• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Textual predisposition

For many the oAgora and eAgora are venues for indeterminacy, “anything-goes” behavior, and even outright chaos. As media-technologies they seem to license undirected, scattershot activities, with surfers free to blaze their own individualized, unpredictable trails through a maze with far too many options.

Here’s the often-cited problem in a nutshell: if performers or users can proceed just as they wish—lacking the one-way, exitless highway that predetermines our trek through linear texts—then how can we credit such an itinerary as valuable or valid? Couldn’t they just as easily (and at every step) have chosen differently, whether in the arena of oral tradition or the arena of the web? Wouldn’t told and retold stories “diverge,” perhaps beyond recognition? Likewise, isn’t the web experience inherently inaccurate as well as helplessly contingent? Doesn’t faithful, logical communication inescapably fall victim to willy-nilly surfing?

Routes, not ruts

The very act of posing such questions reveals our hidden media-bias. By crediting the fixity-based fiction of accuracy, we fail to recognize the creative and expressive advantages of contingency. Understood on their own terms, OT and IT aren’t inferior technologies at all; they’re just different, with different advantages and disadvantages. Consisting not of artifacts but of systems that require active, co-creative navigation by users, OT and IT tap into the power of networked alternatives. Functionally, the pathways that characterize the oral marketplace and electronic marketplace must by their very nature remain open for exploration and thus unpredetermined. They do their job by fostering innovative thinking and communication, and that means denying the foreclosure of finality or epitome. In these two non-textual agoras experience is emergent, reality remains in play, and the arenas themselves are forever under construction.

But let’s be careful here—open systems most certainly don’t translate to “anything goes.” Within the virtual universe of OT or IT, every node is linked to a limited number of other nodes. You are presented with multiple options, to be sure, but they’re far from innumerable. More to the point, the finite array of choices actually restricts and focuses surfing activity (productively, one hopes), leading not to indeterminacy or chaos but rather to the flexible, rule-governed environment of variation within limits. In a sense, links between pathways serve as an index of idiomatic meaning in the oAgora and eAgora alike. Whether in oral tradition or on the Internet, you can’t go just anywhere, can you? Just like language -- only more so, these networked media provide a platform for idiomatic exchange, for creating and maintaining a patterned logic at the same time that they fully support ever-morphing reality. Pathways connect, but they don’t fossilize.

First, imagine a storytelling event…. Every navigation depends on variables such as performer, audience, and the individual setting. Teller and listener(s) work their way through the story-network in tandem, with both sides reacting to the specificity of the moment against the much larger backdrop of linked alternatives. No two events can ever be “the same” in the sense that fixed texts are the same because that’s not the way the OT medium works. In the oAgora rule-governed flexibility, variation within limits, and co-creation are the operative rules of the game.

Now imagine a web-surfing event…. Every navigation depends on variables such as web designer, user, and the individual setting. User(s) work their way through the site-network, reacting to the specificity of the moment against the much larger backdrop of linked alternatives. No two events can ever be “the same” in the sense that fixed texts are the same because that’s not the way the IT medium works. In the eAgora rule-governed flexibility, variation within limits, and co-creation are the operative rules of the game.

Escaping ideology

A forthright examination of the oral and electronic marketplaces yields a simple truth. It’s only our ingrained tAgora prejudice that makes OT or IT surfing seem willy-nilly. If we can agree to set aside the demonstrable fallacy that portrays non-textual communication as flawed or second-rate, and if we can expand our single-medium model in favor of citizenship in multiple agoras and responsible agora-business, the picture will come clear. Navigable networks aren’t texts, and they can’t support textual communication. But they license equally valid and valuable—if fundamentally different—ways of creating and exchanging knowledge, art, and ideas. We need to grasp their inherent potential and surf them in search of new perspectives on human communication.