The consideration of non-linearity in multimedia and hypertext is generally characterised by the use of various narratologically informed models of narrative structure and performance. Traditional narrative (whether text, oral, or visual based) is understood to rely on a formal Aristotelian structure of beginning, middle, and end, with narrative outcomes predicated on a temporally ordered series of events. This, of course, doesnt discount the possibility of rearranging this order (through flashback, flashforward, ellipsis, elision, or one of the other methods that Genette (1980) collectively describes as "anachronies"), but the 'work' of the reader is to produce a reconstruction of the appropriate temporal and causal order of events.
Narrative temporality, in a strictly formal sense, becomes the more or less playful and complicit folding of the events and episodes to be narrated within the inevitable linearity and duration of the story's narration. Story episodes are always narrated consecutively, regardless of temporal order in terms of the narrated world, and this is a simple material condition of the particular textual object concerned - book, film, dramatic or musical performance.
Non-linearity in multimedia and hypertext is defined in explicit opposition to this. Because these digital texts are to be read via a medium that provides random access (the computer) the inevitable and inviolate linearity of narrative texts can be removed. The reader can access episodes in an order that they have various levels of control over, and the narrative can offer multiple possible pathways, and potentially multiple outcomes.
This clearly raises significant problems in terms of story structure, for reader and author, and in most instances multimedia's response has been to embed multiple episodes within a particular text, with each episode being sufficiently self-contained to be meaningful in itself (though relying on the general context that the CD-ROM title is providing). Of course this means that the episode in itself has all the features of formal and linear narrative, and the text's non-linearity is constituted by multiple minor episodes, rather than a non-linear narrative per se.
The computer's ability, through its combination of Random Access Memory (RAM) and a hard drive (or CD-ROM), to access information from any part of a document provides the technological backbone for multimedia and hypertext's ability to attempt non-linear narration. This technical ability, when combined with a text's apparent non-linearity, probably exaggerates the appearance of a new textual form, as we seem to 'instantly' move from element to element, episode to episode, or object to object.
However, aside from the rapidity of this movement, non-linearity and random access are principles of organisation or reading performance commonly used by people in non-digital environments, with dictionaries and encyclopedias being perhaps the most common examples. In both cases the linearity of the texts is only determined by their alphabetisation, and this is less a constitutive structural element of the texts than a pragmatic indexing device to facilitate the random retrieval of information. This would suggest that the specificity of multimedia, and hypertext, is perhaps not so much a condition of their random access abilities, or even perhaps its consequent non-linearity, but a product of something else.
For some, this 'something else' is located within multimedia and hypertext's digital nature. This simply means that they are designed to be read via computers, and it is this that provides for the possibility of a novel discursive form. Furthermore, in a digital world all documents are equal. This means that from the computer's point of view it makes no difference if it is a picture, a sound, a movie, or just plain text, they are just bits. It is this lack of discrimination on the computer's behalf that allows different media elements to be combined on a single 'screen', and it is this quality that also allows the easy movement, for the reader and the computer, from one 'object' to another.
However, to argue that the 'digital' per se is the formal property that produces non-linearity, is inadequate. As argued above, dictionaries and encyclopedias are non-linear documents, and this is the case whether they are digital or book based. The non-linear is probably, then, an overstatement of the nature of these new texts. It may be more productive to consider the operation of the link - that which enacts the non-linear - as what separates the digital text from the book. When considered in this manner the link may be nothing more than a making literal of the performative nature of all utterance (Austin 1990), and more probably the illocutionary force of utterances; in saying, something is done. The manner in which multimedia and hypertext make this literal, and its implications for writing and reading practice, are probably novel and substantial.
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