Figure 1: A glimpse of the multilinear complexity of Monumental Past (fragment) — click on image to enlarge.
The final, and for me perhaps most significant, benefit of writing in hypermedia format has always been the potential for multilinear (sometimes called non-linear or non-sequential) writing — and the necessity of multilinear (non-linear, non-sequential) reading (see Fig. 1). I stated in the thesis that the precise sequence in which its sections and pages are read remained undetermined by me, and that each reading process would therefore comb through my work in a different sequence. Virtually every reader will read my pages in a different order and quite likely even access entirely different sections, so there is likely to be a far wider range of possible meanings that readers will get out of my work than would be the case if it was published in a conventional print format. Indeed, as Brian Fagan (2002) and Marcos Martinón-Torres (2002, 133) critically observed, it can even remain unclear what the thesis of my work actually is. I would reject this criticism by pointing to the fact that most readers, including Martinón-Torres, seem to have understood very well what I argued. But it is also true that I have always been proud of a certain amount of ambiguity in my work and correspondingly readers have to accept a certain amount of responsibility for their own interpretations.
I have long suspected that the lack of specific direction, whether implicit or explicit, for what to read and in what order, is at any rate more honest than the most common form of reading imposed by artificial linearity (see also Storrer 1999). In my work I cited Ted Nelson's wisdom that unilinear presentations 'spoil the unity and structure of interconnection' (1993, 1/14) which is present in many systems of thoughts and ideas: 'breaking up these ideas into a presentational sequence is an arbitrary and complex process. It is often also a destructive process' (ibid.). Nelson went on to argue that multilinear presentations can be superior to unilinear ones because they avoid any suggestion of 'a single sequence for all readers which may be appropriate for none' (ibid.).
In hindsight, how did I fare with trying to put such insights into (hypermedia) practice? Generally, the results were very positive I think. One response I received stated:
'it was very interesting to see a Doctoral thesis presented in this fashion. It challenged us to read and think in a completely new way. At first it was very confusing and hard to know where to begin, but once we started we enjoyed exploring your site. We feel that processing information in this way will take a lot of practice, but enhances the overall experience.'
But there were also some reservations, and certainly indications that old habits and preferences for linearity in current academic discourse will not change easily. Brian Fagan, for example, leaves the reader of his review (2002) in no doubt that he found my work not only difficult to read but also difficult to accept intellectually: 'I found myself begging for some linear signposts, some narrative and structure.' Indeed, a feeling of being completely overwhelmed by too much choice and complexity appears to be a typical initial response to my work (see also Samida 2000, 226-7). One comment I received pointed straight to the significance of established reading strategies as prime causes of this confusion:
'many readers will feel somewhat at sea on the first time round the site, trying to get to grips with the new conventions It is not a question of alleviating their sea sickness and feeling a loss of orientation, but more about getting readers to question from the outset the different conventions under which the text is being produced and read.'
Clearly, a work such as mine requires new ways of reading. Or, if hypermedia are in fact more honest than the most common form of reading and maybe even closer to the workings of the human mind (Landow and Delany 1991; Nelson 1993, 1/14-19; but cf. Dillon 1996 and Kathryn Denning this volume), readers need to learn to face up to their own reading and possibly thinking patterns. This was also expressed by Darvid Harvey (2002, 637) who described how he
'quickly found a certain familiarity in the style of flicking through paragraphs, opening pages at random, and following certain key words down unexpected routes (do any academics actually read academic books in a straightforward "cover-to-cover" way?).'
The best way of grasping an academic argument is, however, precisely where peoples' views diverge, especially when the scientific work par excellence is concerned: the Doctoral dissertation. Marcos Martinón-Torres (2002, 133) maintains that 'an academic piece of work requires some form of thesis statement' and, by implication, some kind of linear argument so that the reader can establish his or her degree of agreement with that thesis and argument.
Andre Costopoulos argued (1999) that splitting an argument up into small chunks of reasoning and information, as required for screen-reading, is 'incompatible with the spirit of scientific enterprise'. Moreover, he claimed that multilinear writing in general is 'hardly compatible with reasoning, demonstration and experimentation' which he considers central to that scientific enterprise. Similar concerns were raised again on the discussion on Intarch-interest that followed the publication of Costopoulos' paper (Various 1999). Brian Fagan (2002), too, found that 'without the discipline of a backbone and well-structured organisation, this monograph is effectively useless' and not commendable to 'the serious researcher'. (I am grateful that my academic examiners took a more favourable view regarding my thesis!) These kinds of comments are directly related to the on-going discussion about specific scholarly requirements and desires for academic works in the age of electronic publication, a discussion that goes on not only among archaeologists (Aldenderfer 1999; Boast 2002) but also in other fields within the humanities, such as American Studies (Rosenzweig 1999).
I would maintain now that there is no reason why a Doctoral candidate (or indeed any author) ought to demonstrate linear presentation skills when presenting an argument. The ability to master a large project about a given topic, to incorporate relevant data competently, to explore the merits of various theories, to evaluate different arguments, and to present one's own positions and perspectives in a persuasive way can also be shown in other ways. Alan Howard went so far as to claim that in the past theory has been constrained by the fact that sequential media 'do not lend themselves to apprehending phenomena of great complexity' so that 'elegant simplification has been touted as the hallmark of well-formulated theory', whereas these constraints now cease to exist due to the advent of hypermedia formats (Howard 1988, 312-13).
Unlike Howard, but similar to Hamilakis et al. (2001), I can very well relate to the virtues of a sharp and concise, linear argument, while believing at the same time that the range and form of accepted academic expression ought to be extended to include different and multilinear frameworks as well. When Brian Fagan (2002) claims that that the thinking behind my research can 'at best' be called 'undisciplined' I must take this both as a compliment and as a due reminder of the straitjacket that academic discipline(s) tries (try) to fit on all of us.
In the long term I am optimistic that 'history will be on my side', as Michael Shanks, my research supervisor, once put it. But I am also very aware that some colleagues feel strongly about maintaining current conventions, especially for Doctoral dissertations. Irrespective of the virtues of electronic publication in general and the hypermedia format in particular, I am not hopeful about any fast changes in the current 'academic culture' within which academic standards are judged (Siemens 2000). It may be worth remembering here that in discussions about electronic publication it is ultimately not the qualities of academic works which are at stake, but the social acceptance and professional credibility of such contributions. Ironically, it appears — in the words of Raymond Siemens (2000) — that
'the academic climate is, at present, one in which pragmatic, professional concerns appear to act as barriers to the acceptance and use of venues in the electronic medium that might, quite clearly, better facilitate work towards goals common to all academic and scholarly activities.'
I feel that such 'pragmatic, professional concerns' were one important reason why those academic colleagues who have been discussing my work, including one of my academic examiners, have tended not to refer to the published monograph. Even though some reviewers spoke of my electronic publication as 'a milestone' and 'a potential classic' (Martinón-Torres 2002, 134; Harvey 2002, 636), my colleagues have tended to cite either a summarising paper that appeared in 1998 in the print journal World Archaeology or the unpublished Doctoral dissertation itself. Apparently there are some extremely slowly changing academic conventions out there! This conservatism in academic values can perhaps also account for the fact that two reviews of my monograph ended with the expressed hope to see the work published in (printed) book form (Karlsson 1999, 141; Jacobs 2002, 476). I must admit that I too tried for some time to interest a publisher in a combined print/web publication of my work. Having reconsidered my original motivations for that desire, I have now changed my mind on this.
© Internet Archaeology
Last updated: Wed Jan 28 2004