• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Three brands of experience

“Call me Ishmael,” advises the narrator-character through whose voice we hear Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a recognized masterpiece in the tAgora. Every edition of the novel ever published starts with exactly those three tWords and no others, and every edition of that work (except for shortened, expurgated versions like the one I suffered through in high school) continues according to a uniquely plotted itinerary. We meet Queequeg the harpooneer, Starbuck the first mate, Pip the eventually crazed cabin boy, and so many other memorable figures. And they act and interact in specific, definite ways not just on the first reading but on every reading. No alternate beginnings, middles, or ends; no variance in dialogue; no triumph for Ahab. If you’ve read the book once, you’ll recognize its trajectory point by point and scene by scene on the second pass, even more closely on the third pass, and so forth. Moby-Dick is a singly authored, static, textual object; it will always be verbatim the same.

Now consider how a South Slavic epic singer conducts his verbal business in the oAgora. For present purposes, let’s imagine he’s performing The Captivity of Alagić Alija, a story-type that follows the familiar story-line of Homer’s Odyssey, not to mention hundreds of stories from other cultures across the face of Europe and Asia. At every level, it exhibits and depends on variation within limits. He – and everyone who performs, has performed, or will perform this story – may or may not begin with a generic prologue (called a pripjev, or “pre-song”) before entering on the description of a miserable captive crying out from prison. That description may be bare-bones or highly detailed, and may involve a single prisoner or more than one. Negotiations for his or their release – undertaken because the noise is preventing his captor’s infant child from nursing and/or sleeping – may involve either the captor or his wife or both, and may be managed through an intermediary scribe or messenger or not. If you’ve heard the story once, you’ll recognize the general flow, but its particular shape in any given performance is highly contingent. Since it’s emergent and depends on decisions to be made in real time, you can’t even know whether the hero in prison will find his wife faithful (like the Penelope figure in the Odyssey story) or unfaithful (like the Clytemnestra figure in the Agamemnon story) when he arrives home after years of (mis)adventures. The South Slavic singer’s story is a performance borne of distributed authorship; “it” can’t ever be verbatim the same.

The eAgora offers a parallel, textless experience (and here as always we distinguish between the interactive exchange that is the soul of the Internet as against static eFiles that amount to pixel-texts circulating electronically as tAgora objects). Engage your browser – and remember that even this start-up page can morph or be replaced – and where do you go? Bookmarks might be a start, or a Google search, but from that point onward the journey depends wholly on the links you choose to click on, the ePathways you opt to follow or ignore. The itinerary builds in real time, not asynchronously, and cannot be foreordained, and it builds that way for everyone who surfs, has surfed, or will surf cognate ePathways. Even when you have a specific purpose in mind, even when you aim to reproduce yesterday’s surfing expedition, you will always make different decisions about how to handle the alternatives built into the system. At every level, your experience exhibits and depends on variation within limits. No, you won’t do “just anything”; the eAgora, like the oAgora, is rule-governed and doesn’t support merely willy-nilly behavior. You can’t travel where there aren’t any pathways. And yes, you may have a generic idea of what you’re pursuing, but that idea is always subject to morphing. The web-surfer’s expedition is a performance borne of distributed authorship; “it” can’t ever be verbatim the same.

Lurking below the (textual) surface

Consider for a moment an uncomfortable proposition about the communication of knowledge, art, and ideas. What if reality itself weren’t the cut-and-dried, presumably knowable experience we have long taken such pride in imaging via tAgora technology? What if reality morphed, depending on our perspective and those of our fellow-travelers, stubbornly resisting the singularity and completion we agree to assign it? What if we peered out from the protected environment of our textual bastion and put aside our most cherished illusions of object and stasis? What if we discovered an unsettling truth – namely, that what we know and even how we can know it aren’t certain or predictable? What if we concluded that reality isn’t a discoverable set of finite things or laws or precepts at all, but (behind Oz’s façade) a relative, intangible, emergent web of connections always and everywhere under construction?

Would we be disappointed or threatened? Would we feel a kind of culture shock or, more specifically, agoraphobia? Well, if we’re ever to escape the default confines of the tAgora and become citizens of all three agoras, we’re going to have to come to grips with that unfamiliar brand of reality. Oh, we can merrily go on pretending that texts solve the universe – that they’re the prime vehicle for creating, transmitting, and receiving, that they supersede the vagaries of the oAgora and that newfangled, unstable eAgora. Undeniably, that very reductionism has helped us to define our world and ourselves with unprecedented accuracy and precision, or so goes the cultural myth, at any rate. But the oAgora and eAgora reveal that outside the textual marketplace reality operates much differently, as we think and communicate not by tracking through sequences of things but rather by navigating through networks of options. The explicitness and containment with which we reflexively credit the page turns out to be a mirage.

In the oAgora and eAgora reality just isn’t fixed, static, or fully ascertainable as a discrete experience. In OT and IT (Internet Technology), reality remains very much in play.

Constants, Sir Isaac, and some uninvited guests

Or should we interpret that apparent flux as an illusion, as static on the channel that we can dispense with once we penetrate beyond external, superficial phenomena to more fundamental realities? Some stories from physics can offer a useful perspective.

For instance, what is Avogadro’s constant – the number of molecules in one mole of gas? Look it up: about 6.022×10 raised to the 23rd power. No matter which gas, by the way; a comforting standard in a turgid world. And how long does it take to go from Chicago to New York at a rate of 65 miles per hour? Easy: distance divided by rate yields elapsed time, so a trip of 711.47 miles will require 10.95 hours, plus rest stops. Straightforward enough.

How dependable are such measurements? Well, we take them as invariable and invulnerable, as immune to change of any sort, as the inevitable issue of universally applicable laws that regulate the seeming hurly-burly of existence. As such, these constants rise above background noise and the messy, unpredictable aspects of daily life, providing a foundation for rationalizing apparent differences, for bringing order to apparent chaos.

And, happily, such constants and measurements work perfectly as long as we don’t look beyond the universe as defined by Isaac Newton. Indeed, within that frame of reference his basic laws, the platform for so much of classical mechanics, still function with what presents itself as absolute precision. Bridges are built, roads are routed, trips are planned, and products are designed. No apparent slippage; everything intact, on time, and accounted for.

Beyond the (physical) surface

For a long time after Newton’s epochal pronouncements in his 1687 Principia, there was no reason to question the unqualified coincidence between his views and our observations. But then two uninvited guests crashed the scientific party. Albert Einstein demonstrated that reality wasn’t objective, that Newton’s laws functioned acceptably only as an everyday-world approximation. At velocities approaching the speed of light, time and space become relative rather than absolute. On the grand scale of the cosmos, gravity and planetary motion show unexpected deviations that can be explained only by considering the role of the observer relative to what was being observed. Although these deviations are hard or impossible to discern in our daily experience of trains and boats and planes, they’re unequivocally there, buried beneath Newtonian approximations. On the scale of the cosmos, macroscopically, they’re urgently there and they demand explanation. With the advent of relativity theory, one dimension of Newtonian certainty went a-glimmering.

At the other end of the scale, specifically at the atomic level of matter, a movement called quantum mechanics exposed a parallel problem with the reigning Newtonian model. As physicists peered more and more closely at the elemental building blocks of matter, they noticed not the regularity of motion predicted by classical mechanics but a veritable maelstrom of activities characterized by their unpredictability. In fact, as Werner Heisenberg discovered, it proved impossible to simultaneously measure the position and velocity of atomic particles, an insight that led to his famous Uncertainty Principle. Once again, this time in the micro-world, the laws we had accepted and written into our operating procedures and our conception of reality were shown not to apply.

So what’s the upshot of such scientific thinking, which seeks to explore and explain how absolute values and a static vision of reality don’t really work? To oversimplify, Newtonian mechanics solves the everyday-scale world, but not the cosmos and not the atomic universe. Newtonian certainty – a version of the myth of fixity and linear outcomes – enjoys unquestioned acceptance in our daily lives, and there is no need to contest its highly functional approximations. There is in fact every reason to continue accepting and implementing the laws of classical mechanics in practically all of what we do.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Beyond Sir Isaac’s sinecure lie real, undeniable phenomena that put the lie to his approximations, that won’t submit to workable compromises. Specifically, they require us to recognize the role of the observer, who is a doer, a participant – and emphatically not an innocent, inert bystander – in the act of experiencing. They require us to recognize that, although relativistic and quantum mechanical dynamics may lie hidden above or beneath our everyday-scale world, they are far more fundamental than the golden rule of force = mass x acceleration. They require that we acknowledge a simple but counter-intuitive truth: that, quotidien appearances aside, physical reality remains in play.

Texts are like Newton’s laws

In a functional sense, texts resemble Newton’s laws. As long as we don’t question the approximation, as long as we stay within the circumscribed arena they designate and define, all is well. The constants apply and the laws work.

But beware the non-textual, where the constants don’t apply and the laws don’t work. We will never be able to reduce the inherent flexibility of web-powered communication, whether in the oAgora or eAgora, to monolithic, contained reality. In these other venues reality derives, if counter-intuitively, from its very immeasurability, its uncertainty, its rule-governed morphing. Outside the world of texts and textual ideology, experience is decidedly different: it thrives on polytaxis and involves us by remaining in play.

Back to our three brands of experience

Success in the verbal marketplace is sui generis. Each agora supports its own reality on its own terms. And given the central theorem of the Pathways Project, what we expect would be two homologous realities – OT and IT – as distinguished from the disparate reality of textual technology. Let’s revisit out initial examples, then, and see whether that theorem proves out.

Moby-Dick, which some claim is the closest anyone has come to writing the Great American Novel, continues to entrance generations with its Promethean saga of overreaching, its glimpse into the lost world of nineteenth-century whaling, and its terrifying dive into the black depths of the human psyche. It is of course a singly authored work, the sixth of Melville’s nine novels, and draws its identity from a stable, invariable text that has prompted a remarkably wide range of interpretations since its publication in 1851. Precisely because it does not vary, because it takes its place in the intertextual history of other American novels and related literary monuments, it commands authority as an object, a fixed sign-post in the literary culture of the period. Different people and different eras have varied in their understanding of Moby-Dick, which was remarkably unsuccessful during Melville’s lifetime. But not because the story morphed. The book remains exactly the same sequence of words, paragraphs, and pages it was when initially published in 1851. In the tAgora, reality is circumscribed and static.

Not so the ever-shifting Return Song of the South Slavic guslar, which draws its power from its ability to morph within limits over multiple performances and multiple “authors”. Here it’s precisely the rule-governed variability of the experience that confers cultural authority, precisely the uncertainty of the journey that is its strongest feature. To confine oral performers to a verbatim text is to render their activity textual, and in the process to sabotage the interactive dynamic between those performers and their audiences. Expressive strength in this arena stems from emergent, right-now composition and reception, rather than from reducing a system of communication to an object that belongs to another agora. Intertextuality isn’t possible in the OT marketplace because there are no texts. Each version is an original in the time, place, and circumstance that it occurs, and the performance recurs rather than repeats. You can’t hold Proteus captive without destroying his natural identity. In the oAgora, reality remains in play.

Now picture yourself surfing the web, navigating through the Pathways Project for instance. If we instantly remove all your options – imitating the master-plan to freeze and textualize Wikipedia in order to “increase its worth” – you’ve just as quickly exited the eAgora in favor of a textual venue. Now what you’re exploring becomes your not-so-brave old world – tidy, protected, closed-off, and static, not to mention tAgora-cozy. Instead of co-creating experience, you’re confined to interpreting an invariable play-script, a single route, a pathwayless environment. Many interpretations are possible, to be sure, but they all rest on one single, solitary object. Then, if we reverse the procedure and instantly restore those removed links, everything changes, and changes radically. Now you’re directly responsible for participating in communication that can’t be pre-scripted. Now you must make your own way through a network of nodes in an order and at a depth only you can choose. Now you’ll have to deal with sites and domains that actually prosper by being unfixed, by being forever under construction. Now it’s up to you to construe knowledge, art, and ideas not by trekking along a one-dimensional roadmap but by navigating through a multi-dimensional, interactive grid of potentials. In the eAgora, reality remains in play.