Texts: The Default Technology
Texts have served as our default communications technology for almost as long as Western culture can remember. By definition, what preceded documents is mostly lost to us, effectively erasing from the calendar those eleven-plus species-months before the invention of writing. And once that invention gained ascendancy—evolving radically from manuscripts to print to mass-market paperbacks—our built-in assumptions also changed. Those OTs that survived the onset of writing and then print media have often been treated as inferior technology, a medium meant to be superseded as societies marched forward. The reign of texts has in many quarters proved absolute and exclusive.15
The Double Edge of Fixed Sequence
From a user’s point of view, texts operate by prescribing a single, fixed, and invariable route from one point to another. Letters are followed by letters, sentences by sentences, paragraphs by paragraphs, pages by pages, chapters by chapters, and so forth. As part of this well-honed communicative strategy, authors make most of the decisions for their readers, guiding them along a predetermined sequence and disallowing detours from the prescribed route. Of course, readers may choose to skip a paragraph here or chapter there, or they may decide to visit particular parts of the book via an index,16 but the fact remains that the text’s power derives precisely from its lack of pathways, from the absence of networked potentials. Fixed sequence is everything.
The first animation illustrates the order imposed by line and page:
Linear Processing: Line and Page
What’s more, linearity extends well beyond the line and page. To gain further information not contained in the particular text at hand, what do we do? We simply consult another text. We don’t click on a link that leads us to supplementary information or ideas because we simply aren’t afforded that opportunity. The best we can do is to trek to the appropriate warehouse (the library or bookstore or data-base) and access another item.
The second animation illustrates three more levels of linear, sequential organization:
Linear Processing: Volumes, Shelves, and Libraries
Interestingly, the greatest strength of textual technology also proves its greatest weakness. Fixity restricts the user’s choices, denying alternatives in order to keep everything “on track.” Texts provide the ultimate guided tour, an extremely efficient strategy for certain goal-directed purposes, and they continue to serve us very well in some capacities. But at the same time they also severely limit the user’s prerogatives and participation, especially in regard to representing and understanding oral traditions.
The Limits of Textual Exchange
Because they’re freestanding, unconnected objects with price-tags attached, texts can be difficult or impossible to access and exchange. Distribution is usually overseen by proprietary, financially driven interests, so items are customarily shared only within limited networks. This double distancing fragments the potential community of users and can lead to narrow, unrepresentative constituencies. Witness the endemic difficulty of creating multidisciplinary, not to mention multinational, consortiums for research. You’re eligible to participate only if you can afford the hard currency of textual exchange (subscription fees for professional journals, for example, or simple access to research library holdings). Unfortunately, that entry-level requirement disenfranchises a significant portion of the potential research community.
Once again, communication about oral traditions, so endemically hard to capture in texts that then resist exchange, is especially imperiled. Cultures outside the Western orbit of finance and distribution systems—often the very cultures where OT thrives most naturally—can find themselves out of the loop. An ironic situation, to say the least, but one that the OT-IT linkage can help to remedy.
The Power of Textual Ideology
So why have we settled so unilaterally for texts as our default medium? Most fundamentally, because we’ve adopted a deeply embedded ideology, a cultural belief-system that credits texts as complete, self-contained, and objective. Against the cruel instability of human thinking and communication stands the bulwark of the text, which (so we fervently believe) preserves ideas in pristine, unalterable form.
Thus the persuasive rhetoric of the page, with its right-justified lines, paragraph indents, and sequential numbers. Thus the authority of the chapter, with its number, section title, epigraph, and concluding transition to the next approved unit. Thus the book, with its comforting conventions of covers, title, table of contents, and index. All of these features bespeak permanence and objectivity, effectively obscuring the self-evident truth that ideas just can’t be tidily contained in objects. Books don’t carve out and preserve immutable truths. Textual ideology leaks.
As we shall see, OT and IT operate outside the textual arena, unconstrained by fixed sequence, limits on exchange, and textual ideology.17 OT—like IT—has no pages, chapters, or books, or for that matter even “proper” titles.18 Because of these shared differences from texts, IT offers a natural vehicle for OT.