[This essay appeared originally in Hypertext '96: The Seventh ACM Conference on Hypertext, N.Y.: ACM, 1996, 85-92.]

At first glance, it can be difficult to understand what hypertext, a technology, has to do with social and political issues of gender and identity. After all, given adequate resources and training, anyone can create and use a hypertext authoring system. And while problems of differential access to resources and training are pressing, they are often viewed as better belonging to the social realms of education and resource allocation than to those of hardware and software; they do not impinge on the design of hypertext systems except peripherally -- or so the argument goes.

We have long known that technology alone cannot solve the myriad social problems that real bodies confront, and that technology in fact can sometimes make those problems worse. [For Classic critiques of technology's impact on society, see Marcuse. Marx, and Mumford.] When particular technologies impinge on the boundaries between people and machines, potential negative outcomes take on a special urgency. With hypertext, as with any technology that transforms the relation of persons to machines, individual bodies can be possible sites either for domination or for transformation and resistance. Who has access to which hypertext systems, what can be said and distributed on those systems, how information will be distributed, at what cost and to whom, and how these systems and their users reciprocally constitute each other -- all these questions must be addressed in order for any theory of hypertext to move from an esoteric concern peripheral even to literature departments, to become a motivation, articulation, and catalyst for real change on the levels of systems and interface design, pedagogy, and participation in communities both real and virtual. People concerned with language and representation, people concerned with the construction of personal identity, and people concerned with the design of hypertext systems, all have stakes in molding the outcome of this particular interpenetration of bodies and machines.

Much recent literary commentary about hypertext avoids these issues. The aim of this paper is therefore twofold: to return social and political questions about hypertext technology to the technical arena, and to question the political aims and efficacy of some recent literary-theoretical approaches to hypertext. More specifically, if hypertext represents the convergence of technology and literary theory [Landow, Hypertext], hypertext theorists must take the political implications of both the technology and the theory into account.

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