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Rewriting the world

New appreciation for the nonlinear

There’s a second way in which the world is showing itself in a more literary fashion than ever. One of the great strengths of Newtonian-style laws is that it applies the same way in every case. But, thanks to early computer science’s discovery of feedback loops in the 1940s and thanks to chaos theory and complexity science’s observation of nonlinear systems, we’ve gotten used to the idea that many systems reach a point at which the general principles and equations take a left turn and the system changes. A tiny increase in humidity and you have a hurricane. A tiny shift in the position of rocks and you have a landslide. Computers, and especially machine learning, allow us to model and predict nonlinear systems better than ever, enabling nonlinearity to be more present to us.

But nonlinearity is also a property of many forms of literature. The ordinary turns into the extraordinary in an unpredictable moment. A small change causes a landslide of consequences. A clue we hadn’t noticed unlocks the mystery and reframes the entire narrative. Many stories, of course, bring the comfort of linearity. But we were reveling in nonlinear narrative systems well before computers were invented. Characters in Dostoyevsky’s novels intentionally do the exact opposite of what any rational person would do. The very structure of Moby-Dick is not exactly linear. These days, stories have gotten even more twisty. Characters in Gillian Flynn novels turn out not to be who we think they were. A group of friends go to Vegas for a bachelor party, and wake up in a hotel room in a movie plot that has gone hilariously (?) nonlinear. Nonlinearity has gone mass culture.

So, with more appreciation of the particulars and of the nonlinear, the world is beginning to look more literary than ever.

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