• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

One of the core rationales for the Pathways Project is to explore the expressive power of a media suite, a coordinated set of tools that collectively offer more than any one of them alone can manage. Specifically, the Project confronts the challenge of how to use Internet technology most productively in book publication.

All-or-nothing strategies

This dilemma takes the form of some familiar questions. Should we just mount the entire text on the web, as a publisher asked me to do with one of my books published about ten years ago? I declined, on the basis that this wasn’t the best use of the web, that it amounted to trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The route I chose instead was to post a collection of audio, video, and ancillary textual support on a website to accompany the conventional book. We named this strategy an eCompanion, and have extended it to our online journal, Oral Tradition.

There are other approaches, of course, and other questions. Should we re-stock our libraries exclusively with eBooks and/or buy reading licenses to access them from remote servers? Should we require readers to get more comfortable with on-screen scrolling and less attached to page-turning? Should we enter the world of Amazon’s Kindle, with its primary allegiance to the tAgora even though it conveys those fixed text-items electronically? Should we fight a rearguard action and stubbornly resist electronic intervention, at least in certain fields?

These and many more questions have been posed again and again, and they all miss the point. They all assume that technologies are hermetically sealed from one another, that they demand what amounts to an “either-or” commitment, much as we used to think that orality and literacy couldn’t co-exist.

Peaceful coexistence

But orality and literacy do in fact co-exist, not seldom in the very same person, and word-technologies are best understood (and deployed) not as a choice between binaries but as an integrated suite. We must avoid defaulting exclusively to a single tool for communication and instead be ready to use the entire tool-kit, as the situation demands. The page has its time-honored place within this suite, but it can’t convey living images or audio. As to roots and future, the conventions and ideology of book publication deny us even a glimpse of how the ideas on that page came to be, or of what they will lead to, just as they deny us the co-creative participation that is the driving dynamic of the oAgora and eAgora.

A “golden rule” for media deployment

The golden rule must be to choose the right strategy – or combination of strategies – for the expressive job. In other words, don’t ask the stand-alone book to do what eStrategies can do much better, and don’t ask streaming video or website aggregators to explain things textually. What’s more, there’s no reason, especially in the current environment, why we can’t deploy an integrated collection of media to answer the expressive challenge. Combine them, mesh them, use each to its advantage for the sake of the ideas and—most crucially—to support their optimal reception. The whole purpose of representation is to make the best connection, to communicate most effectively.

eCompanions contribute to media suites by attaching eAgora experience to tAgora vehicles in order to better present oAgora realities. eEditions perform a cognate service by supplementing textual features with electronically delivered multimedia and hypertext, by effectively resynchronizing the performance.

This naturally means that the reader/surfer will be called upon to do more. But even partial citizenship in the contemporary world of multiple agoras, as cyber-linked and awash in multimedia as it is, has already equipped us to do more in nearly every aspect of our daily lives. And what do we purchase by ratcheting up our own processing power – by attaining fluency in media multitasking? Nothing less than heretofore unachievable fidelity, radically richer experience, and exciting new horizons in intellectual exchange.

It’s a price we must pay, to be sure, but all in all quite a remarkable bargain.