• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

It’s a curious fact that the ever more widespread Internet practice of tagging, driven by search mechanisms powerful enough to find what they’re looking for in milliseconds or less, is dynamically paralleled in the ages-old technology of oral tradition. Take the paradigm for storage and retrieval in Google’s g-mail, for example, which allows you to attach tags to each message to enable later searches, or social software sites such as facebook.com or del.icio.us or flickr.com or 43things.com. Their techniques mirror the textless dynamic employed long before the advent of writing to make and re-make a culture’s heritage and identity. In contrast, the “middle medium” of book and page employs an opposite organizational strategy: it files rather than tags, categorizes rather than cues, consigns to a group rather than individualizes.

How do we explain this parallel between oral-traditional and electronic communication, and why do books work so differently from both of them? Why are oWorld and eWorld so similar and tWorld so different?

Most fundamentally, oWorld and eWorld share a basic predisposition (that is, when the eWorld isn’t trapped inside tWorld metaphors). In place of hierarchical organization and sorting by containment, so often the default strategies in our everyday experience (at least until recently), IT (Internet Technology) and OT attach meta-tags to whatever they store. By adding these markers – as many as you’d like given the economy of electronic storage – builders and users of databases and other repositories can define and locate contents by specifying as many features as they wish. Filtering software can then apply combinations of feature-tests in less than the blink of an eye, finding the needle in the data-haystack with astonishing ease and – one might logically say – remarkable fluency. The root dynamic is sorting via tags.

The tWorld, on the other hand, organizes knowledge by containment, by filing within an ordered system of folders. It spatializes reality on the page and then piles up surfaces to construct a book-artifact, imposing a top-to-bottom, hypotactic order on the thoughts to be conveyed. It makes them item-like, warehousable, grouped in sequence within discrete categories. Chapters, paragraphs, and sentences further spatialize ideas, fixing them in space and time (or so we ideologically assume) and making them retrievable only through the aid of an index, a table of contents, or some other instrument invented to analyze the process-become-product. Of course, such analyses are slow and awkward, relatively speaking, precisely because the repositories they’re searching have been fossilized and made resistant to giving up their secrets.

Filing may seem orderly and accurate, but in reality it’s a clumsy tool, and under-powered besides. We may use it to make reality manageable, but we don’t think that way. We don’t – because we can’t – think in books.

Oral traditions, on the other hand, don’t organize themselves into tidy pages and chapters. Quite the opposite. Any particular story will always vary within limits, shifting from one oral poet to another and even from one performance to the next. The great oral epics of central Asia and Africa illustrate this innate variability, which also characterized Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey before these told and retold stories were fixed into the archaeological objects that have reached us.

Nor do oral stories sort out neatly into a well integrated, airtight series: from the perspective of the fixed text, any collection made from fieldwork will seem to overlap, leave gaps, show discontinuities in characterization and plot, and so forth. Why? Simply because they have no allegiance to a standard; they don’t all fit within a single manila folder, clearly labeled and sequenced in alphabetical order.

Instead, oral poets speak their poetic languages fluently, drawing flexible elements into the narration by “reading” their tags. Such poets don’t rustle through folders in search of “le mot juste.” Their fluency in a highly structured and coded way of speaking allows them to compose by intuitively recognizing the tags and converting an expressive need into an idiomatic solution. In other words, their procedure mirrors our fluency in everyday language, but at a highly specialized and focused level.

In this way as in so many others, both oral tradition and the Internet reveal their fundamental status as simply – and profoundly – special cases of language. Their difference from the book is striking: while OT and IT have the processing power to exploit tagging, the book, for all of its other inimitable features and trademark usefulness, is forever condemned to filing.