• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

A preface (literally, a “fore-speaking”) conventionally serves a number of purposes. It can, for example, provide a point of entry, chart a map for the journey to follow, and describe what the book that it’s introducing aims to accomplish, and also not to accomplish. But whether you’re reading these words on paper or in pixels, you will quickly realize that such conventions don’t really apply here.

In the morphing book and wiki-website alike, the pre-face doesn’t necessarily come first. You can profitably start experiencing the Pathways Project at some other entry-point, indeed any other entry-point, without deferring to this node. As for charting a map, that’s largely your responsibility. All the Project can do is present you with options for surfing and advice about how the media work; from that juncture, you’re on your own. In the same co-creative vein, what the book and site seek to accomplish is to enlist you in the experience and demonstration of the core premise: namely, that oral tradition (OT) and Internet technology (IT) operate similarly by navigating through networks.

So why create a node called “Preface”? Because the Project needs a place where we can address some OT-IT generalities not covered in the Response node and where we can thank some of the generous fellow-travelers who have helped to bring the overall initiative to this stage (notice I didn’t say “to completion”). To make this node a more likely destination on your itinerary, I’ve maintained the designation of “preface” and placed it in a position of prominence – near the linear beginning of the morphing book and as a bold-faced link in the lefthand menu-bar of the website. My hope is that you will run into it sooner or later.

Questions and answers

First, then, the generalities, which I present here as economically as possible in a skeletal question-and-answer format. Let me emphasize that these four questions were actually asked, in various forms, by colleagues, students, or friends.

Q1: How did you decide on this particular set of linkages among nodes? Did you have a specific strategy or organization in mind?

A1: The link-system is suggestive, not prescriptive. Both the morphing book and the wiki-website could be configured and linked in infinite ways, and indeed that’s just the point: at every level the Pathways Project is contingent, allowing reality to remain in play.

Q2. Why did you choose to order the nodes alphabetically in the Table of Nodes and to feature Preface, Disclaimer, and Response (by placing them early in the book and in the lefthand menu-bar on the website)?

A2. In the Table of Nodes, I am suggesting that the most important order is not the one I impose but rather the one you choose. Alphabetizing the list confers an artificial, largely meaningless organization on the content-parts; it makes them easy to find, but in no way constitutes any logical sequence of ideas. That logic is your responsibility. As for the featured nodes, I highlight them in order to increase the likelihood that you will encounter the discussion-based observations they contain. Hopefully, the ready availability of prominent links will motivate you to surf toward their content – toward the Preface on OT-IT generalities, the Disclaimer on what the Project isn’t claiming, and the Response on my reactions to reviewers’ pre-publication critiques of the morphing book manuscript.

Q3: This is a big discussion. Are you satisfied that you’ve covered everything thoroughly?

A3. Yes, it’s a big discussion, but “thorough coverage” is an ideologically inspired illusion. The goal of the Pathways Project is to serve as a heuristic, as a way into some of the most important media challenges of our time. It does not pretend – nor should any contribution pretend – to do anything more (or, for that matter, less). No initiative prospers by aiming to be the final word.

Q4. What do you expect in the way of reaction to the Project and its OT-IT thesis?

A4. The Pathways Project is intended as a provocation, not a solution. I expect variety in responses, some of them impassioned. For citizens accustomed to exchanges limited to the textual marketplace, the oral and electronic marketplaces can seem undependable and even forbidding. Trying to get behind ideology, which by definition shuts down exploration before it can begin, is a difficult process, parallel in a sense to the culture shock we’ve all felt at one point or another. Some will embrace the OT-IT homology, some will resist it, but hopefully the Project will make a reasonable case for why we need to become citizens of all three marketplaces. And as the Project continues to evolve with contributions to the wiki-website, there will be an opportunity for us to learn more by sharing our ideas and reactions.

From here on

Some questions remain. Where does the “the future” of the media-universe lie? What new initiatives will emerge to challenge and enlighten us? What role will stand-alone texts occupy as we start to feel more and more comfortable with electronic media and with the plasticity and interactivity they foster? What mixture of methods and strategies for creation, transmission, and reception of knowledge, art, and ideas will be current ten years from now? Reasonable questions, to be sure, but perhaps the most intriguing part of the game is that we can’t in fact predict its outcome. More to the point, “outcome” seems the wrong word here, since reality and experience, as the Pathways Project explains, just won’t hold still. To my mind, the best preparation one can make for a (delightfully) unpredictable media-future is to remain imaginative and undefaulted. As Walter Ong was fond of observing, the conversation is never over. My hope is that the Pathways Project will help stir the pot.


One of the most pleasant tasks associated with finishing a book or website is thanking those who helped. Even when, as in the present case, the verb finish isn’t quite suitable, I want to take the opportunity to express my gratitude to the diverse group of collaborators, advisors, students, colleagues, mentors, institutions, and events who have made the ongoing journey so interesting and rewarding.

The dual nature of the Pathways Project would have been impossible without the remarkable expertise and imagination of Mark Jarvis and Jamie Stephens, IT Managers at the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition and Center for eResearch. In earlier days, George Maiewski and David Woods helped me to understand what computers could do in humanities and social science, or more precisely how we could use them to think; Mark, the creator of the wonderful mind map, and Jamie have continued my education as well as tolerated and implemented any number of ePipedreams. Morgan Grey heroically shouldered the demanding burden of research assistant on the Project for the last two years, and has worked intelligently, assiduously, and goodnaturedly, even contributing a node on mashups to the network. Through his support of the Centers and his encouragement for our research, Michael O’Brien, Dean of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri, has made a real difference. The Pathways Project originated as the inaugural lecture in the University of Missouri’s Twenty-first Century Corps of Discovery series, an annual campus event championed by Chancellor Brady Deaton and Chancellor Emeritus Richard Wallace.

Individuals who have pointed the way, whether through discussion or via their own inquiries and discoveries, include Mark Amodio, Aodong, Justin Arft, Benjamin Bagby, Ćamil Bajgorić, Halil Bajgorić, Margaret Hiebert Beissinger, David Bouvier, Leslie Cahill, Chogjin, Whendi Cook, Adam Davis, Thomas DuBois, Casey Dué, Andoni Egaña, David Elmer, Fazool, William Ferris, Ruth Finnegan, Lori Peterson Garner, Scott Garner, Joxerra Garzía, Joseph Harris, Lauri Harvilahti, Michael Holland, Kati Kallio, Werner Kelber, Hannah Lenon, Anne Mackay, Heather Maring, Richard Martin, Mariana Masera, John McDowell, Stephen Mitchell, Robin Moore, Rebecca Mouser, Gregory Nagy, Jožsi Nagy, John D. Niles, Xabier Paya, Thomas Pettitt, Andrew Porter, Peter Ramey, Karl Reichl, Paula Sanders, Jon Sarasua, John Shaw, Lotte Tarkka, Mark Turin, Frederick Turner, Lee Edgar Tyler, Yang Enhong, Paulu Zedda, and Zhu Gang.

In addition, I have profited enormously from activities surrounding lectures and conferences at a wide variety of institutions during the past five years: Amherst College, Beijing Normal University, Bertsozale Elkartea in the Basque Country, Brown University, Bryn Mawr College, Cambridge University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the Dahesh Museum in New York City, the Graduate Institute, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Northwest University for Nationalities in Lanzhou, Rice University, St. Louis University, Turku University, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, the Università di Cagliari, the University of Bergen, the University of California Los Angeles, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Gothenburg, the University of Helsinki, the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, the University of St. Andrews, and the University of Victoria. Let me also remember my core teachers and mentors: Robert Payson Creed, Joel Halpern, Lauri Honko (in memoriam), Barbara Kerewsky-Halpern, Albert Bates Lord (in memoriam), and Walter J. Ong (in memoriam). I am grateful as well to my editors at the University of Illinois Press, Joan Catapano, who encouraged the project right from the beginning and offered much-needed counsel and support during its evolution; and Willis Regier, whose steady hand and good judgment have guided it ever since.

Finally, the Pathways Project reached this stage during a difficult passage in my life, and I offer my heartfelt thanks to my family for their support through the hardest of times: Anne-Marie the smiling and steadfast, Lizzie the word-smith and bosom friend of Cyrus, Isaac the faithful and ever so musical, and Joshua the paterfamilias and cuisinier nonpareil have in their diverse ways been remarkably strong and unfailingly cheerful. Nor can I forget to celebrate the loving, whimsical wisdom of Bud Stone, who knows more about life than anyone else. The dedication of Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind, and of its wiki-website counterpart, speaks for itself.