• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

A local disclaimer

This node was created to serve as one possible introduction to (one of several avenues into) Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind, the book associated with the Pathways Project. For that purpose it emphasizes the disorientation necessarily involved in abandoning the default medium of the book in order to grasp the dynamics of alternate media—specifically OT and IT (Internet Technology). As such, it explains how tAgora-speak doesn’t and can’t translate to the eAgora.

The book in your hands

You’ve picked up this book, gently cradling it in your hands as you’ve done so many times throughout your life in so many different situations. It’s a cozy, familiar action, essentially a reflex, as you prepare to set sail through the smooth, silent seas of letters, words, lines, paragraphs, pages, and chapters. Everything lies before you in expectable sequence, reassuringly formatted and configured. Even the artifact itself comes complete with trusty features – a title embedded in an eye-catching design; back-cover blurbs that may tend toward hyperbole; the smooth, cool feel of the pages as you turn them one by one. In ways that you don’t consciously register, the book provides a powerful and uniquely welcome frame of reference. You’re ensconced on the sofa, the light’s adjusted, your cup of tea’s in place, peace reigns. You’re about to re-enter a world apart, a world you’ve visited before and long to revisit.

Let the reader beware

Comfortable, then? Well, caveat lector: let the reader beware! This particular book doesn’t fit that tried-and-true mold; in fact, it seeks to expose the mold as an ideology we’ve adopted, a tacit compromise we’ve forged with a much messier and more complex reality. For that reason it’s a book more likely to ennervate than entertain, at least until you get used to how it works. Instead of the dependable calm that dependably proceeds from opening the dependably put-together artifact, what awaits you is, frankly, an unsettling experience. You may undergo a kind of culture shock, not so different from the disorientation we feel when we’re suddenly immersed in a foreign society with language and customs far from our own. And no apologies: Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind is actively intended to generate just that kind of disquiet and dissonance.

Why? Because we’ll be doing nothing less fundamental than challenging the default medium of the linear book and page and all that they entail. We’ll be addressing the very nature of text and asking whether that’s all there is to communication. Worse yet, perhaps, we’ll be finding that there is indeed much, much more that we’ve made a cultural habit of ignoring or suppressing. We’ll learn that there are large, complex, wholly viable, alternative worlds of media-technology out there – if only we’re willing to explore, to think outside the usual, culturally constructed categories. We’ll learn that oral tradition and Internet technology support thinking and creating and communicating in ways that books can’t match. And we’ll find that OT and IT work in strikingly similar fashion, offering us networks to navigate, webs of potentials that we will be in a position to activate. And that won’t be a comfortable experience, at least initially. Not at all.

A way out… if you want one

Too much to ask? Well, there’s a way out, of course, a strategy to avoid the discomfort. We can simply choose not to think outside the book – not to jump off the dock – and thus avoid the reshuffling of our cognitive categories that the Pathways Project demands. The sun will still rise in the east and set in the west, the twin illusions of object and stasis will remain (artificially) in force, and our hard-won and desperately held convictions about the certainty, permanence, and primacy of the book and page will rest undisturbed.

And perhaps there’s a reasonable argument for doing just that. Having labored since Gutenberg to convert knowledge, art, and ideas to an item-based economy, are we now to throw away centuries of hard-won victories? Now that we’ve developed this marvelous textual prosthesis to help us manage the slippage that threatens to undo communication at every turn, are we now to discard it in favor of a broader view we can’t yet appreciate and may not be able to control? Maybe, given all that texts have meant and continue to mean to myriad readers, including you and me, that’s an irresponsible and indefensible act. Maybe we should remain on the dock. Maybe we should just close this book and return it to the shelf.

Opportunities ahead

But that would be a mistake, and a missed opportunity. For the process ahead also promises to be exciting and rewarding, as long as we’re willing to honestly confront some basic, unexamined assumptions and preconceived notions. That’s the catch, of course: in order to make our way through the ideas housed within this book and networked within the Pathways Project in general, we’re going to have to jump off the end of that proverbial dock and learn how to swim in a new and different environment. Only by relinquishing the relative safety of the stand-alone book can we start to understand how major media-types – oral tradition, Internet technology, and, yes, the book as well – really function. Only then can we then reorient ourselves and see how human communication actually works from a pluralistic, informed perspective. Only by first letting go can we realistically recalibrate our thinking.

Culture shock can lead to acculturation. Or, to put it proverbially: no media pain, no media gain.

If you’re ready to proceed, please turn the page to – or click on – Welcome to the Pathways Project or Getting Started and begin your journey.