• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Continuity and sustainability through, rather than in spite of innovation.

To the book-bound mentality, such a strategy may appear at best unlikely and counter-intuitive, at worst simply wrong-headed. But it accurately describes how oral tradition and the Internet operate in their versions of the public domain—the oAgora and the eAgora—the arenas in which each thought-technology thrives most naturally. Despite what our default cultural reflexes encourage us to believe, OT and IT (Internet Technology) prosper not via the textual program of fixation-through-capture, but via morphing and regeneration. For both pathways-based media, it’s rule-governed, ongoing evolution – rather than the dead-end of tAgora fossilization – that promises continued usefulness and accessibility.

Two aspects of OT and IT, both of them foreign to the textual world, stand out as especially important reasons underlying this counter-intuitive reality. The first is a radical openness to change, and I mean “radical” in two senses: fundamental and innovative. The second aspect is an un-privatized community of makers and users, a cyber-democracy if you like. These two qualities make for a creative scenario that favors access, exchange, and diverse contributions over ownership, licensing, and proprietary products. Instead of micro-societal restriction by legal instruments and entrenched resistance to shared innovation, so typical of the régime of the book and page, OT and IT offer an invitation to cooperate and jointly innovate across the broad swath of the macro-society.

OT accomplishes its goals by opening the performance arena to all performers and (let’s not forget) all audiences, subject to individual cultural rules. Likewise, IT’s ever-emerging openness and ever-expanding community are sponsoring more and more “open source” and “open standards” sorts of activities. In short, if OT and IT operate like matched “bookends,” it’s precisely because they flourish by not closing the book on sharing, by conducting their business very much in the public domain.

Let’s consider a few examples of IT behavior along these lines, instances of eDemocracy that are changing the landscape of our daily experience.

Open software

In recent years the so-called “open source” movement has begun what some are already calling a major revolution in software design and development. The trend away from proprietary, vendor-regulated products and toward open source software has meant that innovation of any sort can take place without the usual restrictions of licensing, commercial purchase, and penalties for modification. The source code is open, experimentation is open, and redistribution is open – all across the eAgora.

In the simplest scenario, this initiative fosters adaptation of freely available applications to any subsequent purpose without abridgment of copyright. Thus anyone can tailor preexisting “open” software to a particular purpose without monetary impediment or fear of legal repercussions. Would your business function more smoothly if you could tweak a particular application by adding or substituting modules, or even by rewriting basic code? Under open source rules, feel free to go ahead and tweak – no questions asked, no fees incurred, no laws broken. Likewise for the next innovator, and the next, as evolution goes on unhindered.

Complementary to the open source movement is a commitment to open standards, such as the OpenDocument standard adopted by the state of Massachusetts as a replacement for proprietary, non-conforming productivity applications. As of January 1, 2007 all state offices were required to install software that supports this new standard, which in effect disqualified any proprietary software that didn’t do the same. Initially that meant Microsoft Office was out, as were WordPerfect and Lotus Notes, none of which originally supported the standard. But the power of the eDemocratic movement has since brought many software companies around.

But this story has another, more far-reaching side. Technophiles and ordinary citizens of the cyber-democracy stand to profit from decreased costs and increased access, as did state workers – once they mastered the new applications that were required when “open season in Massachusetts” began. Capitulate to broader, community-based rule or suffer the consequences, the Massachusetts folks were saying to software vendors, even as they warmly welcomed makers, users, and workers into an open, seamless eCommunity.

Open courseware

Add to these symptoms of a deeply rooted and growing commitment to sharing – as opposed to owning – another remarkable phenomenon: MIT OpenCourseWare, which makes public and available many hundreds of courses over dozens of departments and programs.

Here is how MIT President Susan Hockfield, speaking to a new world of users, described the broadening and leveling of the educational eAgora: “There is no limit to the power of the mind. We encourage you to use OCW—learn from it and build on it. Find new ways not only to pursue your personal academic interests, but to use the knowledge that you gain—and that you create—to make our world a better place. In the spirit of open sharing, we also encourage you to share your scholarship with others, as hundreds of other universities are already doing through their own OCWs.”

In other words, IT opens doors, and it opens them via shared pathways, just like OT.

So… the state government of Massachusetts and the MIT faculty – what do these groups have in common? Briefly stated, they’ve decided that the way forward is not to hoard ideas but to distribute them as widely as possible, not to try to corner the market but to trade with everyone else, and on as equal a footing as possible. They see their best opportunity for sustained contribution as members of a radically open community of makers and users – indeed, a community wherein the (essentially proprietary) distinction between “makers” and “users” really doesn’t apply in the customary tAgora sense. Instead, and again as in OT, all involved become in one way or another participants, actors or doers participating in a process of mutual exchange. And the strength of their joint work, as well as the richness of their joint experience, derives from morphing and innovation.

That’s what’s meant by a truly public domain – an eAgora, an IT-based community in which ownership has given way to sharing. And sharing is in turn a recognition that ideas just don’t hold still, that they’re ever-evolving. In such circumstances, is it really any surprise that open source software and open courseware have begun to take on more prominence?

As with OT, people are once again starting to understand the advantages of pathways. All tAgora claims to the contrary, innovation and sharing help insure continuity and sustainability through growth. That’s how you grow the public domain and keep it vital. Like the oAgora, the eAgora recognizes that reality remains in play.