• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

What does it mean to own something? How do we come into possession of an item or idea, and what are the rules for sharing it with others? There’s probably no hotter issue in today’s digital, Internet-enabled world, and yet it’s also an issue that has deep roots in the long history and prehistory of media.

An analogy to IT (Internet Technology)

Consider a hypothetical parallel. Imagine a time and place where and when there is no such thing as copyright – either “big C,” Creative Commons licenses, or any other such arrangement. And the reason such instruments wouldn’t and couldn’t exist is that the very concept of ownership of ideas, performances, and works of verbal and musical art didn’t exist. Embroiled in a litigious society where patents and copyrights and intellectual property seem more and more the topics of everyday conversation, we might well find such an imagined time and place almost unfathomable. It just doesn’t seem realistic.

But in fact this is far from a fantasy. The oAgora, the verbal marketplace in which oral traditions have long flourished, was and is just such a place. According to the basic dynamics of exchange, OT is most fundamentally an open source phenomenon. It circulates widely and freely, with the only universally observed constraints being the capacity to perform and the ability to enlist an audience with a corresponding capacity to participate. (Of course, particular cultures may impose other constraints, such as the gender or age of the teller, the season during which a story may be told, and so forth, but these are localized rules and have little or nothing to do with the nature of OT as a shared event.) It’s a matter of getting online in the oAgora.

The Impossibility of oOwnership

In other words, people can’t “own” OTs any more than they can individually and exclusively own the everyday languages they speak. Notwithstanding the long-established policy of the famed Académie Française, no single person or group can absolutely prescribe or determine language use, which will always remain a rule-governed free-for-all that operates via natural selection. Likewise, no single person or group can prescribe or determine the precise content and trajectory of an oral tradition, which lives not by fossilization but by varying within limits.

OTs that function without support from text-based media show that this kind of open sharing – as opposed to our default tAgora concept of owning – isn’t just grudgingly or tacitly permitted. The world of the oAgora isn’t crippled by “primitive technology” or by “missing something.” It doesn’t have a monumental media handicap to overcome. To put it most directly, sharing is not in any sense a liability or weakness; on the contrary, it’s absolutely the lifeblood of the continuing tradition. Unless OTs are free to flow across a culture without hindrance from a centralized authority, the tradition will simply die. The tradition belongs to the people who make and re-make it, who navigate its pathways together. The performer and the audience engage in a collective enterprise that simply has no room for our brand of ownership.

Ownership is a tAgora-based Illusion

So where does that meddling centralized authority come from? First and most basically, it’s resident in the ideology of, for example, the work of verbal or musical art as a thing, a commodity, an objectified item that is subject to ownership and therefore to oversight and control. Second, that kind of authority can emerge only with the conversion of an idea or work to textualized form (and here we include texts of audio and video recordings as well as the book and page). This transformation operates under the radar, as it were, via an unexamined, unacknowledged alchemy. Once made tangible by transfer to the book or page, so goes the unstated assumption, the idea or work effectively becomes that book or page. This is just the same kind of (faulty but ideologically powerful) assumption we make when we decide that what appears—spatialized and dead—on the page is language itself, rather than a script for language. We’re only too ready to create new exhibits for the Museum of Verbal Art. Unfortunately, such exhibits are necessarily dead on arrival.

And there’s another step, along with an accompanying trapdoor. Contrary to what some claim, it’s not simply the introduction of a writing system that makes the difference. Writing systems need the attendant tAgora technologies of cheap reproduction (easily available copies) as well as broad literacy and mass readership before centralized authority can emerge and the commodification of ideas and works of verbal or musical art can take place. Thus the medieval European arena, in which authorship was often inchoate, emergent, and distributed. Medieval works were regularly created, copied, and translated without attribution, and depended for their “publication” upon manuscripts and reading aloud in public forums. No cheap reproductions or mass readership there. Authors and consumers were set up for sharing, and so the advent of ownership and all that it brought with it was to prove gradual, even halting.

In retrospect, the shift appears cleaner and neater than it was. But once the idea-to-page conversion was accomplished and became the reflex action of modern Western culture, the way was clear for our default concepts of authorship, publication rights, protection of intellectual property, and other text-dependent forms of ownership to take hold. We’ve chronically ignored the history and continuing importance of this evolution in pursuit of our own agenda, but the truth is that the open sharing that fuels oral tradition preceded and in many quarters exists alongside the agreed-upon illusion of legally defined owning. It’s been our conventional practice to foster that illusion without examining its roots or, just as importantly, its consequences.

Present-day challenges

So perhaps it’s not just serendipity that the hot-button issue of ownership of ideas and works of verbal and musical art is rising to the top of our cultural agenda right now. Perhaps it’s no accident that it’s happening just as another “thing-less,” non-item-based medium begins to take firm hold. Once again we find ourselves traveling along pathways, this time in the eAgora rather than the oAgora, and once again the medium we’re using exposes the notion of ownership as a convenient and powerful but finally baseless ideology. Navigating along pathways means movement in and out of digitized, morphing environments. It’s forever kinetic, emerging, and incomplete. It makes sense by changing rather than remaining (supposedly) static.

So what’s the upshot? The Internet and digitization have bluntly put the lie to our comfortable assumption that ideas and works of verbal or musical art can ever truly become immutable items, things, or commodities. If this exposure seems enervating to individuals, groups, and corporations, their discomfort doesn’t stem from the new media. That culture shock or agoraphobia is the result of modern Western culture’s ideological commitment to what’s always been a falsehood. Small wonder that post-Gutenberg societies are essentially alone in locating the idea and the work within the palpable reality of the document. Faced with this dilemma, which is truly of our own making, we should resist the urge to blame the media-messenger.

And how do we know for certain that this claim of ownership has always been a falsehood? Because for many millennia – long before writing systems of any kind arose – owning ideas and works of verbal and musical art just wasn’t possible. Ownership was simply not a category. Sharing was the rule.

Sharing and open source IT/OT

With this perspective in mind, let’s pose the following topic for discussion. Could the open source initiatives now threatening to displace commodified, proprietary software in some areas be another symptom of IT sharing? Is the open source movement a manifestation of sharing inspired not by anti-competitive or counter-culture forces but by the natural ecology of the eAgora? Put another way, is OT an open source process? Can we in effect get online with OT?