• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Citizenship in multiple agoras

You know how it goes. You’re planning a trip to another country, and find you need a passport, maybe a visa, perhaps even a special travel permit beyond that. Documents in hand, you get off the plane, pass through immigration and customs, change some currency, and – if you’re able – switch to the local language. But even if your vocabulary isn’t spotty, even if your syntax and grammar prove serviceable, you can’t simply assume immediate membership in the new culture. Remembering a few words and stringing correct sentences together is one thing. Achieving cultural fluency – which requires a set of habits borne of years of experience and subliminal learning – is quite another, and well beyond your reach.

Unless, of course, you’ve learned more than one system. Unless you feel entirely at home and at ease configuring more than one reality. Unless, in short, you’re a full-fledged member of more than one culture.

The benefits of agora-citizenship

To belong to an agora as a citizen in good standing is like belonging to a culture. The marketplace feels native, and you can transact your business fluently – without hesitation and without conscious adjustments and recalculations.

Your tItinerary

Let’s begin with our usual default agora, the textual marketplace. You have a report to write? Then your tAgora facility with memos, executive summaries, or whatever form your employer uses, kicks in and you compose within a familiar frame of reference. You have a research paper due in two weeks? Then your text-mastery guides you through the library, through websites loaded with static eFiles, through the format preferred by the course instructor, and so forth. Whatever the challenge, the point is that you don’t have to rediscover the most basic aspects of the procedure. You don’t have to relearn the routine. Instead, you enter the tAgora and proceed according to its rules for creating and exchanging text-objects.

Your eItinerary

It’s becoming easier all the time for many of us to enter and use the eAgora – which explicitly does not mean to consult fixed texts on the web but specifically to engage in interactive and co-creative activities online. We find ourselves increasingly comfortable with instruments such as Wikipedia, we build our own electronic sites and intranets for many purposes, and in general we are getting accustomed to another way of thinking and expressing ourselves. However, it’s a relatively small percentage of us, disproportionately located in industrialized, wired environments, that have achieved real eCitizenship. While the balance tips further every day toward the arena of the web, it still has a long way to go.

Your oItinerary

Less familiarly yet for most of us, the performers and audiences of oral traditions also work within well-defined arenas with built-in rules for the creation, transmission, and reception of knowledge, art, and ideas. Performers of contest poetry don’t search through handbooks for melodies or verse-forms, lamenters don’t reinvent their practice on each occasion or iteration, and epic singers don’t parse oWords. They simply know how to proceed, how to surf the oPathways of their particular oral tradition, and their audiences know how to follow along and how to contribute to the process as active, fluent partners and oCitizens.

The drawbacks of agora-citizenship

But fluency in the language and customs of one agora is a double-edged sword, because it involves restriction as well as license. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of cognitive dissonance in dealing with another culture – something as simple as a gesture that unintentionally offended someone, or your own uneasiness in bartering over a price when bartering is expected, or a political faux pas of some sort. In none of these cases did you set out to cause problems, but your blind adherence to the wrong set of cultural rules got you into trouble in the new, non-native context.

And why was that adherence blind? Simply because it was ideological – reflexive, autonomic, and thus beyond the reach of considered analysis. No matter which agora you’re a citizen of, the other ways of thinking will inherently seem foreign and illogical, and you will be tempted to disparage them because of their radical unfamiliarity and the discomfort involved. Once again, this reaction – let’s call it intolerance, because that’s what it becomes – does not amount to a tempered, well-considered opposition based on calm, careful appraisal of the issues from all possible perspectives. Not at all. It’s an ideological short circuit: the dirty underbelly of hard-won, longstanding, and deeply embedded agora-fluency.

The most obvious version of this short circuit is what the Pathways Project calls the ideology of the text. Under the tAgora bias, oral traditions have often been characterized as primitive, inaccurate, and in need of textualization. Of course, that approach automatically blocks any kind of faithful understanding of the oAgora on its own terms and condemns oral traditions to permanent misrepresentation. To put it another way, tCitizens without dual oCitizenship may prosper in the textual marketplace, but they will struggle vainly to conduct verbal business in the oAgora.

Of course, this ideologically driven agoraphobia is hardly restricted to the medium that most of us know the best. Performers and audiences of oral traditions who lack dual citizenship in another agora will inevitably make corresponding errors because of their ingrained cognitive habits. One can’t begin to imagine static text-objects if all one knows are networks of pathways. Likewise with mono-medium eCitizens, of whom there must be very few right now but who will undoubtedly increase their numbers dramatically in the years to come. With the advent of cloud technology and with ever-morphing networks of options increasingly available wherever you go, how long will it be before the hard-core, brick-and-mortar text is the exception rather than the rule? Even now, we hear early adopters of the latest electronic strategy demeaning the world of texts, just as citizens of the other agoras are so inured in their own marketplaces that they can’t credit alternate media. Toleration for diversity in media-marketplaces requires true understanding, and understanding can’t proceed until we escape ideology.

How to apply for multiple citizenship

It can be a long and torturous process – if it even proves possible – to apply for dual citizenship in different nations. Among the criteria espoused by various countries is proof of parents’ or grandparents’ birth there, for example, something you can’t just generate or apply for. Whatever the specifics, gaining membership in one nation-state often means relinquishing that same status in another. You just can’t have both; you have to choose. And that choice is necessarily exclusive, because you can’t have it both ways.

Fortunately, media-membership doesn’t require that kind of exclusive choice. Citizenship in multiple agoras is quite possible, and highly desirable as well. Given access to the marketplaces in question, and given a willingness to get beyond ideology to a responsible appreciation of diversity in media, dual and triple citizenship are available to all concerned.

So how do we apply? The answer, curiously enough, is essentially by tricking ourselves. We start by accepting the rules and environment of each of the three arenas as diverse in function but equivalent in value. Yes, they operate differently; and yes, they present and enable different realities; and yes, we need to adjust our activities and expectations accordingly. But “different” doesn’t translate to “better” or “worse.” Tolerating non-identical frames of reference is the key to starting the application process.

The second step is to understand exactly how we trick ourselves into fluency in each of the three agoras. In the OT marketplace it’s a matter of code and networks, of oWords and oPathways. We need to be prepared to navigate systems rather than trek through texts, to use the tools we are given rather than complain about not having the (locally useless) tools that shouldn’t be there. Effective tAgora citizens will largely forget about textual cues like white spaces, lines, paragraphs, and the like because these signals have become part of the way they think and express themselves, and also of how they receive texts created by others. In the eAgora we trick ourselves into forgetting the apparent artificiality of URLs and HTML code (neither of which is artificial at all in this arena) and using these coded interventions to create or surf through networked experiences.

Think of multilingualism, multi-culture membership, and citizenship in multiple agoras as pull-down menus. Click on “language” and options appear. Pull down from “Culture” and take your choice. Choose “Agora” and three selections appear.

In practice it’s a matter of code-switching to adapt to different languages or cultures. When you enter a communicative situation, you adjust to the nature of the discourse by making the applicable choice from the menu. Each language or culture is of course fundamentally equivalent to all the others; it’s just a matter of matching the tool to the immediate job. If you’re lucky enough to be a citizen of both Italy and the United States, and if you’ve lived long enough in both places to acquire true cultural fluency, then you have options – once again choosing from among equally viable but diverse possibilities.

What we can aspire to in the world(s) of media is a similar range of options for agora-citizenship. When we’re functioning within the arena of oral tradition, we select the oAgora option from the pull-down menu and operate according to the rules that govern that marketplace. The textual arena presents another click-option, in which case we enable a different set of cognitive procedures tailored to communication in the tAgora medium. Or we could select the eAgora, and enter yet another universe with its own powerful rules about code and pathways.

To emphasize the point, all three options always appear in this imagined pull-down menu, just as all three appear in every node of the Pathways Project wiki-website. None of them is absolutely preferred, and no hierarchy is either explicit or implicit. You make the choice as to which of your triple citizenships is to be in force at any given juncture, and in electing one of them you do not disparage or forever eliminate other possibilities. The King’s English is not inherently better than kitchen French, and neither of these linguistic tools ranks higher than the specialized register of Tibetan used to perform Gesar oral epic.

Diversity means the rich and rewarding experience of options – and citizenship in more than one agora is just that.