• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

The text as tyrant

Let’s face it: most Western pages are ruthlessly tyrannical. They mandate a left-to-right, top-to-bottom, one-after-another regimen, and there’s simply no appeal to their authority. Words and sentences move eastward, as it were, and paragraphs move toward the south until you reach the frontier of the present reading space and turn the page to cross the next frontier. Even eFiles, like the node-texts in the Pathways Project, follow this demanding convention to an extent, taking advantage of the deeply instilled cognitive habit of linear sequence to streamline communication. Scrolling replaces page-turning, but much else remains the same. Linearity rules.

But what about the hyperlinks that crop up in eFiles and populate web pages? And what about all those opportunities for clicking elsewhere that await us in the top and lefthand menu-bars of Pathways Project ePages? These pathways certainly aren’t textual; they belong to the eAgora rather than the tAgora. And therein lies a categorical difference in both their root dynamics and the “reading” activities they enable.

Opting out

Quite clearly, these links operate according to an alternate logic, one that offers the chance to opt out of text and into surfing—into a parallel mode of communicating. If you decide to take the plunge, you’ll be escaping the relentless left-to-right, top-to-bottom, one-after-another march of conventional text in favor of entering another arena altogether. And the new node will be connected to the node you’ve left not by directional default, but rather by the non-spatial logic of related ideas.

What does that process entail? What are the consequences? Well, opting out means a radical shift in your experience, since the next paragraph you read, or the next sentence that unfolds before you, won’t be the result of linear sequence. Topic sentences, paragraph-to-paragraph transitions, rhetorical outlines, and the other tools of the tAgora trade can be replaced at any time by eAgora strategies of interactivity, relatedness, and recursiveness. In some ways this non-textual kind of reading has proven uncomfortable for those of us who have pored over texts for most of our lives. We’ve been taught to depend on the tAgora as the “final word” in communication, and the ascendancy of the eAgora has induced what amounts to culture shock.

But the eAgora has also opened unanticipated new vistas for discovery, expression, and learning. In place of the confined, even claustrophobic space of the page we’re now offered the limitless (and continually expanding) horizon of the Internet, if only we’re willing – despite the attendant culture shock or, more specifically, the eAgoraphobia – to opt out of our standing subscription to the ideology of the text.

“Linked from” pathways

As a simple illustration, consider just one specific aspect of the enhanced reading process that the Pathways Project website supports. You’ll see that this function exposes the deal-with-the-devil that underlies the enormous success of the page and the book (for the most part invisibly, given how securely our tAgora defaults are set). I’m referring to the “Linked from” feature that appears at the bottom of every node in the Project network: the list of all other nodes that link to it. Here you’ll find not the next node – there really isn’t any such thing, since every one of the more than 100 can be accessed at any time from anywhere in the network – but rather the nodes that contain a hyperlink leading to the one you’re presently reading.

For example, here’s a screenshot of what turns up in the well-populated “Linked from” section of the oAgora node:

How does this feature work in real-time reading? Well, when you reach the end of the scrollable text (having resisted all invitations to navigate elsewhere, or having simply hit the back button in your browser to return from elsewhere), you’re presented with this list of topics somehow connected to the oAgora within the Project web. Or rather the oAgora is somehow connected to – or from – them. Curious as it may seem to us text-centric readers, in the most basic sense there’s no directionality between “here” and “there,” only an idea-relationship, so we won’t quibble over a primacy that doesn’t and can’t exist.

All right: no directionality, no inevitable, mandated route toward a single “next.” Then it’s only fair to ask just how and on what basis these other nodes are linked to the oAgora, isn’t it? What’s the underlying connection and how does it work? Two answers present themselves.

Answer #1: By juxtaposed ideas

The connection from one node to another can be made not by invoking tAgora convention and linear sequence, but simply by juxtaposing ideas. Since the eAgora lacks a prescribed, unique, take-no-prisoners policy on how you must proceed, textual notions of necessary order and hierarchy are largely inapplicable. There are limits and rules, of course, but there is also enormous, unprecedented freedom. For instance, the Pathways Project site offers you the opportunity – but, emphatically, doesn’t ever require you – to explore possible correlations between the oAgora and Online with OT, a node that ponders the similarities between the dynamics of oral tradition and the kind of linking that is the lifeblood of the Project. To take another example, Agoraphobia looks at what it means to try to function according to a wrong set of assumptions in each of the three agoras.

Are these two other nodes apposite to the node you’re reading? Do they somehow relate to the oAgora? Most certainly. But does either of them provide the single possible “next” installment in a linear, warehoused inventory of idea-items? Most certainly not. What matters is open-ended and multiple connection rather than singular, writ-in-stone sequence – and for that simple reason the notion of “backwards” loses its meaning. Directionality only reduces the potential of a network.

Answer #2: By your own activities

Connection between nodes also depends crucially on the reader’s co-creative contribution. Think about your central role in all of this. You’re never compelled to navigate back and read the “Linked from” node, to click back and unearth someone else’s built-in logic. (You’re never actually required to do anything at all, for that matter.) There’s no exclusively defined, compulsory route for you to find and follow toward a conclusion reached by others, as if you were pursuing a treasure hunt of some sort. You won’t be served up a chapter or a lecture with a prescribed number and order of topics, nor will you be handed a one-way route-map with a preconceived, ultimate destination.

Why not? Because the Pathways Project is at its heart not a prescription but rather an opportunity for discovering and co-creating reality – something we always do to some extent in every medium but customarily pretend to forgo in the textual “march of convention.” In this medium it’s you who decide whether to explore – and to share in realizing – a potential connection. You shoulder the responsibility for making sense; you surf the Project network, in whatever direction(s) you wish. Once again, the notion of “backwards” is a non-starter.

A-directionality and power

All aspects of the website are meant to support creativity in reading, understanding, and learning – and to do so by developing an awareness of the power of a-directionality. And all of those aspects and ways of reading – by node, by agora, by linkmap, and by branches – relinquish the power of sequence in favor of the very different power of a networked web of options. The “Linked from” entries offer yet another way to construe the relationships that the Pathways Project was built both to explore and to represent. They highlight ideas related to the node you happen to be reading (in some fashion yet to be determined, and then chiefly by you), and they’re meant to accomplish at least two objectives.

First, and more obviously, they make you aware of possible connections, immediately enlarging your field of vision on the OT-IT (Internet Technology) correlation. This kind of open but rule-governed connectivity and potential for variation lies at the core of both communications technologies, both oral tradition and Internet technology, both the oAgora and the eAgora.

Second, the “Linked from” entries straightforwardly call into question perhaps the most central tenet in our communicative ideology of text: they deny the notion that X necessarily leads to Y rather than the other way around, Y leading to X. They insist that X and Y are in some fashion linked and related, but they leave it to you to decide why, how, and with what implications. Nor is this decision-making an aberrant, one-time activity: you’ll be called upon to make similar judgments over and over again as you read. Quite a different situation from the predetermined tAgora march of convention.

As does the rest of the Project, the “Linked from” entries dissolve the mirage of object and stasis in favor of a living, evolving web of opportunities. You can – indeed you must – discard the co-dependent pretense of thinking and creating via things. The “Linked from” entries expose objects as endemically limited arenas for thinking and creating, and urge us to face the challenge of managing communication without that fiction in place. Embracing a-directionality means committing to your own set of pathways through the network, with scores or even hundreds of decisions for you to make as you surf. And of course, whatever sequence of pathways you choose is merely one option among very, very many. You or someone else can just as easily chart another course later today, tomorrow, next week, or next year. Even your present series of choices is always open rather than closed, always emergent (happening right now, in real time) rather than pre-set. In every important way, any itinerary you follow is continuously evolving and very much of your own making.

An open network for inquiry

That’s why the eAgora in general, and the Pathways Project more specifically, has little or no directionality, little or no “backwards.” And that’s why the lack of the foregone conclusion that we have come to expect from texts isn’t a flaw or a handicap, why the “missing” one-way route-map isn’t a telltale symptom of a disorganized or second-rate medium. Like its sister technology of oral tradition, a-directional IT is both a uniquely powerful and uniquely innovative platform for construing knowledge, art, and ideas.

It is, after all, the way we think.