• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Let me get this straight—Don’t trust everything you read in books, eh?

Curious phrase. And considering the thousands of libraries and bookstores packed with ton after ton of these apparently untrustworthy artifacts, a more than mysterious sentiment. So it’s only fair to step back and ask: Why in the world did we invent such a dismissive, nay-saying proverb? Although cliché-driven wisdom of this sort is famously anonymous, at least three credible explanations present themselves.

Three possible answers

First, many of us have personal experience of being scolded by family members or friends disdainfully rejecting an indisputable fact or well-grounded opinion we’ve summoned from a reputable printed source. We cite an unimpeachable witness, and they seek to impeach our witness. Second, some of us have overheard this caveat as we eavesdropped – third-party-like – on an argument in which one person seeks to impugn an opponent’s text-buttressed position. Au contraire, in other words. Or third, we may well have been needled by a well-meaning (or maybe not so well-meaning) colleague who is querying the medium at least as much as its message. Here and now, so many years post-Gutenberg, some miscreants actually prefer word-of-mouth, pre-print fantasies to solid, stolid, page-bound truth. Imagine that….

The price of doing tAgora business

Actually, the “miscreant scenario” is very easy to imagine once we get past ideology. From the perspective adopted by the Pathways Project, explanation #3 qualifies as the most fundamental and far-reaching of the group. Why? Because it addresses the unavoidable, built-in price associated with doing business in the tAgora. Because it exposes the usually unexamined, below-the-radar truth that there are some things that books and pages just can’t manage. And whatever they can’t manage is by definition lost.

Call it the “operating cost” or “overhead” or “tax” exacted by textual transactions, an automatic debit that we make it a habit not to notice. It’s an insidious situation, to say the least. We’ve grown so accustomed to paying this tariff that we overlook its damage to the medium-sensitive “bottom line” of creating and transmitting knowledge, art, and ideas. We ignore the damage, pretend it isn’t happening. Sad, because if there ever were a hidden cost that threatens to bust a communications budget wide open, the heavy tax on tAgora business must be it.

But no complaints here….

Stop and think for just a moment about the shortfall we accept without complaint. In place of a Wikipedia entry that – if well configured – can lead to you to manifold explanations, myriad linked topics, and the opportunity to shape your learning yourself, you’re sentenced to a one-way, blinders-on mini-tour of the book-author’s sole choosing. Alternate “takes” on a complex, many-sided subject? Not a chance. Related ideas? Only if they fit into the master recipe for the book-author’s carefully delimited concoction. Reader input to the process? Sorry; that’s well beyond the techno-horizon, at least until another edition of the frozen, monolithic artifact can be assembled (and even then the likelihood of impinging on the book-author’s personal franchise is small or non-existent).

Exclusivity and economics

The tAgora is exclusive, in both senses of the term, and it has prospered in its exclusivity. It demands that everyone play according to its narrow set of rules. It tolerates little or no extracurricular activities in its tightly controlled arena.

Nonetheless, we happily accept these crippling constraints with every book we purchase, borrow, read, or write; with every paper page we track across or dog-ear; with every static virtual page we merrily scroll down through. And we do so because we’ve effectively accepted the iron-clad agreement that governs tAgora business: in exchange for subscribing unreflectively to tAgora economics (and ignoring the economics of other agoras), we’re provided with a radically diluted, utterly monomedia, but quickly digestible message. And experience teaches that it’s easier to metabolize artifacts than participation. Sign the contract, forfeit what it declares null and void, and all will (seem to) be well.

Nor does the litany of built-in tAgora shortcomings end there, especially with regard to the oAgora.

The dire implications for OT

Pity the poor non-textual aspects of the OT phenomena we’re trying to understand and represent. Clearly their acoustic and visual dimensions can’t be housed between two covers; more basically yet, performer(s) become at best vicarious and any audiences are conspicuous by their absence. On these grounds alone we might as well forget anything but severely flawed representations of oral traditions. Add a DVD or CD? Only if you have a generous publisher, and then the add-ons are irremediably static: uncorrectable, un-updatable, unsupplementable, ever-inert. Thankfully, eCompanions and eEditions can help us move beyond this media impasse, but as yet they’re not widely in play.

But most fundamentally it’s the quality of immutability, the very characteristic that we textual devotees so highly prize, that blocks our way. Whatever its (supposed) advantages, a commitment to (imagined) immutability deprives OT of its core identity. It guarantees distortion, precludes verisimilitude and emergence. Freeze the performance, reduce it to print and/or static files, and what happens? The life, the ongoingness, the right-now, event-centered nature that defined the performance’s most essential reality all perish without a trace. And in their place stands an artifact complete in itself and yet empty—a cenotaph, a triumph of taxidermy.

The moral? Oral tradition can’t be captured in texts, no matter how strong our ideological motivation. You just can’t trust an em-booked oral tradition – not least because it’s an oxymoron and a bald-faced lie.

Counter-proverbs

So the proverbial phrase we started with – “Don’t trust everything you read in books” – may not be so curious or mysterious a saying after all, it seems. We might even understand its subliminal message as an acknowledgment of the terrible price we unconsciously pay in doing tAgora business. It wouldn’t be the first time that a culture cloaked its objections to the reigning orthodoxy in safely coded, arm’s-length language.

At any rate, in the spirit of understanding the tAgora tax on oral traditions, let’s close by indulging ourselves in a few counter-proverbs, made-up nuggets of media-wisdom whose function is to remind us of the hidden costs entailed and help us negotiate the ever-present threat of agoraphobia. In that spirit here are three freshly minted “old saws” to ponder:

1. Don’t trust living realities reduced to books.
2. Save some trust for what books naturally exclude.
3. Trust multimedia over monomedia, and systems over things.