This contribution to Academic Intersections advocates what may initially seem an unlikely and even counterintuitive thesis: namely, that our oldest and newest thought-technologies—oral tradition and the Internet—work in strikingly similar ways. OT and IT, which depend upon multidimensional networks and active navigation by users, mirror one another in their fundamental structure and dynamics. Notwithstanding the chronological tale that history tells, OT and IT amount to matched bookends to the radically different technology of the book and page.
In “OT-IT Linkages” I described three projects that exploit the parallelism between these two media: migrating all 22 years of our academic journal Oral Tradition to the web as a free and open-access resource; creating eCompanions for scholarly publications on OT that allow readers to listen to audio and watch video as well as pore over texts; and an eEdition that digitally resynchronizes the textually segregated dimensions of an oral performance. All of these initiatives, and those now in the planning stages at our Center for eResearch and Center for Studies in Oral Tradition, are undertaken in the spirit of eDemocracy, with a commitment to removing barriers that constrain the sharing of knowledge, art, and ideas.
As background for exploring the OT-IT homology, in “Reading Texts” I probed the implications of textual objects as our current default technology, as evidenced not only in hard copies but in static, non-interactive web files. The ideology of the book and page still runs very deep in present-day culture, reinforcing the tyranny of linear sequence and fixity at every juncture. This discussion provides the background against which I later consider the communicative options inherent in morphing networks and co-constructed experiences.
The next section, “Navigating through Networks,” compares the phenomenon of surfing the IT web with what I refer to as surfing the OT web. To put it simply, oPathways correspond to ePathways. Thus OT performers have before them a web of linked possibilities—a specialized network of language that promotes innovation within a rule-governed environment. For that reason, and again like the Internet, an oral tradition makes possible myriad variant itineraries, with no single “right” way to proceed. In both media the power to communicate derives not from invariance but from morphing.
“The Three Agoras” section interprets the rich spectrum of media as three word-marketplaces, three kinds of environments in which human communication takes place. Exchanges within the oAgora, tAgora, and eAgora are analyzed in terms of their core realities, units, routes, authorship, and audiences. Each arena functions via its default technology.
Finally, in “How the Pathways Project Works,” I discussed the two major components of the Project: an online facility (a wiki with limited external contributions) and a non-conventional “morphing book.” Both the electronic and the textual components are designed to support and encourage multiple possible “readings.” In both components four options are available to the user, who can construe the experience (1) via the table of contents, or “straight through”; (2) via the three agoras; (3) via linkmaps (which offer previously mapped routes); and/or (4) via branches. Users of the online facility, and to an extent readers of the morphing book, are not only free but fully licensed to construct their own realities by deploying these strategies.
As the Pathways Project and related initiatives move forward and mature, we will concentrate on further unwrapping the OT-IT homology and on developing its unique advantages for understanding and representing the world’s oral traditions. At the same time, we hope to help place the history of human communications technologies into a realistically dynamic perspective.32