linkages and short circuits within a text. Instead of having a single track like an ordinary book, a hypertext file may have any number of different tracks following different themes or structural plans.

Robert Horn, a consultant who specializes in information-design systems for business, says hypertext is extremely useful in organizing technical material so that the reader can efficiently select which parts of a text to read. ''Usually you don't want to read everything -- you only want to read what you don't know,'' he points out. A well-designed hypertext is reader-friendly, and LTC makes it easy to chart a path to the desired parts.

Hypertext was designed as a way of organizing information, but many fiction writers are embracing it as a new art form. Several companies are putting out software for writing hypertext fiction, and creative-writing professors are teaching courses about how to write hypertext novels that literally go in all directions.

Hypertext, like electronic newspapers, is interactive. The reader participates in creating the structure of what is read. In reading a hypertext novel you may follow the point of view of a chosen

character, or you may chose the outcome you like best, or you may wander off into subtleties and complexities beyond anything James Joyce could have imagined. The possibilities -- and the stories -- may be endless.

This opens up new realms of choice and creativity. In some ways it frees the reader from being merely a passive receptacle of the author's genius (or lack of same). But some lovers of the written word fear that we may be looking at the beginning of the end of literature as we have known it. They note, for example, such ominous signs as a special issue on hypertext published by the literary magazine Perforations, entitled ''After the Book.''

The deeper issue here is the role of literature and its cousin journalism as forces of cultural cohesion.

Every modern civilization has its ''canon'' of Great Books that hold its accumulated experience and wisdom. The authors of such books are truly ''authorities'' who create plot structures that we follow as we read; their world views may be adopted by millions of people. Hypertext enables every reader to read a different story and, in a sense, construct a different world.

At another level, the big newspapers are the last of the general-interest print media. Electronic news, however, will permit all kinds of specialization. ''People,'' Mr. Horn predicts, ''are going to get only the news they want to get -- and the view of the world they already have.''

The proponents of these new tools are understandably enthusiastic. Electronic news could bring a new burst of life into journalism, and hypertext offers great possibilities for education and creativity. But they may bring perplexing new problems for a society that is already hard-put to maintain (or even define) its cultural center.

Walter Truett Anderson, a political scientist, is the author of ''Reality Isn't What It Used To Be'' and other books.

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