• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

The online Merriam Webster English dictionary defines agoraphobia as an “abnormal fear of being helpless in an embarrassing or unescapable situation that is characterized especially by the avoidance of open or public places.” Does this phenomenon apply to our three agoras—the oral, textual, and electronic marketplaces—that lie at the basis of the Pathways Project? Can a person be phobic about media dynamics?

Before we start….

Let’s offer a trial answer to these questions before we begin to address the issue of agoraphobia in detail.

In short, for well-indoctrinated citizens of the tAgora, steeped in texts as the primary vehicle for communicative exchange, the oAgora and (to an ever-decreasing extent) the eAgora represent “the other.” In broad terms, most of us reading this book or clicking through this wiki don’t suffer from tAgoraphobia, simply because the textual medium is so familiar and so comfortable. It’s the major marketplace in which we live and work and think. There are certainly text-based activities with which we’re uncomfortable: some of us fear the writing of reports or seminar papers, some are anxious about spreadsheets, others enervated over the prospect of poring over long and complex books. Nonetheless, the tAgora remains – at least for the moment – our “home field,” the default arena for the kinds of culturally driven knowledge-exchange we practice on a daily basis. Even when we use the web, we’re often simply creating more texts.

Not so within the oAgora, where most of us lack fluency. In an unfamiliar environment that requires an ability to navigate networks, page-turners (or screen-scrollers) like us are mostly lost. And, as an easily threatened and technologically parochial species, what we don’t understand we characteristically either ignore or devalue, summarily pronouncing it outside (or even beneath) our attention. OT seems opaque, so we denigrate it as an inefficient technology. Dealing with an indecipherable reality by denying its existence or declaring it primitive, inaccurate, or just plain flawed – these amount to “textbook” symptoms of oAgoraphobia.

We do much better – better by the week, in fact – with the new “other” of the eAgora. We’re already getting accustomed to the strength and power of the electronic network, already gaining some fluency and know-how in the languages associated with this emerging verbal marketplace. We’re still flummoxed by its inherent plasticity and array of options, of course, often being content to copy our static text files straight to a website and consider the job done, or to employ one crude but familiar eTool when a more useful tool or suite of tools would vastly improve our work and experience. For these reasons, many times the “non-techies” among us sometimes find the eAgora forbidding, falling victim to a state of mind that translates only too easily to fear, helplessness, and disempowerment, that is, to eAgoraphobia. And a substantial number of us are to one degree or another eAgoraphobic.

So that’s the irony. Because of our predisposition as creators, users, and traders of fixed, spatialized texts, we may struggle to communicate fluently within the eAgora, and most of us fail utterly to gain fluency in the oAgora. The diagnosis? “Thoroughgoing oAgoraphobia complicated by a milder and diminishing but still chronic case of eAgoraphobia.” tAgoraphobia doesn’t enter the picture as a major disorder for most of us, but we’ll come to appreciate how that apparent sign of health actually amounts to a crippling problem in itself.

Curing agoraphobia

The way past our media-based limitations will be to experience all three phobias, understand their sources and resources, and learn to transact the business of communication not mono-technologically but diversely. We will need to understand the tAgora as merely one possible marketplace, one possible arena supported by a set of arbitrary conventions. Then texts will be seen for what they are: one strategy within a pull-down menu of options, one channel within a group of channels. It may be difficult and frustrating to cast ourselves adrift from the ingrained, almost autonomic reflex of thinking through texts, but it’s a necessary preliminary. And eventually it will prove an exciting and liberating step, as we take the next step and learn to think through other media. In the end, diversifying our repertoire of media-technologies—a central goal of the Pathways Project—is the best remedy for agoraphobia.

As an intervention designed to help cure agoraphobia by suggesting a continuous conversation rather than a one-dimensional statement, let me direct the reader and surfer to the Response node. This section amounts to a brief reaction to the reports by the two individuals commissioned by the University of Illinois Press to review the Pathways Project.