Multilinearity, Notes on Terms

Franzsi interviewed me last week and had some provocative questions, observations, and concerns. It was good to be called to account and to stretch ideas. One of these proddings was around non versus multi linearity. I prefer multilinearity as a way to describe the sorts of interconnected nodal things I make and advocate. Others use ‘nonlinear’. Franzsi wanted to know, more or less, why multilinear rather than nonlinear and what’s the difference?

Answers, as far as I can tell, are a multiplicity, not the one nor the many.

An answer is that hypertext (unlike interactive documentary) has already rehearsed these terms. Nonlinear and multilinear were both appearing at the beginning of hypertext theory, almost as synonyms. Each was used to make apparent how hypertext and its pathways between small, distinct parts was paradigmatically different to print text. Let’s call this the first wave of hypertext theory which spent a lot of its intellectual energy arguing for how hypertext was not print. Second wave hypertext was the inevitable Oepidal response to more finely tune (as Pickering might say) by arguing that the changes wrought by hypertext might not be as dramatic as the first advocates claimed. Second wave hypertext argued that while there might be different pathways through a work these, though variable, still formed linear syntagmatic chains, and that syntagmatic chains, where this and then this happened, could not be avoided. So the argument was that this was not really nonlinear, was it? Third wave hypertext theory moved this along by accommodating this and recognising that yes, in hypertext, sequences form, and what matters is not the presence or absence of sequences but how they come to be formed, and how they vary in themselves.

An answer is that in chemistry and many other fields nonlinear has quite a specific, and interesting, definition. (Now I’m a humanities academic who, at best, is going to provide a bastardised account of this, so think of this as a loose meta view and cut some slack.) Here, or there, I understand a nonlinear system to be a system where incremental addition/change creates a linear (regular) change in the system, until a threshold is crossed and the system ‘flips’ from linear change to nonlinear disorder. So there is no simple proportional relationship between the variables in the system. Order might happen after, but it is a very different order to what was before.

Another answer might be that nonlinear has connotations of randomness, yet in the domain of interactive media our practice is to choreograph a dance between generative procedures, structures (patterns), and the stochastic. How this dance is choreographed is what matters, and even varies in individual works, but is hardly only ever random.

An example of a nonlinear system is pollution entering a lake. Imagine the same amount of whatever this polluting substance might be entering each day. This is a linear amount. One litre each day, so after 2 days there has been 2 litres added, 7 days 7 litres, and so on. The effect on the lake, to begin with, will also be linear. n litres will mean, let’s say, this sort of impact on the ecosystem, n x 2 litres will double the impact. However, at some point (and the trouble with nonlinear systems is we don’t really know where this threshold actually is, which is the real issue with global warming), adding that same amount for one more day sees the ecosystem collapse. The whole system flips and, for example, might have moved from being aerobic to anaerobic, so nearly everything dies.

Another example of a nonlinear system is common in medicine. A drug we might take does very little if the dose is too small, and a lot if the dose is right. If this were simply linear then taking more of the drug would improve its efficacy. Yet with many, if not all, drugs, there is a threshold where they no longer benefit but in fact cause harm, in some cases, catastrophic harm.

This is what nonlinear is.

In relation to interactive media (for example a Korsakow film) that understand these affordances this thicker notion of nonlinearity is, I suspect, an interesting and provocative way to theorise what happens with readers. I click, click, click, wondering what is happening and why, and then, ah, I begin to understand. That ‘ah’ is the phase transition, a threshold, where I move from random clicking to the discovery of what I take to be a significant pattern. This emergence of a pattern, performed by the reader, is a different question or problem to that asked by the general structure of interactive work. For this general structure is not usually nonlinear in this sense, and I don’t see that very much is achieved when we use complex terms poorly in our own field.


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