John Miles Foley
For Isaac, the most gifted person I know - Back into the light
A Media-history Lesson
Until recently our assigned place in media-history has blinded us to a simple truth: writing, not to mention printing or the Internet, is a very recent invention. If we project the history of homo sapiens onto a single calendar year, writing emerges only on December 10th, more than 90% of the way through our species-year. The fabled Greek alphabet dates to December 19th, and Gutenberg’s printing press to December 27th. Not surprisingly, the Internet establishes itself only 16 minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve.1
And yet, textless and byteless, we somehow managed to formulate and maintain societies, create and transmit art and knowledge, and in general behave as the complex cultural creatures we are—all without the cognitive prostheses of writing or electronic communication. And how was this miracle accomplished? Simply put, the human community already had at their disposal a very powerful and longstanding communications technology: oral tradition (OT).2 In fact, if we step outside the wired West and think globally, it soon becomes apparent that the OT medium continues to be the dominant communications technology worldwide on a per capita basis.
Just What is OT Technology?
Oral tradition is a specialized, dedicated technology that supports human communication, and therefore the sharing of knowledge. It’s far more than “mere talking,” just as written communication involves far more than “mere scrawling.” OT uses patterning of all sorts—with mnemonic structures based on rhythm, music, phraseology, and other aspects of human articulation—to transmit art, history, medicine, law, psychology, and scores of other familiar kinds of social knowledge through a network. Oral traditions serve the groups that use them as nothing less than essential tools for living, for keeping available the ideas and know-how we now deposit in books and more recently in data-bases. At its root, OT is a special case of language, a highly coded and idiomatic variety meant to answer particular social needs.
When, Where, and How Broadly Has OT Been Used?
We find abundant and compelling evidence of OT everywhere from the ancient world through the present day. The Judeo-Christian Bible has roots in this widespread thought-technology,3 and oral performance is intimately associated with the Qur’an at many stages.4 Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the medieval English Beowulf, the Old French Song of Roland, and numerous other classic works from early Europe have been shown to derive from OT.5 Indian epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana, still alive today in folk OT versions as well as in textual forms and television adaptations, likewise precede and live alongside textual recordings.6 On available evidence, OT lies at the fountainhead of verbal art from earliest times.
But although it seems to have been the initial and foundational word-technology in all early cultures, OT is hardly a thing of the past. Even today we find thriving OTs of every description on six of seven continents. In Africa epic bards and praise poets perform crucial functions by chronicling and disseminating information about group and personal status and identity, while African novelists such as Chinua Achebe draw from well-known OTs for story-lines, characterization, and narrative strategies.7 The Aboriginal peoples of Australia sing their way across the landscape by remembering and performing map-poetry that recalls topographical features, as do the Western Apache in North America.8 Basque oral poets called bertsolaris duel in highly complex improvisational OT forms, rife with social and political criticism, as do “slam poets” in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere.9 Tulu priests and acolytes in the southern Karnataka province of India manage nine different and interlocked forms of OT, including an oral epic whose hero is female, as a way of worhipping the goddess Siri.10 At least 56 Chinese minorities support healthy oral traditions of all kinds, from tale-telling through herbal pharmacology and shamanism, even though many of these ethnic groups have no official writing system.11 And we need look no further than the African American genres of folk preaching and blues to find examples of OT alive, well, and functional within our own highly textual and highly wired society.12
The moral of the larger story is simple and far-reaching. Historically and in the contemporary world as well, OTs dwarf texts in prevalence, diversity, and functionality. As performed verbal art they serve the cultures who use them as instruments to cope with the human condition—as strategies to practice what we call history, natural science, psychology, anthropology, religion, medicine, philosophy, and more. OTs provide living networks that support societies and individuals, and their great secret is that they morph systematically, that they actively resist fixity and finality. They work by offering their users dynamic word-webs to navigate.
OT and IT: A Nonlinear Reality
Given the media chronology sketched above, it’s only too easy to imagine an evolutionary arc that begins in the dark ages of oral tradition, moves through a middle period of manuscripts and then books, and culminates in the bright new world of digital and Internet-based media. According to this model, oral tradition and Internet technology—OT and IT, for short—are understood as bookends to the waning age of print, as the two opposite ends of a spectrum.
But what if media-reality weren’t merely linear? What if the oldest and newest of media—OT and IT—actually resembled each other much more closely than either one resembled the book and page? Is it conceivable that the medium we deployed so successfully and exclusively for most of our species’ existence really works similarly to a medium only sixteen species-minutes old?
The Pathways Project was initiated to explore just that premise: to show how the fundamental dynamic of both OT and IT amounts to navigating pathways. Unlike texts, which communicate by prescribing and precisely following fixed sequences of letters, lines, pages, chapters, and so on, OT and IT do their work by offering their users a systematically networked universe of multiple options.
It may well seem counterintuitive to a culture that celebrates documentary evidence and subscribes without hesitation to the myth of objectivity, but the strength of OT and IT lies in their ability to morph—to foster adaptation and innovation via a highly patterned, powerful language. In effect, OT amounts to an online, open-source medium that enlists and supports active participation. Correspondingly, digital, Internet-based media, and in particular the web itself, provide a shared, flexible platform for individual performance.