The Meanings of “Multiplex”, and the “Multiplex World Order”

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In my book, The End of American World Order (Polity 2014; Oxford India 2015), I developed the term “Multiplex World” to conceptualize the emerging world order that would replace the fading unipolar moment and the ‘American-led Liberal Hegemonic Order’ (to use John Ikenberry’s term). The term has struck a chord among readers (see, for example, http://www.amazon.com/The-End-American-World-Order/product-reviews/0745672477) and numerous people around the world have since asked me to offer further clarifications and elaborations of the concept. I originally had in mind the idea of a multiplex theater or cinema in which the audience can enjoy a variety of shows, actors, directors and producers, instead of a single show. This conveys the sense that the emerging world order would be more decentered and pluralistic in terms of its key ideas about and approaches to stability, peace and development, compared to the passing order of American or Western dominance.

Since then, I have done more investigations into the meaning of the term. Here are some interesting findings, all of which speak to the theme of diversity, plurality and multi-dimensionality, while retaining a strong sense of interdependence among the players.

The word multiplex originates from Latin “from multi- + plicāre to fold” (Collins English Dictionary ,2012 Digital Edition, cited in http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/multiplexing)

The word was first used in mid-sixteenth century mathematics. In its original sense, it meant “having many folds; many times as great in number; of many parts”. (Online Etymology Dictionary, Cited in http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/multiplexing)

As an adjective, the term multiplex conveys the sense of “having many parts or aspects” – such as “the multiplex problem of drug abuse”. It can also mean “manifold” and “multiple” as in “the multiplex opportunities in high technology”. (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/multiplexing, based on the Random House Dictionary)

Today, the term multiplex is used in a variety of fields, including entertainment, telecommunication and mapmaking. Perhaps the most common forms of usage is to refer to a multiplex cinema or theater. This refers to “a group of two or more motion picture theatres on the same site or in the same building, especially a cluster of adjoining theaters.” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/multiplexing, based on the Random House Dictionary)

A multiplex theatre can also be defined as “a purpose built complex containing a number of cinemas and usually a restaurant or bar”. (Collins English Dictionary, 2012 Digital Edition, cited in  http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/multiplexing)

Another prominent usage of multiplex is in the telecommunications field. Here, multiplexing refers to “sending multiple signals or streams of information on a carrier at the same time in the form of a single, complex signal and then recovering the separate signals at the receiving end.” (http://searchnetworking.techtarget.com/definition/multiplexing). The key sense here is the transmission of “two or more signals or messages”, or of “several messages or signals simultaneously”. The latter is called “multiplextelegraphy”. (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/multiplexing, based on the Random House Dictionary)

Yet another meaning associated with multiplex is multi-dimensional, specifically three-dimensional mapmaking, or mapmaking in a “stereoscopic device that makes it possible to view pairs of aerial photographs in three dimensions  (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/multiplexing, based on the Random House Dictionary)

In the telecommunication field, the meaning of multiplex or multiplexing can be understood by contrasting it with the term “mirroring”. Mirroring “takes one data file and copies it to many devices”, whereas multiplexing writes the data files to many places simultaneously” without having a single point of origin.  The Free On-line Dictionary of Computing, cited in http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/multiplexing)

The above meanings of the term multiplex make it especially apt as a metaphor for conceptualizing what comes The End of American World Order.

In a Multiplex World order, ideas and approaches to peace, development and stability do not emerge from a single source, however powerful (as would be under American led liberal hegemonic order), and then simply get “mirrored” into other places. Rather they have multiple points of origin which nonetheless intersect and interact. In other words, a Multiplex World Order accommodates “several messages or signals simultaneously”.

Such a world order has “many folds” and “many parts” that all matter to different degrees. It’s a decentralized, diversified and multidimensional world in which actors – state and non-state actors, established and new powers, global and regional groups, from both the North and the South, interact in an interdependent manner, while seeking a common ground in a plurality of ideas and approaches.

In his review of my book in Foreign Affairs (http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/142536/amitav-acharya/the-end-of-american-world-order), John Ikenberry calls the “Multiplex World” “an imaginative vision of a less centralized, more pluralistic world”. Imaginative it might be, but it is also based on the firm reality of our world. The varied usages of the term can be found in the day-to-day life of the overwhelming majority of human beings. Anyone who goes to a multiplex theater, or prefers watch them on home television, through streaming via tablets, smartphones and other devices would understand and appreciate that Multiplex World is the most apt and appropriate naming of our present and future.

 

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