• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Are you caught up in the moment of surfing through an oral performance or the web, working your way through an evolving, cooperative, real-time process? Are you involved in an emergent partnership that can’t be dissolved and rejoined but requires your ongoing attention and participation? Or, alternatively, are you using an asynchronous medium, holding the communicative process at arm’s length, stopping the proceedings as you see fit and resuming when the time and place are right? Do you have the luxury to pause and restart without destroying the experience?

Whatever you’re presently doing, imagine not just one but both scenarios. And then ask yourself a challenging question: which type of experience is inherently truer, richer, more faithful? Which one qualifies as the more fundamental reality?

When your time is your own

We all profit from the multiple advantages of asynchronous communication, whether we’re consciously aware of them or not. Think of the many mainstream vehicles that fall into this broad category: brick-and-mortar books, static eFiles, e-mail sent and received, and anything else that serves as a freestanding repository. Such cognitive prostheses help us to dodge the demands of emergence and the dire threat of contingency by offering apparent objectivity, permanence, and stasis. They allow us to defer exclusive, uninterrupted involvement and manage the ever-increasing demands on our time and energy by imposing a sequence – our own designated sequence – on the tasks and responsibilities we face. And all of these advantages are secure, we suppose, devoid of worry or qualification, since the information so dependably contained in these rock-solid media will unfailingly be there waiting for us whenever we’re ready to engage it. We, not others, decide when to participate; we, not others, remain in charge of the communication.

So deeply ingrained is this habit that we can easily forget that asynchronous communication is a remarkably recent invention. To be specific, we can trace its origins quite precisely to the founding of the tAgora, about November 22nd of our species-year, the very “day” when homo sapiens began to encode trading practices via clay counters, the eventual precursors of the tablet. Not long after that, on December 10th by our calendrical mapping, actual writing and literacy became available. From counters and tablets to papyrus, sheepskin, book-pages, and static eFiles, the tAgora has sponsored as well as depended on the peculiar power of disembodied tWords. Artifacts are created for later, off-line consumption; only after an intermission of indeterminate length is the communicative circuit completed repetitively if the serial occasions arise. Of course, that chronological and geographical hiatus between creation and use also marks a new kind of technology-supported convenience. With asynchronous media you don’t have to suspend your current activities (whatever they are) for an immediate, can’t-wait exchange. You can access whatever knowledge, art, or ideas are encoded in the text after the fact of its making and as partially or completely as you wish, whenever the time and circumstances are right for you.

Real-time in the oAgora

For an oral traditional performer and his audience, however, communication is real-time, not asynchronous. For the exchange to happen, both sides must be present and engaged at the same time and in the same place. If the genealogy spoken by a patriarch isn’t conveyed to anyone, its contents aren’t shared; it dies. If an elderly woman intones a healing charm with no patient involved, that verbal remedy loses its reason for being; it doesn’t cure anyone. If a story is told and retold without an audience, then the two-way dynamic of composition and reception fails; the story doesn’t qualify as OT communication. Yes, you can capture any of these empty, futile attempts at performance by introducing an asynchronous medium such as audio, video, or even dictation into text, and then playing back your quarry. We may even credit such off-line products with successful preservation of the event, even though they amount to an ideological intervention, a kind of imperialistic colonizing of the non-textual under the banner of the textual. But make no mistake: in the oAgora the only viable mode of communication is real-time.

Real-time in the eAgora

Likewise for the navigator of ePathways, who like the navigator of oPathways is inevitably a partner in the actual shared moment of co-creation. Interacting with a vast array of linked potentials, surfers click and travel in real time. Every trip consists of an ongoing negotiation from start to finish, every itinerary is a work in progress because it requires ongoing participation. Real-time explorations aren’t complete until the browser is closed – and in an important sense they’re never the last word, since each performance is simply one instance of what’s possible. Within the Pathways Project website, for example, you have four methods of construing reality. You can click on Full Table of Nodes and proceed from node to node in alphabetical order (a linear logic that has no status in this marketplace). You can concentrate on the three principal media environments: the oAgora, the tAgora, and the eAgora. And you can navigate via pre-negotiated linkmaps or branches. Or you can do none or all of the above. So which strategy is best, most productive, or merely the most preferable? Well, that’s the essential point: your journey is what you yourself make of it – moving through an open system of linked alternatives. Just one requirement: you can never escape the contingency at the heart of the process. You can never become unenmeshed, because by doing so you’ll exit the web of ePathways and textualize experience. Simply put, there is no reality until you the surfer construct it.

Conventional wisdom is only conventional

Habits of mind notwithstanding, we owe it to ourselves to step beyond our agora-based biases and recognize the diversity of ways in which we communicate. For one thing, asynchronous media represent nothing more – and nothing less – than the accommodation we’ve settled on since the invention of the tAgora, an accommodation that’s been exposed by the invention of the eAgora and the rediscovery of the oAgora. For another, asynchronous technologies have until recently enjoyed an unacknowledged monopoly in “serious” communication, the kind of exchange via which indisputable facts must be duly ascertained, recorded, and faithfully transmitted. We’ve convinced ourselves that such crucial and responsible agora-business can be accomplished only in the tAgora. Of course, this is fundamentally an ideological claim, tenable only if you’ve swallowed and fully digested the illusions of object and stasis, the twin pillars supporting the textual marketplace. If you don’t accept these illusions as reality—and the Pathways Project exists in part to refute them—then you’ll notice that the tAgora emperor is missing more than a few of his garments.

This is not to say that asynchronous communication doesn’t present us with enormous advantages, or that, historically speaking, it hasn’t moved mountains in supporting our cultural work. It most certainly does and most certainly has. But those advantages aren’t as trouble-free or uncompromised as we like to pretend.

The price of no pathways

When we deal exclusively with asynchronous media, we by definition forgo real-time involvement, along with all of its own advantages and disadvantages. We restrict our creation, transmission, and reception of knowledge, art, and ideas to one technology, one medium, one way of knowing. We aren’t active partners anymore, except at the far end of the communicative process. We put down the book until tonight, by which time we trust it hasn’t morphed. We pause the audio or video in order to shovel snow, buy groceries, or share a few unencumbered hours with our family; no matter, we can pick up the film precisely where we left off. As tAgora denizens we know how to smooth over the jump-cuts in life and media-use (and we can’t influence the pathwayless text of the recorded performance, anyway). Asynchronous media allow and foster a staccato experience that we’ve agreed to interpret as continuous, but let’s not mislead ourselves: from the perspective of oAgora and eAgora participation, it’s not the same as sharing real-time experience.

Toward diversity: a fieldwork fairytale

Imagine an ethnographic team from another place and another time entering our twenty-first-century world on a mission to investigate how we communicate. What should they do? Depending on their particular aims and biases, these fieldworkers may decide to concentrate on oral traditions – for example, on the songlines of Australian aboriginal peoples, which serve as maps across their physical landscape as well as mythological digests, providing a kind of oAgora-style GPS facility and identity charter all in one. Or they may opt to focus on the myriad varieties of asynchronous media that proliferate throughout many societies, serving as tangible containers of information that can be read as off-line artifacts according to their users’ timetables. Or the visiting ethnographers may choose to spend much of their energy delving into the strange and powerful appeal of the Internet, establishing how that ever-evolving and network-dependent technology gained such traction so quickly. Perhaps they’ll observe that, in terms of interactivity and navigation through systems, the web appears to imitate the technology of oral tradition. Or, surveying all three agoras, they might even conclude that OT and IT (Internet Technology) mime the very way we think.

But however this team goes about its work, let’s hope that they recognize and understand two fundamental features of communication in contemporary cultures. First, may they come to realize that we are citizens not of any single verbal marketplace but rather of multiple agoras. Second, may they conclude that real-time and asynchronous media, as diverse as they clearly are, both provide absolutely viable ways of making sense of the world. By accepting all three agoras and both kinds of media-experience, our imagined ethnographers may just conclude that true, defensible democracy in media means tolerating and appreciating diversity in frame of reference.