• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

It’s all around us

Contingency is everywhere, if we’re willing to look: in politics, in economics, in philosophy, in social identity, in the plans we make, even in the plans that others make for us.

Here is a brief but perhaps representative litany. Political successions often consist of a nest of contingencies. Home-buying is often made contingent on various related issues such as appraisal, loan qualification, home inspection, and so forth. Philosophers define contingency as “the study of propositions that are not necessarily true or necessarily false.” Some people understand the very bedrock of personal identity as a contingent social function subject to many variables both intraculturally and crossculturally. Every flight itinerary we arrange is, as we only too often discover en route, contingent on weather, traffic, and airline foibles. And the official organ of the American Association of Actuaries is named – what else? – Contingencies magazine.

So we can’t escape contingency, and that’s the most salient point. In truth we’re always and everywhere negotiating potentials and possibilities, working through them in real time, not asynchronously. After the fact that process may get conveniently flattened into a lockstep, here’s-what-happened narrative. But until that juncture we’re far too caught up in the evolving story to recount how it went (before it happened). We’re too busy living the events to manufacture the distance required to reduce them to a tidy, past-tense scenario.

What contingency means

The adjective “contingent” reveals a familiar kind of family tree, reaching back to Latin and moving through Old French before making its Middle English debut in 1385, roughly about the time Geoffrey Chaucer began writing his Canterbury Tales. In today’s language the word has the general sense of “liable to occur, but not with certainty; possible,” as when we speak of some favorable or hoped-for result as “contingent upon” some still pending action or development. The continuous availability of the Pathways Project website, for example, is contingent upon a number of factors: a connection to the Internet, a browser, smoothly functioning servers at the University of Missouri, the technological expertise of the webmaster, and not least electricity!

For our purposes – in this node and more widely – it’s crucial to recognize that “contingent” doesn’t quite mean “accidental” (though the two words are frequently used synonymously). A contingent outcome doesn’t occur inexplicably, with no underlying cause; instead, it’s dependent upon conditions or events not yet established; conditional. At its core a contingency is always an evolving reality, an emergent process that hasn’t yet generated a product. It names a possibility that may well occur but isn’t yet “writ in stone.”

Contingency most essentially means “What if…?”

Web-networks are contingent

“Contingent” also names the evolving, emergent, process-oriented experience of navigating through OT and IT (Internet Technology) networks. Because of the links that empower your exploration of interconnected possibilities, where you choose to go next isn’t by any means a willy-nilly decision. Surfing options are certainly myriad, especially as they pile up one decision after another, but at the same time they’re rule-governed and systemic. Every route leads to somewhere, or, more precisely, to many linked somewheres.

So negotiating a pathway-driven itinerary is by its very nature a contingent undertaking. It happens as it happens, unpredetermined, as you make one choice – one click after another. You can’t see through to the end-product because you haven’t yet reached the end.

So what actually is contingent, anyway?

A fair question: just what is conditional, dependent, in the process of becoming in OT and IT? We can identify at least five features of responsible business in the oAgora and eAgora whose contingency is central to their operation. Contingency keeps both marketplaces from collapsing into tAgora artifact-trading.

Here then are five trademark contingencies:

1. The very next option. OT performers and IT clickers remain in the present, continually confronted with options they may or may not elect. Storytellers and web-surfers conjure experience via serial decisions, each of which brings another decision – the next option – into play. As long as options exist, the journey is ongoing and under construction.

2. The performance. Because they create in the right-now immediacy of virtual agoras, both OT and IT surfers generate unique performances that are never true iterations of any other performance, either by them or by anyone else. Each set of choices is the result of weighing a great many alternatives, and weighing them serially, one after another, as you go. No two experiences, even if they’re reduced after the fact to texts, will ever match because each one is individually contingent.

3. The network. Like performances, which amount to tours of the oAgora or eAgora network, OT and IT networks are themselves contingent. Each one can and does morph in and of itself, remaining forever under construction, whether under the influence of social developments, personal creativity, or some other life-giving force.

4. Meaning. If surfers are navigating through networks by making serial choices among the options that open before them, then they are co-creating the experience and co-creating meaning. Because OT and IT users are choosing among alternative pathways (rather than trekking through texts), they are fluently converting contingencies into (momentary, necessarily evanescent) realities.

5. Authorship. Agency in the oAgora and the eAgora is only partially in the hands of any network navigator. Much depends on those who have come before, who have assembled the web of contingencies that supports an infinite number of individual configurations. And those who contribute afterward will reconstruct the shared system in unforeseeable ways. To a considerable extent OT, like the IT resource Wikipedia, is an open-source phenomenon. Authorship is distributed in both arenas.

Contingency is an invitation

In other words, contingency, so often negatively construed as unmanageable uncertainty that threatens to undo our best efforts, is an invitation to participate and to create in the oAgora and eAgora. Contingency means that the process cannot go forward without your involvement – and not just a thumbs-up or thumbs-down verdict, but a continuing commitment to stay with the exploration until it’s over (for the moment, for this performance, for this instance). If you accept the invitation, you’re entering a web of potentials that will guide but not predetermine your activities. And as you make choice after choice, the individuality of your surfing will emerge as the jointly authored itinerary it is.

Of course, this “standing” invitation offers admission to an experience that develops as you go; there can be no foregone conclusions. oAgora surfers will adapt each of their performances to the existing variables (their own mood, the audience, the time of day or night, the physical venue, etc.), and eAgora surfers will find their way through complex, interactive constellations of electronic routes according to their preferences that day, week, or hour. Both kinds of navigators are invited not to a destination, but rather to a system of pathways through which they can jointly fashion an event.

Texts mask contingency

Historically, it’s been the role of texts to mask contingency, to (seem to) remove uncertainty and replace the conditional with the factual. Never mind that the very origin of the word fact exposes the fantasy of exterior, freestanding truth. For many centuries we’ve been content to accept the inscribed as the permanent, as somehow immune to contingencies, as the “last word” on matters of real importance.

If you need evidence of how open-and-shut this ingrained attitude is, you need go no further than the old proverb, Don’t trust everything you read in books! If we weren’t so blinded by our unexamined fascination with tAgora commerce, why in the world would we need such a warning?

But textual ideology is a powerful force, not least because it operates under the radar, deflecting our perspectives before we have a chance to consider other ways of managing knowledge, art, and ideas. It’s demanding and extremely uncomfortable work to escape ideological bias, and a kind of culture shock inevitably attends inter-agora boundary-crossing. We count on texts as beacons of objectivity and stasis – as still points in the chaos of give-and-take argument, as the “true” story that never varies, the official and dependable source to which we can return to settle disputes and establish the facts of the matter.

Of course, texts only appear to have eliminated contingency, as contemporary philosophy and literary criticism have shown with great persuasiveness over the past couple of decades. Every word in any text is subject to interpretation by every individual who encounters it, and – certain political stances notwithstanding – the individual’s prior life experience, always unique, will necessarily play a part in that interpretation. Texts as physical objects may themselves stand firm; how they are read does not.

And this isn’t a liability: Shakespeare’s redoubtable Hamlet wouldn’t be nearly as intriguing or celebrated if the text that revolves around his world-view communicated with total objectivity in every time and place. Is Hamlet’s character contingent? Yes, because our readings of the text – rather than the text itself – are contingent. Again, the artifact holds still; perspectives do not. That’s a significant difference between operations in the tAgora on the one hand, and on the oAgora and eAgora on the other.

OT and IT actively depend on contingency

The oAgora and eAgora aren’t merely venues where contingency is unavoidable or grudgingly tolerated. Neither marketplace could function without a system of openly acknowledged, dynamic “What ifs?”

Take the oAgora. As the performer and audience work their way along an ever-branching set of narrative pathways, both sides aware of the alternatives that lie before them, they’re effectively playing within an interactive set of rules. The Basque oral improviser, or bertsolari, for example, is juggling several balls at once – responding to an assigned topic, answering a competitor’s poem, singing along a melodic template, and fulfilling the requirements of one among many verse-forms. Within this rule-governed universe, there are many oPathways to choose among, many routes that the performer and the audience could follow, but contingency doesn’t become reality until that pathway is actually chosen and engaged. And so it proceeds, step by step, not all at once but emergently. Only at the end of the stanza, when available options have converged to a single inescapable solution, do the bertsolari and the audience converge, singing the final two lines ensemble. Until that culminating point the negotiation, fueled by contingency, is ongoing. Contingency initiates momentum.

Likewise in the eAgora. You characteristically begin surfing with a plan in mind, but just as characteristically your itinerary will include ePathways and experiences you hadn’t foreseen, that you couldn’t foresee, when you started out. A Wikipedia entry on the medieval Irish manuscript called the Book of Kells presents you with a host of “What if?” opportunities, among them an entry on vellum, the sheepskin medium of this and so many other manuscripts of the period, and Johannes Gutenberg, who introduced movable type to Europe. If you choose the latter, a link within the section on Gutenberg’s legacy may attract your attention: you might then click on Marshall McLuhan, the media theorist, an interactive page that offers a gateway to the academic program in culture and technology at the University of Toronto that was established in honor of McLuhan.

Alternatively, you might be exploring the Pathways Project node on the eAgora and find yourself clicking through the various species that make up the genus IT. Suppose you fasten on the idea and example of the mashup, the digital meshing of previously freestanding works into a new synthesis. And suppose further that you follow the ePathway to remix, where front and center stands none other than Marshall McLuhan, the focus of McLuhan Remix. This site also does honor to the media theorist, by combining his very words with a host of others’ words, all knit together with the aim of representing as well as articulating just what it is that new media can do and how we should understand them.

For the sake of illustration, then, let’s agree that your navigation follows one of these two tracks and ends in one of these two places, either at the University of Toronto program or with the McLuhan Remix. Either series of choices, inherently logical in itself but nonetheless unpredictable, becomes a fact only after the matter. And what made “fact” possible was an open-ended, systemic series of contingencies.

The next move is up to you

In truth, of course, it’s hardly just the next one; every move is up to you. Of the more than 40 links that occur within this node alone, you may have chosen to follow several, all, or none. Perhaps you didn’t even get “here.” Perhaps you’re somewhere else. No one—not even you—can predict precisely where you’ll go, what exact choices you’ll make. All the oAgora or the eAgora can do is to create options for you to choose among, networks for you to navigate. But that’s most assuredly not a liability; it’s a serial opportunity to participate. OT and IT work only when you convert contingencies to co-created reality.

So from this point on (if you’re “here”), and from any point on (if you’re “elsewhere”), you have a number of choices. You can pursue any or all of the four ways to navigate the Pathways Project, as detailed in the Getting Started node. At various junctures, whether in the morphing book or the wiki, those four strategies may well lead you beyond the Pathways Project itself, and you may choose to return or not (today, at some future time, or whatever).

Or you may decide to explore other parts of the larger Web, to Twitter, to check your Facebook page, to store a bookmark for later reading, or to pursue some other eActivity. Or you may decide to pick up a brick-and-mortar book, settle down comfortably with a cup of tea, and savor the offline pleasures of the tAgora.

Whatever pursuit you choose, this node will have succeeded as long as you see OT- and IT-based contingency as an invitation. And the Pathways Project at large will have succeeded as long as you recognize the particular dynamics of OT and IT on the one hand and of textual technology on the other, as well as the benefits of earning citizenship in multiple agoras.