Rethinking Software: Writing With Links

by Mark Bernstein

My morning drive to Eastgate, our software workshop, is literary.

In the car this morning, I listened to the estimable Katherine Kellgren reading  Connie Willis' new historical fiction, Blackout. This is fun (and better for my blood pressure than talk radio), but it's also work: Eastgate has always been very interested in interlinked electronic narrative and for years I've been trying to interest hypertext writers in  historical fiction. I've not always been convincing. If the argument doesn't go better soon, I may try my hand.

My morning drive takes me past the former site of the Fannie Farmer School, deeply influential in popular American cookery and in American technical writing. Next comes the the house from which the Black Dahlia embarked for Hollywood and a different narrative than she'd contemplated. I cross the little river where Hayden and Cudworth once built China clippers,  and pass the site of the tavern where James Pierpont wrote "Jingle Bells."  I wave across the Mystic River at the home of Lydia Maria Child's grandfather, the house that was once over the river and through the woods.

I cross Mass. Ave. Paul Revere took a right turn here one night. To the left, the old road leads to my old lab, where I used to shoot large lasers and small molecules. Lots of terrific writers live that way -- Allegra Goodman's Intuition captures the place perfectly, a historical novel of our very recent past.


Eventually, I park at a clapboard office coop in an old Watertown farmhouse. Houses are the natural habitat of publishers; that's why we call them publishing houses.  Eastgate is on Main Street, the old Post Road. Turn right and follow it to its Boston starting point and you wind up at 124 Tremont, ancestral home of The Atlantic.  Turn left and the road leads past Walden Pond and, eventually, to Chicago, Galena, and then to Yellowstone.

For the past 25 years, I've worked to build artisanal software for reading and writing with links. The link is an old idea, of course, but  paper links were always tiresome to follow. The computer changed that. The link will turn out to be the most important new punctuation mark since the comma. We're still learning to use it.

Everyone uses software, but not many people make it. Eastgate is so small that it's far from typical. But over the course of the next week, I'd like to show you a little of how software gets made, and speculate on how we might build better literary machines.

Mark Bernstein is chief scientist at Eastgate Systems, where he crafts software for new ways of reading and writing.

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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