What is it about hypertext that is seen as unique among other forms of textuality? Theorist Espen Aarseth believes that it is hypertext's ability to change, to be different with each reading, that is responsible for its unique status in the world of textual production and interpretation. In his understanding, these two sides to the text: creation and consumption, are inextricably linked.
In his book "Cybertext," Aarseth suggests that the roles of "readerly" and "writerly" text, and their subsequent transposition into the realm of hypertext are not as clear cut as earlier theorists like George Landow believe. Aarseth fits hypertext into a system of ergodic literature, a form which requires interpretation and interaction on the part of the reader/consumer of the text in order for it to form coherent strings of ideas. The term ergodic is borrowed from particle physics, in which it is used to describe a quantum probability field. In essence, what Aarseth is saying is that like the electron, it is never possible to say exactly where the hypertext will end up, what its final outcome will be. Looking further into this issue, however, it is possible to draw some contrasts with the physical realm. In physics, the interaction of an observer with a particle changes the outcome in a completely unpredictable way, in essence introducing an element of randomness to a previously stable quantum probability field.
I would argue that interaction is a much different force in the realm of hypertext. In hypertext, a system of probable outcomes is defined by the writer, much as a quantum probability field is predicted by the physicist. Here the similarities end, however. In the quantum realm, no matter how much one thinks about where the particle may end up, no matter how much the observer knows about the system, the act of observing is one of unpredictability. The only outcome is the one that actually happens. If one observes a system of particles repeatedly, the pattern will emerge, and the structure of the probability field will form. In hypertext, the reader's knowledge, feelings and preferences come into play. She chooses a link based on her understanding of the text, and thus the system is made less random. It has formed its order around her selection, and will continue to develop in this way.
Another issue with which Aarseth is concerned are the roles of reader and writer, which he has deliberately called into question. Aarseth notes that the terms "author" and "reader" have become highly politicized in critical theory over the last 30 years. He has effectively circumvented this critical bear trap by supplanting these highly charged roles. But what replaces them? Aarseth proposes, as an alternative, an understanding of hypertext as a "Cybertext," an interface for man-machine interaction where issues of control and interpretation are not as well-defined. Aarseth argues that by using literary forms or any kind of writing tool at all, a person and the tool she uses merge to form a "cyborg" (cybernetic organism) functioning in a new realm of textual production. Walter Ong notes as well that the technological aspect of writing, the tools we use and their effect on us, are far too frequently overlooked in the study of text. (81-2) What happens when a person uses a computer to create or consume a text? She becomes dependent on the machine as a tool, and the text, living in the machine, becomes dependent on her for interpretation, the lifeblood of a written work.
We seem to have, in Aarseth, a fairly consistent understanding of the hypertext as a (cyb)organic system for textual deposition and interpretation, a system which relies on interactivity as well as technology for its realization. Unfortunately, Aarseth skips over a very important consideration in understanding the way in which hypertext can lend a degree of control or even access to the reader: He explicitly (pp. 165-6) states that he isn't considering the roles of political control or physical access to the network on the part of the reader. The result of this is that he completely overlooks the issue of technological empowerment, which is inredibly vital, I believe, to an understanding of control. Who has access to the text, in a world where computers are not, in reality, omnipresent and readily accessible? We should not forget, after all, that the United States is an incredibly wealthy society. We take computers for granted, but in other parts of the world, those that are still not part of the global colony we have made for ourselves, access to a hypertext may be impossible. In essence, this brings about an enormous rift in humanity, between those able to make use of hypertext, and those who are left behind. This is a very important problem, and one that deserves future consideration.