• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

As explained in Welcome to the Pathways Project and with more detail in Getting Started, the overall Project consists of two parts: (a) a website, technically a wiki with gatekeeping; and (2) a book entitled Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind. Both aspects share the central mission of analyzing and representing the fundamental homology between oral tradition and the Internet, and the basic contrast of the oAgora and eAgora, on the one hand, with the very different textual marketplace, or tAgora, on the other.

A book that morphs?

A book is neither an oral tradition nor an electronic web. It is a species belonging to the textual genus, a warehousable object, a static item. Its role is to serve as a bulwark against change of any sort, not at all to foster the kind of navigation through networks and pattern-driven variation that characterize and define OT and IT (Internet Technology). On the face of it, “morphing book” would therefore seem an outright contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. Not unexpectedly, then, questions must arise.

Question # 1: So how can this brick-and-mortar artifact possibly morph?

Books do not naturally morph, of course; once “cast in stone,” they resist morphing. But they can be forced to do so to a limited degree in order to illustrate three phenomena: to simulate non-linear, co-creative “reading;” to reveal the arbitrariness of their programmatic code; and to underline their unsuitability for network-based dynamics.

In other words, books can to a limited degree support multiple different reading itineraries that do not slavishly follow the canonical line-after-line, paragraph-after-paragraph, page-after-page, chapter-after-chapter routine. To an extent they can be supplemented to support various routes through their riches, and thus different experiences. And opening up alternate routes through books not only provides us with new opportunities for making sense of the subjects they treat. It also exposes linearity and all of the signals that blaze the “linear reading trail” as no more (and no less) than a convention. At the same time, this exercise in using a pseudo-navigational strategy in Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind is intentionally meant as a demonstration of the tAgora’s built-in inadequacy to support the network-based activity typical of the other two agoras. Call the morphing book both a partial oAgora/eAgora facsimile, and at the same time proof that a full facsimile can’t be created within the tAgora.

Question # 2: So how can we defeat the primacy of textual code and cause the book to offer more than a single linear route?

There are four ways in which the volume Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind can be read, with each of them mushrooming to myriad more possibilities in actual practice.

First, the book can be trekked through via the default method – “straight through” according to the sequentially numbered pages, just as you would read through a Shakespeare play or an Ellison novel. To emphasize this linear organization (and its arbitrariness), Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind consists of usually brief nodes arranged in alphabetical order in a Full Table of Nodes. But caveat lector: one node very seldom leads to the next one in line, since this kind of ordering is perhaps the most artificial of organizational principles outside the arena alphabet-friendly of dictionaries, lexicons, and encyclopedias. Furthermore, within each node are links that provide opportunities for (but do not require) visiting other nodes. Linearity is thus the initial trajectory of this default method, but you will almost certainly choose to abandon that strict and impertinent pagination-based track at some point between page 1 and the last page of the book.

Second, Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind can be read via the three principal media environments: the oAgora, the tAgora, or the eAgora. Most of the book’s nodes are only a few pages in length, but these three discussions of the oral, textual, and electronic marketplaces, and a few other nodes such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Ideology of the Text, are much more extensive. From one perspective, the three principal nodes collectively offer a thorough overview of how the OT-IT vs. TT contrast works, and are filled with examples of each medium/technology that illustrate the broad spectrum of possibilities for each genus of communication. From another point of view, they are structured in parallel fashion, to emphasize similarities and differences. In addition, hand, they are also filled with cross-references to other sections in the book, nodes that treat the immediate topic in more depth or connect to a cognate idea, even occasionally to sites outside the Pathways Project. Once again, how you proceed – how you cause the book to morph, even within the confines of this second, agora-driven approach alone, is entirely up to you.

Third, you may choose to follow one of several linkmaps provided within Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind. These predetermined sequences, none of them alphabetical, consist of strings of nodes unified by a central idea, such as “The eWorld,” “The oWorld,” “Broadening your Horizons,” or “Textual Limits.”. In selecting a predesignated linkmap you abdicate your own co-creation and turn the process of discovery over to another person, following his or her “take” on how the book, or at least parts of it, can be construed. You follow in someone else’s link-clicks, so to speak. But never fear: you can depart from that pre-set itinerary at any time, either by choosing another linkmap, by following a link within any node in the sequence, or by opting to pursue any of the other three global strategies. As usual, your experience is of your own making.

Fourth and finally, and most basically, you can follow branches from inside any node at any time. Through these frequently occurring links you’ll discover cross-referenced material that you may find useful or provocative, and as a result you may continue to explore other connected nodes according to your own designs. Or perhaps you’ll decide to backtrack, staying with the original node – at least until you encounter the next invitation to explore something else within the network (or, more rarely, outside).

Diversity of experience, but built-in limitations

Through these methods you can cause Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind to morph, and to engender different experiences every time you pick up the book for a reading session. Your friends and colleagues can do likewise, and you can confer with them to discuss and compare the various itineraries you’ve put together – all of them equally viable routes and none of them the single, exclusive, authorized route. As you cause the brick-and-mortar item to mirror network-navigation to the small degree that a tAgora artifact can, you’ll also sense the limits of an inherently pathwayless medium. In short, you’ll gain another perspective on the homology of OT and IT and their contrast to textual technology.