J. Blustein's Hypertext

A Note About Non-Linear Text

A part of Definitions of Hypertext

Blustein & Staveley argue that hypertext is not anymore non-linear than other forms of written communication. Espen Aarseth has a more nuanced view which, while not directly contradicting Blustein & Staveley, expands the notion of semantic linearity.

Both views are presented here: first that hypertext is not especially non-linear, and then the other.

Why Hypertext is not especially non-linear

In ARIST volume 35 (2001) Blustein & Staveley wrote:

As Floridi notes that there are at least four ways a document can be non-linear. We may distinguish linearity, or non-linearity, in both the sequence of appearance and in the serialization of transmission of signs. These signs can be the physical representation of the content (the signifiers) or the semantic content of the document (the signfieds).

Some examples may clarify these aspects of (non-)linearity. This chapter is physically sequential in that the words that it is composed of appear in order. A schedule is semantically linear, because its signifieds constitute a one-dimensional progressive narrative (Floridi). Most books are syntactically linear and many are semantically linear, that is the words that they are composed of can only be read sequentially, but the narrative meaning encoded by those words may form multi-dimensional structures. The signifiers of a scroll are presented/transmitted linearly—to reach one part of a scroll you must see all of the parts before it too. There is no such restriction on the order of viewing the pages of a bound book.

Thus there can be a linear presentation in words with non-linear semantics in a traditional story. Floridi uses the familiar example of Homer's epic narrative The Odyssey. It does not have linear structure of a schedule and so it is not strictly semantically linear. Clearly a similar analysis can be applied to almost all written works too.

However, Espen Aarseth views the multiple possible presentations of the meaningful units of discourse as a fundamental source of non-linearity which distinguish a class of texts (of which he considers hypertext to be only one example) from more traditional of linear texts. His view is sketched below.

[Return to the definitions of hypertext webpage]

Espen Aarseth's View

Aarseth's view considers much more than the generalizations of writing (signs or symbols) and their meaning that Blustein & Staveley consider above. He defines new units of meaning that are not defined by linguistic form. Textons are the smallest unit of discourse. They are collections of signs that as collections have meaning to the user. Scriptons are unbroken sequences of textons. According to Aarseth, hypertext is non-linear in scriptons.

His understanding of the symbols has considerably more layers and facets that the earlier one. He classifies texts using the following features:

A nonlinear text is a work that does not present its scriptons in one fixed sequence, whether temporal, or spatial. Instead, through cybernetic agency (the user(s), the text, or both), an arbitrary sequence emerges.
In dynamic texts, as opposed to static texts, the scriptons change.
Concerns the traversal function (e.g. following a link in a link-based hypertext): a text is determinate if the order of the scriptons cannot change.
If the mere passage of time results in the signs changing then the work is transient, otherwise it is static. If the transiency is related to the user's time (aka real-time), then the work is known as synchronous, otherwise Aarseth describes it as asynchronous.
Maneuverability refers to the ease of access to the scriptons. Another view, of ease of access, is, of course, the amount of guidance the user has available to sequence the scriptons.
User-functionality refers to specific purposes that the text could be designed to support.

For more information about this view, see one or both of


Blustein & Stavely
Methods of Generating and Evaluating Hypertext
James Blustein and Mark S. Staveley
Chapter 6 (pages 299 – 335)
Annual Review of Information Science and Technology
volume 35, 2001
Martha E. Williams (ed.)
Published on behalf of the American Society for Information Science and Technology by Information Today, Inc.
© copyright
American Society for Information Science and Technology, 2001
Floridi (as cited by Blustein & Staveley)
Philosophy and Computing: An Introduction
Luciano Floridi
ISBN 0-415-18025-2
Espen J. Aarseth
Nonlinearity and Literary Theory
Espen J. Aarseth
George Landow (ed.)
51 – 86
Johns Hopkins University Press
As reprinted in
The New Media Reader
Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort (eds.)
The MIT Press
762 – 780

[Return to the definitions of hypertext webpage]

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Created on 02 May 2003 by J. Blustein.
Last updated on 07 April 2005 by J. Blustein.