Navigating through Networks
oPathways and ePathways
Instead of fixed sequences and freestanding objects, OT and IT offer linked possibilities for the user to navigate through and personally convert into living, emerging experience. The ancient Greek oral poet Homer was describing this very brand of technology when he explained the phenomenon of oral performance as follows:
For among all mortal men the singers have a share
In honor and reverence, since to them the Muse
Has taught the pathways, for she loves the singers’ tribe.
(Odyssey, Book 8, lines 479-81)
Homer’s word for “pathway” is oimê, and it names not an object or item but a track or route from one place to another. In effect, he was understanding the oral poet’s gift as deriving not from memorization, vocal talent, or other attributes, but rather from a fluent knowledge of how to surf the collective web of ancient Greek mythology.19
Like the familiar ePathways that link one virtual node to another on the Internet, oPathways jointly present a system of opportunities. Each link leads unerringly to a destination, but it’s up to surfers in both media to decide exactly how to proceed, where to go, and what to do when they get there. Instead of depending on a preordained sequence, the necessary logic of textual technology, OT and IT consist of networked, right-now decision-points that require the active and direct participation of the user. Every choice matters because every one reconfigures present reality and generates new possibilities. As soon as each decision is made, the entire experience shifts, and then shifts again.
Surfing the IT Web
The worldwide web is already so deeply embedded in our everyday cultural landscape that it may seem unnecessary to probe how it works. The fact that surfing the Internet has become a reflex action, a default gesture for activities as diverse as seeking information or paying bills, is one measure of this embedding. The appearance of online journals, such as Academic Intersections, as an alternative to paper texts is another. Nonetheless, we might profit from taking a step back and asking precisely what we’re doing—and with what implications—when we engage this promising new technology.
The essence of digital and Internet-based communication is innovation supported by shared networks. We may choose to use it like a text, for example by visiting a site merely to fill in and submit a form. But more complex tasks, such as social networking or Wikipedia-scanning, involve open-ended journeys through the rich virtual territory of the web. To be sure, any such journey is supported by a platform of nodes already in place, but that platform is a multidimensional, interactive system rather than a flat surface. It opens up and enables rather than limits and predetermines. The power of the web resides in the rule-governed avenues for exploration it fosters, as opposed to the one-way street prescribed by texts.
Because of the opportunities for innovation, each ePathways adventure is likely to be different, within limits inherent in the overall system. Even when consulting a familiar series of sites, the web surfer will have multiple chances to follow routes never tried before, or to exit the preplanned itinerary altogether in order to explore another series of sites. Except for static files (which have their own value), the IT network is anything but textual: surfers co-create the reality of the expedition, realizing the adventure by clicking it into being as they go. Reality remains in play.20
Surfing the OT Web
Once upon a time (and still today outside the wired West) the technology of oral tradition was as embedded as Internet technology has become in the early twenty-first century. The OT system that supported the creation and transmission of knowledge, arts, and ideas was built into the cultural repertoire as a set of patterns that individuals could engage to innovate meaningfully. Whether yesterday or today, this flexible but rule-governed way of thinking and expressing amounts to nothing more or less than a special case of language—a mnemonic overlay that supports verbal transactions. oPathways are public thoroughfares, shared infrastructure.
Whether the OTs involved are stories, charms, cultural histories, laments, genealogies, ritual songs, or whatever, they emerge into present reality only after someone actually starts surfing through the OT web. Each genre, or kind of OT, has its own set of flexible rules and its own intranet, and surfers must play by those rules in order to maintain intelligibility. In fact, too great a departure leads to static on the channel, just as too fixed an itinerary stifles creativity and fossilizes communication. Language can’t function without both rules and flexibility; OT and IT require the same partnership.
By using the oPathways that Homer himself celebrates as the oral epic poet’s core technology, performers of OT can suit the needs of the moment to the traditional way of speaking. For fluent audiences—audiences who know their way around the OT web—communication in specialized code proves extremely economical. In effect, performer and audience surf together.
Once again, the OT experience is anything but textual. No two expeditions can ever be precisely the same because OT technology, like IT, operates via systematic morphing. No two performances of a story, no two versions of a verbal remedy, no two laments (even by and/or for the very same person) are exact replicas because the oral world consists of oPathways instead of one-way streets. Rule-governed morphing means that OT, like IT, stays alive, keeps reality in play, avoids foreclosing on networked potentials. Like the Internet, OT is always under construction.