9(2), April 1992, pages 41-54

Science-Literature Inquiry as Pedagogical Practice:
Technical Writing, Hypertext, and a Few Theories, Part I

Joe Amato

Digressions toward a
Hypertextual Epistemology

Make no mistake about it--I've seen enough of science and technology firsthand to note the supreme irony of Richard Brautigan's cybernetically wistful persona, who yearns for a place in time "where we are free of our labors/and joined back to nature," a communion "All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace." [1] Brautigan's technophile is impatient, and parenthetically so: He wishes that technological change could be pushed along--"(right now, please!)"--at a material pace commensurate with what he evidently takes to be its ultimate social manifestation--"(it has to be!)"--hence, he unwittingly implicates himself in the sort of frenzied response to new technologies that often characterizes initial public reaction, whether positive or negative, to scientific and technological innovation.

I teach technical writing, or "tech writing," as it's come to be known, as well as some business writing. I teach a variety of students, from English majors to nuclear engineering majors to finance majors. And I don't use a textbook, or what might be more properly termed in these intellectual times a book-text. No, I've opted to use Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I regard as a brilliant example, however flawed, of the integration of art and technology through writing. In addition to this work, I use a number of instruction manuals that represent what tech writing is about in practice. And the reasons why I've forsaken textbooks--at least until I'm instructed to do otherwise, which shouldn't be too much longer--constitute less an apologia for my teaching methods (or so I would like to think) than an introduction to the sorts of quandaries I hope to examine in this essay. [2] So allow me to begin here and to spin off somewhat hypertextually into more nuanced and, paradoxically, more wide-ranging concerns.

Tech writing is customarily thought of these days in generic terms as a set of linguistic conventions to be used to approach various writing tasks with specific assumptions as to the purpose of such approaches. Indeed, "purpose" itself is often the criterion tacitly advanced in the description of the writing process, technical or otherwise, at least within most tech writing circles. Some types of writing are, it is argued, less "message" or "information" oriented than others, for example, those having presumably more "expressive" objectives. Simply take a peek at the 5th edition of what is generally regarded as one of the better tech writing textbooks, Lannon (1991), and note the distinction he makes between writing that appeals to "understanding" and writing that appeals to "the imagination" (p. 2); or see Rew (1989), and note especially her assertion that tech writing is writing "directed to readers who seek information and advice," writing that "succeeds only if it is understood by the readers" (p. 2); or have a look at Sherman and Johnson (1990), particularly their remark that tech writing's "purposes are utilitarian," that "it is directed to the reader's mind and makes little effort to appeal to emotions" (p. 6, and note the latent personification); or examine Mathes and Stevenson (1991), a much-acclaimed textbook, and note especially the authors' remarks regarding what they call "'instrumental writing,'" "writing to get something done" (p. 4). Moreover, even a cursory review of these texts indicates that the distinction between business and tech writing is a fuzzy one, and that there is clearly a need for writers versatile enough to handle a variety of professional writing tasks.

In fact, the apparent tension between "informational" and "expressive" writing objectives is one that might be thought to inhere in the distinction between the sciences, whatever we mean by these, and the humanities, whatever we mean by these. In any case, whereas one might once have viewed the tech writing field as having primarily to do with writing about scientific and technological objects, processes, or systems, tech writing has come to be regarded in broadest terms by some practitioners--and despite an entrenched resistance to poststructural retooling on the part of an old and functionalist guard--as the writing practices of specific discourse communities, practices that may in fact be applied to traditionally non-technically conceived subjects. (And, yes, this quite naturally implies a technologized subjectivity; my reasons for using Pirsig's text are hence made a bit less mysterious.)

Yet I have to confess that it's unclear to me, at this point in my march toward tenure, precisely what it is I'm being asked to do as a tech writing instructor. I suspect my answer will emerge in final form only as a consequence of having left the field. After all, if ideas may be said to actually evolve--and it is in such terms that the neo-Darwinians, the neuroscientists, the AI experts, the futurists, the connectionists, the NLP mavens, the geneticists would seem to be working, en masse, toward the development of a scientized social program, or gesellschaft (see note 4)--then I suspect the evolution of my conception of this field will itself require, as Richard Dawkins might put it, a larger meme pool. [3] Or, pace Richard Dawkins, perhaps I need simply, once again as a consequence of my upwardly and downwardly and laterally mobile aspirations, a different perspective. These reservations notwithstanding, I have come to the tentative conclusion that what I am teaching--conventions of writing, ways to approach one's subject, consideration of the various audiences one writes to, ways to think about oneself as a writer, the importance of context, writing as a process, et cetera et cetera et cetera--I have come to think of these, all told, as constituting instruction in institutional survival, survival of the fittest, most dedicated, most ethically and politically aware, and, I trust, kindest writer-bureaucrat (we are all bureaucrats today)--though this last may well be wishful thinking. In lieu of this, it seems to me that I can only be using "my" courses, finally, to indoctrinate "my" students in accordance with the dictates of an IBM; or, given that my courses are currently being taught in a computer lab full of Mac's, perhaps I should have written "Apple." Whether engaged in the training of future Apple or IBM or GE technical writers or writing clones, however, what I wish to emphasize here is the extent to which this seemingly mundane and ostensibly unexciting field is situated at the intersection of corporate and academic concerns. Thus, it may serve as a rather provocative, not to say convenient, vantage point from which to address the muddled matter of science-literature pedagogy.

Right Turn

There was a time, one might argue, when science dealt primarily with natural phenomena, when the realm of less material and more psychological realities could properly be construed as that of the artist or magician. But as science has begun to probe the inside of sentient beings, exploring and affording explanations for something called "consciousness," it would seem that the cultural enterprise itself has begun to show signs of a latent epiphenomenalism, a collective apprehension in the face of those possibilities invoked by the neurophysiological hard-wiring both of human motive and social design. [4] Surely, as Stephen Jay Gould (1981) has shown, this is not always a laughing matter, and, possessing myself no nostalgia for the bygone days of phrenology and craniology, I must be quick to point out that I have no intention of valorizing this new epistémè, either. (In Gould's account, the hard-wiring premise is rooted in an assumed correspondence between physical appearance and "intelligence.") But it cannot simply be wished away, and any attempt to do so is likely to be ascribed further epiphenomenal, and subjunctive, significance. As David Porush (1985) has so eloquently observed:

The history of human-imitating machines, of artificial intelligence devices, can be traced along the line of progress that has brought machines to approximate ever more closely to the expressions of human self-consciousness: movement, perception of data, learning, speech, and thought itself. In turn, philosophies committed to the presupposition of human freedom have been pushed into ever more narrow sophistries in their definition of what, precisely, constitutes human self-awareness. (p. 70)

Moreover, as science has found its way to our insides--and the recent introduction of noninvasive technologies such as neuromagnetic imaging will extend this capability--literary practitioners have partially succeeded in complicating the (brain)matter, almost intuitively finding ways to safeguard the site of their former fastness. (I realize that I am, in toto, referring to an institution.) There is an exquisite irony in the adoption, for example, of psychoanalysis as a subdiscipline of literary studies. Once a scientific movement, now somewhat displaced by "harder," more empirically verifiable cognitivist modeling, psychoanalysis has become a mechanism through which the literary establishment may offer a symbolically richer, more complex, and, consequently, less pragmatic view of mental processing. Much the same could be said for many of the social and life sciences--communications research, information theory, linguistics, even economics. Some of the work aimed at bridging textual studies with these other disciplines has seemed to me--well, downright frothy (and this is in no way meant to denigrate scientific endeavor per se). And because scientific theories are of necessity continually and often substantively modified, or discarded, literary practitioners have often been left holding the bag.

Playing this game of catch-up has, as one might expect, done little to allay the onslaught of AI research and the like, and one might even posit an intensified separation of the disciplines due to the wholesale failure of literary practitioners and culture analysts to convey in technologically-specific, blue-chip terms the results of their (presumably) outmoded methods. Harsh words, I know, but then, who said the humanities ought to play the sciences' game? The appeal of government funding might provide one answer; another answer might have to do with the degree to which developments in cybernetics--virtual reality, cyberspace, and such--have made of some scientific research an exercise in advanced confabulation, and fantasy is, to be sure, a secure literary genre these days. Of course, based upon the last decade of scholarship into the matter, we may now with some assurance argue that science and literature partake of one another, that such modes of inquiry hardly fall out in discrete and tidy cultural or communal niches.

Tech writing provides a good example of what I mean. In trying to persuade student writers of the need for an open metaphorical approach to technical matters--without which one would be hard pressed either to generate or to negotiate, for example, current software documentation--I find myself continually bumping into the matter of those damned conventions. The bulk of writing within a specific discipline or industrial setting--even assuming a fair degree of latitude--is surely partially describable in such terms. However, what I end up doing all too often is rationalizing away instruction in such generic details on the basis that IBM, say, will require a different sort of tech writing than GE and that neither is as monolithic as its corporate multinational status might suggest. My decision, then, is to concentrate less on formalisms--report format, paragraph structure, and so forth--in favor of a more expansive notion of what constitutes acceptable tech writing. After all, aren't the conventions, industrial or academic, in need of fresh approaches? Aren't they ideologically and intellectually restrictive? Jargon-ridden? Obscurantist? This last implies that conventions might well be unconventional, and here I know I'm in trouble--I can smell it.

Straight Ahead

What I'm saying is that the conventions of one discourse community, defined broadly as "science," resemble those of another, technical writing, writing that is in some way related to science. At first glance, this seems entirely familiar, even common sense, but just a bit more meandering should help to complicate matters. In teaching tech writing, I am in effect teaching an albeit diluted version of the scientific-technological enterprise--or if you prefer, the military-industrial-university complex--for student writers in such courses are trained to think and write about potentially any artifact or experience in nuts and bolts detail, and in a manner presumably appropriate to the more technical or formal conventions of a specific disciplinary or business context (however short of attaining such a goal the project actually falls). [5] But in teaching tech writing, I am first and foremost teaching--not mathematics, or thermodynamics, or hematology, or crisis management--but writing. And this is where things begin to get messy, for I would argue that, in practice, it is precisely with an eye toward one or another variety of Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) that most science-literature pedagogy has been directed. [6] The theoretical presumption underlying such practice would seem to be that one can better understand science by writing about it; moreover, that the way science is itself written is one litmus test of what it is. Hence, that to rewrite one's scientific insights is, in effect, to rewrite science (names such as Jack Selzer and Charles Bazerman come to mind).

Writing is, of course, a technology, and, as Jay David Bolter (1991) so cogently argues, the move to new technologies of writing--electronic media--will alter writing, and hence, thinking, practices. But because electronic media are being used, as well, to model the mind, this new interface between writers and writing technology stands to be received and perceived as yet another example of that hard-wiring I keep discursively coming back to (and this despite Bolter's contention that computer simulations of mind are symbolically more intriguing than connectionist efforts, p. 173-174). Largely owing to the versatility of these newer technologies, against which the older print forms already appear antediluvian, the computer workstation is fast becoming a way for individual users (and I am surely not ignorant of the socioeconomic prerequisite) to participate in the global informational trend toward interconnection. A hypermedia presentation implies that image, script, and sound are inherently congenial; a hyperfiction novel implies that reading is writing; a hypertext database implies that users somewhat independently forge links, make knowledge. These implications, of course, are just that: They are felt realities, whether or not the hyperfiction author is more the author, whether or not specific pathways, not to say data, have been excluded from database browsing. What is significant is the extent to which the user is, or appears to be, empowered, and the degree to which the network itself becomes the overriding metaphor for the mind, each terminal analogous to a neural node. A truly contemporary freeway: Just log-in and watch the signs. But how free?

I hasten to add that it is far from clear, either from a pedagogical or a curricular standpoint, what the effect will be of teaching writing on computers, machines that not only house software manuals for the technology itself, but also frequently employ user-friendly techniques that obscure the relationship between such technologies and their precursors. [7] This learning loop would seem to provide no potential for reflexive negative feedback; hence, once within it, it is difficult to envision a way out, however many hypermedia one has at one's disposal. But I might do well to venture a few hunches, however provisional, as to what we might expect as a consequence: It is all too likely that students in a computer-based classroom will begin to regard their machines as fully-equipped entities; what is not somehow accessible through the terminal, is not. (I already feel this way at times, though perhaps it's just me.) In any case, students will surely have more information at their fingertips than any instructor might hope to manage; hence, we may anticipate a further erosion of instructional authority (a good thing, I think, for it implies a more independently-motivated student body), as well as a concomitant decrease in extra-academic information searches (a bad thing, however felicitous to academic inquiry). One way out, then, might be simply to leave the computer room, but where would we go? At the "major research institution," there are computer labs in every other building. And even successful entrepreneurs these days are quick to attribute at least a portion of their profit margins to computerized inventory and purchasing systems, which implies that students returning to classes each fall are likely to possess progressively more computer know-how, along with a renewed interest in enhancing their expertise. [8]

What of the impact of these new developments within the scientific enterprise itself? If it is a given that literary studies will be technologized, like it or not, might we nonetheless--expect a counter fertilization, a revised, rearticulated science, a textually-retooled technology--aside from the rather obvious conjunction of various aesthetic forms facilitated through hypermedia? [9] I certainly would like to answer in the affirmative, but something in me rejects such purely utopian posturing (it must have something to do with my engineering background), so I might simply offer "possibly" with the proviso "over the long-term." I have noted with some satisfaction, however, that at the end of a semester's worth of writing and thinking about such topics, several of my tech writing students seem to grasp the necessity for continued thinking and writing about such matters; at this point, perhaps, I can hope for little more. But it might be that it is still too early in the day to project technological--or, for that matter, pedagogical--consequences; it might be that the far-reaching changes being wrought by electronic media require a higher level of abstraction.

An absurdly blatant opener (I'm not proud) might go something like this: To what extent might hypermedia present us with a new paradigm [ugh!] for the university, a way to reconceive and to rework the links between conventional knowledges? Perhaps, then, as a way of initially accommodating this question, we might do better to turn our attention to curricular-level concerns. In presuming to address either the content or the methods of literary study vis-à-vis science, it seems to me that most inquiry into the interrelations of science and literature has, in fact, contributed primarily to the notion of a revised curriculum. Setting aside the justifiable objection that I have given relatively short shrift to those treatises dwelling on the nastier dimensions of social technologies (that is, the Ellul-Foucault-Lyotard-Baudrillard, or Mumford-Marcuse-Winner, legacy), I would argue that the bulk of science-literature inquiry is infused with a rather sanguine notion of literature's contribution to the scientific enterprise; it would seem that academic optimism frequently underwrites face-to-face encounters with technological dystopia. Yet there have been, despite all of my nay-saying, occasional glimpses of daylight--however marred by technophilic enthusiasm--literary-based projects that have attempted a bit more, that have sought to place both scientific and humanistic endeavor on a somewhat more equal footing. If Pope's maxim were correct, in the absence of scientific or literary angels, we might expect to find fools rushing into the matter. In this case, however, the angels have all along been of a particularly earthborn cast and, despite their mathematical or rhetorical acumen, have spoken strictly "in the tongues of men" and women. And the fools--well, the fools have been, by and large, merely optimists.

Left Turn

One such optimist is Michel Serres. Far too much has been written about the particulars of Serres' work, his incredible and fanciful flights into Brautigan's never-never land of "cybernetic ecology," always through a dark and generally rose-colored and Chagall-stained glass. You see, I enjoy reading Serres in translation, and I can't quite imagine why anyone would bother to explain his work in such terms. Why spoil the fun? What interests me here are not Serres' specific insights per se, but the more discursive impulses guiding his project; hence, I will turn to the way his work has been prepackaged for consumption by English-speaking readers. For example, take the "Introduction" and "Postface," to Serres' collection of essays, Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy (1982). In fact, take first this excerpt from the "Editors' Note":

Hermes illustrates the full range of Serres's diverse and complex interests as well as the coherence of purpose in his thinking; it does not attempt to establish the kind of progression, continuity (in the narrow sense of the word), and unity that readers might expect from the anthologized work of an author. . . . Serres's work is not to be understood as a systematic enumeration of new directions of knowledge or research; it assumes instead the form of an excursion or expedition (randonnée--the connotations of impetuosity and chance contained in the French term are important) with necessary pauses at certain crossroads. (p. vii)

I don't mind admitting to a certain discomfort I experience even now in reading these lines. This disclaimer, for want of a better word, would seem to be intended to persuade the reader to forsake his or her expectations of a "systematic" or comprehensive "unity," and to anticipate instead one or another variant of a peculiarly Frankish series of conceptual entrances and egresses. More to the point, Serres' re-search, his "expedition," nonetheless exemplifies, paradoxically, a "coherence of purpose," however much the Hermes anthology may indicate otherwise.

Harari and Bell's "Introduction" attempts to clarify what, according to René Girard, is "Serres's major interest," the "parallel development of scientific, philosophical, and literary trends" (as quoted in Serres, p. xi). [10] "Serres's program," we are informed, is "to identify all the elements of the global network of communication" (Serres, p. xxiv). Yet there would seem to be a concern throughout to legitimize Serres' work, as when Harari and Bell write

To recapitulate: Serres's work often worries traditional scholars and philosophers, or else it is strategically kept at a distance. This does not, however, amount to saying that his program is not legitimate. (Serres, p. xxviii)

No, surely "not legitimate," but "traditional scholars and philosophers" may well be put off if only because Serres is doing what I find more and more of my tech writing students doing these days, albeit in much less inspired terms: establishing links, shuffling through the various information resources to align seemingly disparate bodies of knowledge--facts, numerical data, visuals, photos, et cetera. To argue, again on the (apostrophic) defensive, that "Serres never speaks of disorder in a disordered fashion. Rather, he speaks of disorder in a rigorously disordered fashion" (p. xxix) is both less and more than scholastic indirection. ("Rigorously disordered," is nice, though; it reminds me of the way a co-worker used to describe his cluttered desk as his "sign of genius.") Such indirection smacks of a certain unwillingness to regard Serres' work for what it is--a highly-charged, creative meandering among postmodern information banks, with a loosely coherent theme that might be entitled "The Cybernetics of Exploration: Science as Unconditional Knowledge, or, Let's Have Some Fun and the Hell with Jacques Ellul." Serres writes, "Science is conditioned but unconditional . . . No one has ever escaped this dilemma" (p. 106); yet, it would seem that the "dilemma" here has less to do with scientific rigor than with the conditional nature of Serres' inquiry. Serres' "program" is, in effect, an advanced, hyperextended illustration of how a hypermedia-equipped scholar might write (and think), and what might be most disturbing to some at first glance--the submergence of ostensibly more political or ethical imperatives for the sake of sheer interconnectedness--is made even more problematic in light of Prigogine and Stengers' "Postface." [11]

Here we are advised at the outset that "to study styles" and "not merely the history of theories" helps us to understand "to what extent the sciences are marked today by some of the temptations that were present at their various beginnings" (p. 137). Prigogine and Stengers take "the major problematic of Serres's work" to be that of determining an answer to the question, "What is at stake in the hypothesis of the great classical rationalist [Leibnitz] who supposes that the passage from local to global is always possible?" (p. 138). Not surprisingly, their explication of Serres' answer "will explore only one of the registers brought into play by Serres's work," (p. 138) and one might do well to note the degree to which Serres' "program" tends to encourage his commentators to regard themselves as on a similar "expedition" (recall the "Editors' Note").

So Prigogine and Stengers' brief journey is to be oriented about a couple, local/global, that has since become quite the rage (for those who refuse to stay tuned, one among many popular slogans for the nineties would seem to be "Think global, act local"). Following six or seven pages of careful navigation through the relatively deep waters of force, energy, monadology, and the like, we find ourselves returning to the shallows to address the question of "Pretenses and Limits of Style." Only an excerpt can do justice to this newest "passage":

In fact, for the past two centuries, there have been physicists who affirmed that the whole world could be described as if it were an integrable dynamic system: this is what we have called the Laplacean dream. We shall not enter into the discussion of this dream, which acted as a regulatory ideal, but rather content ourselves with noting that it seems to reappear in every generation, apparently without opposition from the scientific community, each time translating the continuity of a style as well as the individuality of its contemporary theoretical and historical context. We wish to show that such a pretense, which will be called "ideological," cannot be separated from the history of science as an active force. (Serres, p. 145)

The quotes around ideological do not augur well for those of us who, however entertained by the proceedings thus far, are a bit anxious as to the ideological implications of this "Laplacean dream." Two pages later, we are informed that "We can no longer allow ourselves, as far as the physical world is concerned, the privileged point of view which, when pushed to its limit, we once could have identified as that of God" (p. 147); it begins to look as though "ideology" has become merely "cosmology," that the "ideological" is merely the perennial insurgence of an unjustifiably holistic view of things--an observation better suited to scientific speculation of the first few decades of this century. Yet a "new style of science" would imply, as our authors' contend, that we speak, not "science," but "a science" (p. 148-149); hence, we have the renewed expedition to explore more stylish flows, presumably to illustrate the degree to which "style resists the argument of plausibility" (p. 150). The waters are indeed a bit murky here, if waters they be.

We end up, at the conclusion to a brief circumnavigation entitled "Parallel Flows and Clinamen: How Things Are Born," approaching what might be viewed either as the tip of an iceberg or the edge of a waterfall. You be the judge:

A scientific style does not die if the limits of the questions it implies or the specificity of the questions it brings to the fore are uncovered. It remains witness to a successful dialogue with nature. Serres's work helps us to understand that our questions no longer can be asked of a world without friction or holes--the world of Leibnitz. After all, our physics was never capable of truly understanding the Leibnitzian harmony of the thousands of voices translating each other in a universal code. (Serres, p. 155)

Come to think of it, perhaps the whirlpool affords a better analogy. The "friction" and "holes" referred to suggest a determinate indeterminacy, a "rigorously disordered" world of apparently limitless "styles" to which we may well attribute the "birth" of information itself. We have in fact come full circle in my brief excursion, for such "gaps" in knowledge, whatever else one may make of them, highlight precisely the dilemma of those who design hypermedia systems: How may such knowledge workers--while aspiring to a "harmony" of "thousands of voices translating each other in a universal code"--accommodate the googolplex of information pathways implied by the very human craving to know? Something has to give here, and what gives is worth at least a few more words.

To be continued . . .

Joe Amato teaches in the English Department of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.


  1. See Brautigan (1989); the poem appears on the first page of The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (first published 1968).

  2. Throughout this discussion, I will use such terms as "science," "literature," "technology," "humanities," and "science-literature" in extremely broad sweep and with some abandon. For an attempt to draw the necessary distinctions, readers may wish to consult Amato (1990) or write to me for a copy.

  3. According to Dawkins (1976), "memes" are ideas that, like (Dawkins's) genes, have the capability to replicate and evolve. Given Dawkins's construct, his meme, social discourse becomes a process of natural selection geared toward the development and survival of beneficial mental qualities. But to what sort of social context might we attribute these selfsame purposive, not to say purposeful, insights? Even when viewed as a contingent, non-deterministic fact of living (or nonliving) systems, evolution nonetheless implies the emergence of (mutable) products that are quantifiably beneficial to a specific systemic state. Bedau and Packard (1990) speculate that "If [Dawkins's] memes could be identified, evolutionary activity in a whole culture could be measured with the same bookkeeping that we have used for genes" (p. 23). Yet only sustained inquiry into those institutional mechanisms that provide for the transmission of information as knowledge is likely to provide even a provisional resolution of this matter of "bookkeeping," for memes--according to Bedau and Packard (after Dawkins), "the elementary units of cultural transmission" (p. 23)--could not be disseminated in the absence of such mechanisms.

  4. Nobel laureate and split-brain researcher Roger W. Sperry (1983) provides a charmingly frightening proposal for this new gesellschaft. Sperry, whose celebrated, though contested, thesis that "consciousness is causal" has at least the advantage of displacing simple mind-brain dualities (as he himself is only too quick to point out), lets the cat out of the bag with assertions like, "The future of science will be very different depending on whether science is recognized in the public mind to have competence in the realm of values" (p. 114); hence, it is his "mentalist paradigm," replete with "emergent" neural processes, that implicitly sanctions his view that science "becomes the best source, method, and authority for determining the ultimate criteria of moral values and those ultimate ethical axioms and guidelines to live and govern by" (p. 113). For an equally implausible historical revision of "consciousness" research, see Sperry (1987). I have written elsewhere on Sperry; see Amato (1989). Were pop songs deemed one measure of public sensitivity to this matter, I would among numerous others cite Frank Zappa's and The Mothers of Invention's "Who are the Brain Police?" (we have before us at least one answer), Cheap Trick's "Dream Police," and Pink Floyd's quintessential (and ever-popular) "Brain Damage." Finally, for those desiring a careful and provocative analysis of the ecological-ethical issues at stake in constructing mind-dependent/independent realities, see Stone (1987).

  5. Note the slippage here between "technical" and "formal." This is evident in much tech writing theory, another example of the field's rather amorphous makeup. For my purposes, I place more emphasis on the "technical."

  6. WAC has itself a long and complex (pre)history, occasionally combining with more specific science and technology initiatives, as at MIT. See Russell (1990).

  7. This is what the term "user friendly" has come to signify--the anticipation of human needs and expectations in blackbox form. The Apple Desktop, for example, in presumably simulating various hardware capabilities, actually obscures the ways in which the computer is different from a "scrapbook" or "alarm clock," mitigating our anxieties while at the same time implicitly sanctioning the substitution of software text for apparatus.

  8. Much more thought needs to be given, as well, to the ramifications of what Bolter describes as the "fundamentally unstable" nature of electronic text (p. 31), those ephemera that characterize the interactive relationship between text dynamics, writer/and reader/user. Personally, I have found that the more I work with word-processing technologies, the more the technologies themselves tend to inflect the content of my work (as in this discussion of the computer classroom). This may simply be a consequence of my technologically-oriented chatter, or of the relative newness of the medium. Yet it would seem a reasonable enough surmise that the transient phenomena associated with such technological innovation--for example, the recent introduction of Macintosh's SYSTEM 7.0--might be said to characterize both form and the "content of the form"--hence, content. Technical writing, then, when construed loosely as writing about things in technological terms, may tend to evince the short half-life of the technologies themselves less as a consequence of technological method (which has been, in fact, pretty stable) than of the actual technologies used to implement such writing (HYPERCARD, WORD, PAGEMAKER, laser printers, and so forth). Finally, what might we make of the fact that this discussion, this text that we hold in our hands (or, perhaps, read on the screen before us), when it turns to examine in somewhat more technical detail what might be done to enhance electronic technologies (as it will shortly), ipso facto dates itself owing to the relentlessly rapid changes in this field?

  9. Again, I assume that science, technology, literature, art, etc., are part of a sociocultural ferment. I refer here to specific attempts toward establishing and cultivating lines of influence, though of course it is the case that an interest in crossing disciplines is itself a comment on the times. That new technologies would seem to emerge as a consequence of technologically high-tech endeavor does not in itself indicate the types of changes such innovations will subsequently bring about within the technical community taken as a whole.

  10. Note that Serres's work occupies approximately 135 pages of Hermes, sandwiched between an "Introduction" and a "Postface" of approximately 30 and 20 pages, respectively.

  11. Readers are sure to note that I have sidestepped here the question of what actually constitutes a "hypertext" by using the word itself as a metaphor for a peculiar sort of reading (and writing) experience. In my view, Serres's work anticipates actual, computer-based hypertexts, hence his philosophical ruminations have a bearing on contemporary hypermedia design and research. Yet, as Henrietta Nickels Shirk (1991) has argued, "The metaphorical basis of hypertext needs to be explored further" (p. 192). This has to begin, as Shirk indicates, by evaluating the "crucial first step" that consists of "finding the appropriate metaphor to convey information effectively" (p. 193). Such a metaphor (or metaphors), I would argue, must help to render legible the relationship between virtual and social "realities."