• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

For a start, consider Wikipedia’s description of machine-based firmware: “the term firmware was originally coined in order to contrast to higher level software which could be changed without replacing a hardware component, and firmware is typically involved with very basic low-level operations without which a device would be completely non-functional.” This is the static, invariable, most fundamental level of instructions inscribed into the hardware, directly onto the chip. It provides the necessary platform for the adaptable instructions we call software, those flexible, generative structures that we manipulate through user-enacted programming.

In other words, upper-level sets of instructions handle the visible, immediate, hands-on work performed by users on the machine in question, while the lower-level firmware makes its essential, invisible contribution specifically by resisting change and thus providing a solid, non-manipulable platform for higher processes.

Agoras as cognitive firmware

By analogy, we can describe the oAgora, tAgora, and eAgora as three versions of cognitive firmware that serve as platforms for the many and various kinds of software used to transact verbal business in each individual marketplace. The comparison is clearest when we invoke the earliest definition of machine-based firmware, namely “the microcode – contents of a writable control store (a small specialized high speed memory), which defined and implemented the computer’s instruction set.” That’s precisely what the mindsets associated with agoras do for human communication in the three marketplaces. Just as firmware exists “on the boundary between hardware and software, thus the name ‘firmware’,” so agoras exist on the boundary between the physical human communication apparatus and the specific verbal activities they control and support – thus their designation as “cognitive firmware.”

oAgora firmware, for example, supports software for African praise poetry, Sardinian contest poetry, Serbian funeral laments, Australian aboriginal songlines, Zuñi stories, North American slam poetry, and thousands of other forms of oral traditions around the world from ancient times to the present. Among myriad other variables, the dimensions of music, rhythm, performance arena, and the overall ecology of oral traditions further differentiate what kinds of higher-level processes can be built within and atop oAgora firmware. If the cognitive firmware of the oAgora were not in place, then the composition, performance, and reception we understand as such OT events could not take place. The oral marketplace would fall silent.

tAgora firmware also provides a sturdy, accessible platform for an extremely broad spectrum of higher-level activities, but of a categorically different sort. Consider the wealth of script-software, for instance, from Chinese characters and Babylonian cuneiform through the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets to the Arabic syllabary. The textual marketplace has evolved many surfaces for mapping scripts as well, from the clay counters of the ancient Near East that eventually gave us the tablet, and on to wood, papyrus, vellum, modern paper stamped by presses or etched by laser systems, and static digital files. Nor can we forget the manifold strategies discovered to share or exchange items or artifacts, whether hand to hand, shelf to shelf, institution to individual, or across small or great distances—all dependent on the impenetrable thicket of rules that govern ownership of these things. The tAgora mindset—the underlying conviction that knowledge, art, and ideas can be created, transmitted, and received by concretizing and spatializing “them”—lies at the basis of whatever modes of inscription, printing, and pixel-portrayal we’ve managed to invent. The ideology of text licenses the twin illusions of object and stasis.

Likewise with eAgora firmware, within its own designated area of sponsored communication, of course. Machine-based firmware supports operating systems for computers and smartphones, which in turn support applications and utilities of every conceivable type. Server firmware supports the creation, maintenance, and use of websites via server operating systems such as Ruby on Rails, as well as higher-level software that makes possible the familiar eEcology of blogs, wikis, and social networking facilities such as Twitter, Facebook, and 43things. In the ever-expanding arena of the web, navigating through even the most complexly crafted, most interactive network depends ultimately on firmware. But of course the actual, human-based transactions that comprise the eAgora – as distinct from the fixed instructions on servers that enable them – depend on the cognitive firmware of the electronic marketplace. The eAgora prospers only because users subscribe to an ever-emergent reality that they co-create by surfing through webs of potentials. Otherwise the electronic marketplace would cease to function.

To empower—and, yes, to disempower

In that vein it’s important to recall that the role of cognitive firmware is just as much to restrict and to disempower as to empower action. That is, as solid and irreplaceable a foundation as it provides for certain kinds of software, cognitive firmware won’t support or even recognize those types that fall outside its domain. You simply can’t trek through an agora that functions via rule-governed morphing and co-creation, any more than you can surf through unrelentingly linear texts. Just as machine-based firmware isn’t designed to support software outside its domain, so agoras can’t serve as platforms for verbal activities outside their marketplaces. The oAgora doesn’t support text-reading, nor does the tAgora support oral performance, nor does the eAgora support textual representation and analysis.

Correspondence across firmware versions

The major thesis of the Pathways Project is that the oAgora and eAgora are homologous, and that strategies exist to promote the faithful understanding and representation of oral traditions by suitably formulated electronic media. The tAgora, on the contrary, shows correspondences with neither of the other two marketplaces. Another way to explain this OT-IT (Internet Technology) homology is by observing that the cognitive firmware of the eAgora will, with adjustments, support oAgora software. The two instructional sets – and mindsets – have enough in common via the shared OT-IT dynamic that they can license similar higher-level activities.

Updating firmware and multiple citizenship

Achieving citizenship in multiple agoras, a major goal of the Pathways Project, means developing a working fluency in the oral, textual, and electronic marketplaces. To transact verbal business outside one’s home agora – in situations that invite agoraphobia and culture shock – is a real challenge, and one not easy to overcome.

But getting beyond the ideology of the text, or for that matter any other ideological impasse that results from exclusive practice in a single agora – is both worthwhile and possible. Think of the upside: no longer would we have to ignore major communicative processes deployed by millions of human beings around the planet in order to maintain exclusive focus on our default medium. No longer would we be condemned to misinterpret communication that we (unconsciously) filter through the wrong matrix of assumptions. Instead we could engage the pull-down menu of agora-choices, selecting the appropriate option, giving each channel its due, and operating in a cosmopolitan manner that allows and fosters exchange with everyone, in whatever media-environment, in their own agora-language.

What’s the catch? We merely have to be willing to code-switch, to take each expressive venue on its own terms. We have to realize that diversity in media-use and -understanding is not just possible but immensely enriching – never more than now in the early twenty-first century. In other words, we have a unique opportunity before us.

Update your cognitive firmware

So let’s get started. With the lowest-level machine instructions, which we recall aren’t subject to modification and manipulation, the key to change is to update firmware by wholly replacing it. We simply overwrite what’s presently there with another fixed program that supports a different range of software. In some cases we substitute firmware versions that consist of not just one but two or three packages, called binaries and ternaries, respectively. Each of these multiple modules runs different sets of software programs. Each provides its own platform and arena for action.

To gain citizenship in multiple agoras, then, you proceed by updating our tAgora firmware with a new ternary package of cognitive firmware that will run activities in the oAgora, tAgora, and eAgora, and which will sense what it needs to support and code-switch accordingly. Your experience will then be multiply fluent—trilingual in a sense—and what you learn and can convey to others will be far more faithful to the various realities involved in any multi-channel event.

An example. For instance, consider how a typical day of fieldwork on oral traditions among Mayan storytellers in Guatemala might go, and what resources and frames of reference would come into play:

At five a.m. you rise to consult fieldnotes from the prior day’s expeditions, rustling through sheets of paper or listening to audio recordings or scanning static eFiles on your laptop [here tAgora firmware supports textual software]. On arriving at the fieldwork site you participate in a welcoming ritual involving prayers and gift-exchanges conducted among a different group than was present yesterday. After this prologue, several story-performances take place, with two narrators and seven audience members actively involved in co-creating the event [here oAgora firmware supports OT software]. Some months later you arrive back at your home institution with filled handwritten notebooks and a hard drive packed with static eFiles and large caches of CDs and DVDs, and you spend several months auditing and organizing these textual materials for your research associates [here tAgora firmware supports textual software]. With your memory of the living, multidimensional experience, and with the shortfall of book-presentation in mind, you decide to create an electronic edition, weaving media together and creating a flexible, option-driven, navigable network of recording+text+translation+commentary for users to surf through [here eAgora firmware supports IT software].

The object of the system (not the thing) you have built is to provide options for the user to avoid reducing the oral performance to a text and in effect to resynchronize the event. Users can then navigate through the eEdition, making their individual ways and constructing their individual experiences. The guideline, as with the performance itself and as with OT and IT in general, will be variation within limits.

All of these agora-specific perspectives—and citizenship within multiple agoras more generally—can be achieved and managed by updating our cognitive firmware.