John Fowler - Orality >> Linearity



thoughts after reading Doug Brent

As I started looking into things about InterNet I ran into
an off-line magazine called INTERTEK which contained an
article by Doug Brent that I found thought provoking. I e-
mailed the editor and asked to re-print it in GRIST On-Line
and he referred me to the author who was amenable. At the
same time I learned from Mr. Brent that the article had
already been e-published in EJournal a couple of years ago
and that a lively discussion had been going on in that
journal about some of the issues Mr. Brent had raised. Just
a few months ago when I began putting the idea of GRIST On-
Line together the figure for the estimated number of
InterNet users that I ran into was 3 million. Last week the
Wall Street Journal said 14 million, and growing at the rate
of a million a month. So...maybe some of us haven't caught
up with what was happening on the Net in
Brent's article is made available again in the GRIST
directory at ftp
For those who wish to review the discussion in EJournal they
can easily do so by getting back issues from bitnet. Get the index to all issues
by sending e-mail to that address with the message being

What happens when/if we abandon linearity? Can we imagine
it? Linearity is our structure. How do we re-structure?
Must we have structure? Can we tolerate a higher degree of
unstructuredness >> chaos? Should we try? Why?

A new business manager abandons his desk and hits the road,
connected by phone, fax and laptop. Present and future
success hinges on his ability to manage a networked set of
entities and their non-linear possibilities (profitably).
The vertical course of raw resource to final product, a
single manufacturing stream, is re-examined in order to
discover the possiblties for branching at every node in the
process. Branching is synergistic, is innovation. The
process is successful if it results in a *proliferation* of


The Net is such a process. A facilitator, not of
unification, but of diversification, Balkenization. Yet,
interconnectedness seems to be enhanced and isolation
seems to be overcome. But empowerment of the individual
is diminished, even as s/he *feels* more secure, knowing
there are other like individuals all over the world with
whom one can interact (via the network) at will makes one
feel warm. Why would government(s) try to limit the process
of fragmentation? For the more diffuse the voice of the
people, the easier it is to control the fundamental
processes that generate wealth and security for the few.
Governmental agencies may feel a need to monitor the
activity on the Net, but only for the purpose of making sure
nothing is happening that might result in a concrete,
physical coalescence, an eruption in the streets.
Governments are dislodged by physical means. Until the
people organize they are free to theorize at will. Thus,
the Net reshapes our consciousness by providing us with an
endless, solitary connection to a glowing tube as the
substitute for the finite, more difficult connection to a
physical human being. The context-starved and love-starved
citizen must have that daily net-fix, her/his only feeling
of connectedness all day long.

Our challenge today is not to predict where we are going,
but to become fully aware of where we have already come to.
Daily we are told that the Net is going to produce profound
changes in our consciousness, our way of thinking, our ways
of interacting. Change has already occurred. Change is a
present, on-going phenomenon. It is not something that is
*going to* happen; it is the difference between what we did
previously and what we do today; between how we did it 10
years ago and how we do it now. During the time it takes to
make a prediction--to gather data, generate a model, run the
model, analyze the results, fine-tune the model-- change is
constantly occurring. It is much more important to be aware
of the subtle, incremental steps that are occurring
day-to-day than to speculate about the world of 2058. Why?
Because of the breakdown of linearity. Prediction is a
linear tool which presupposes the ability to see
cause-effect-cause. In a branching universe the neither the
entry point/path through nor the outcome/exit point is not

In geo-politics we see the reality of unpredictability. No
one formulates policy because there is nothing stable enough
to base a policy on. Solutions are not even attempted;
containment is a difficult enough goal. "Leaders" no longer
attempt to direct or control events; they only attempt to
keep them from getting totally out of hand. They act on the

Consider the analogy of the hypertexual, interactive novel
wherein there is no set beginning point and no set
denouement. If each path through the material is unique,
what is the theme, what is the moral of the story, what is
the content? Does not the idea that there are multiple
stories, multiple lessons to be learned, reflect the form of
our consciousness today?

What then is the morality that arises out of the networked
situation? One thing does not cause another. All things
are _multi_: multi-sided, multi-caused. All things are
connected. (Therefore, one-on-one cause/effect cannot be

Connectedness reflects some degree or another of dependence
= responsibility. Responsibility leads to sharing and
sharing is facilitated by connection. Has that happened to
you? Have you experienced that? Are you different from

It is possible to construct a set of events such that there
are an unpredictable number of unique paths....perhaps not
unpredictable (because created, therefore bounded) but that
the number of possibilities may be so large as to be
unrealizable in one person's lifetime (for instance). But
the concept of path is linear; there is no path _through_ a
network; there are only paths around, within a network. How
do you get out of a network? Yet a network is bounded; or
it is not bounded. A work, a creation, is generally not
thought of as unbounded. Paintings have edges, symphonies
begin and end very specifically; novels, stories, essays,
poems all begin and end.


From Grist On-Line #1, October, 1993. An original publication.
© copyright 1993 John Fowler