• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

The University of Illinois Press engaged two anonymous readers to review the manuscript of Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind in the context of its accompanying wiki-website. Their comments and suggestions have led to additions, subtractions, and revisions that have substantially improved the Pathways Project as a whole. In the spirit of interactive exchange that lies at the foundation of the Project, let me enumerate their major points and offer my response and perspective. Hopefully, this sort of conversation can continue in the Contributions node of the site.

Five critiques

#1. The Further Reading section should be more comprehensive.

First, the Pathways Project – morphing book and wiki-website alike – is meant to stand chiefly on its own, at a level suitable for the general reader and surfer. In response to the reviewers’ encouragement, however, I have added an appreciable number of references that may prove useful for those who want to pursue various issues raised and discussed in the Pathways Project. These references are provided according to a carefully designed policy: “Further Reading” is intended not as a conventional academic bibliography, but primarily as an optional extension of the Project to serve the needs of non-specialists. In other words, there is no attempt to include “all” relevant books, articles, and sites on any subject (an illusion in any case), and I have specifically excluded items that demand an expert’s preparation. Within this policy, the Further Reading section emphasizes resources on oral tradition, since that is my principal field and since of the three agoras or marketplaces it is the oAgora that in my experience usually requires the most explanation. The Project’s dependence on Wikipedia entries is intentional, both because of the ready availability of primary information and the second-level opportunities presented by those entries’ links out to other eAgora-based information. We have tried to insure against broken links and discontinued sites by creating PDF versions of all first-level site-contents exterior to the Project itself. As with any aspect of the Pathways Project, this section is open-ended, suggestive, and eligible for ongoing development through the website.

#2. What are the limits on the OT-IT correspondence?

As emphasized in the Disclaimer node, the OT-IT correspondence is meant as a homology, not an identity. There are of course myriad differences between oral tradition and Internet technology, from the physical through the conceptual, and these disparities should not be ignored. But it is the Project’s purpose to point out fundamental analogies in how the two media-technologies work: they operate by navigating through networks of potentials rather than tracking along a one-way route; they are emergent, co-creative, and forever under construction; they mime the way we think. Does textual technology share some features of OT and IT? Most certainly, both theoretically and practically. All three agoras are, after all, arenas for human verbal exchange. But instead of focusing on the differences between OT and IT, or on their shared function with TT, I choose in this book and wiki-website to foreground the basic homology and its implications for citizens of all three agoras. I concentrate on highlighting the importance of network-driven exchange – of how we imagine, transmit, and preserve knowledge, art, and ideas.

#3. Don’t texts support and encourage a variety of interpretation that parallels user-driven activities in the oAgora and eAgora?

It’s true: no one reads the same text exactly the same as any other reader. Immutable artifacts aren’t understood in precisely the same way by any two human beings, no matter how congruent their attitudes, life experiences, and personal profiles. As philosophy and literary criticism over the last thirty to forty years have shown beyond any doubt, the idea of a stable, core meaning is an illusion. We all come to texts – even word-for-word the very same text – with preconceptions and frames of reference developed over a lifetime, and the result is an inescapable diversity of interpretation and reception. Some critics have even observed that a wholly transparent text, a fixed and stable item that could be understood in only one way, would fail to engage its readership, since there would be nothing left for the reader to contribute. So, to that extent, texts in fact do sponsor and encourage alternate receptions, and we should not pretend that they don’t.

But here’s the distinction: in the tAgora you aren’t navigating, you’re trekking. In the oAgora and eAgora, every decision you make generates a new constellation of possibilities; when you make that next choice, another network of options presents itself, and so on. Sentences don’t appear in fossilized, predictable order, and you can’t (without considerable trouble) repeat the same blazed trail tomorrow. Why not? Because the interactivity of OT and IT is contingent, real-time, and ever-morphing. oSurfers and eSurfers aren’t readers; they aren’t reacting disparately to a fixed item. Instead, they’re co-creating a “non-item” by negotiating a linked route-system. In the arenas of oral performance and the web, we must remember, it’s pathways rather than objects that constitute the platform for exchange. Reality remains in play, not just in variant reactions to letter-by-letter, page-by-page instructions for reception, but because the network itself just doesn’t hold still.

#4. What is the source of authority in each of the three agoras or verbal marketplaces?

One of the reviewers suggested the formulation a/Authority to deal with the multi-agora variety of performers, makers, and users. So let’s try that out. At the core of tAgora exchange lie an Author, a Work, and Permission to read. Even if there is no author-name or title attached to the item that reaches us, as is the case with many ancient and medieval texts, we feel compelled to assign and if necessary to invent such identifiers. Insistence on using the catch-all designation “anonymous,” or on coining titles where none exist, makes the point. Such is the overwhelming power of textual ideology.

But in the oAgora and eAgora, authority (now with lower-case “a”) resides not in owning things but in sharing systems. Because OT and IT authorship are distributed rather than singular, no one person can claim absolute control over the ongoing process of rule-governed exploration. Likewise, since there isn’t just one road to follow, how can big-C Copyright – close kin to big-A Authority – ever apply to the surfing that goes on in the oAgora and eAgora? (In recent years we’ve certainly seen how desperately that application has been attempted in the realm of digital media, and how spectacularly it has failed.) In order for Authority to reign, we need a finished and pathwayless product, a platform that supports repetition rather than recurrence. Distinguishing between Authority and authority is a matter of responsible agora-business, and of becoming a citizen of not one but multiple marketplaces.

#5. Isn’t there a problem with universal access to eMedia? Practically speaking, who will be able to actually use the Pathways Project?

It’s undeniably true that access to the eAgora, and therefore to the Pathways Project wiki-website and to URLs cited in the morphing book, is endemically limited. In fact, I would go further: outside the Wired West, whatever web access, hardware, and software are available may well be relatively unsophisticated and behind the technological curve.

I have two responses. First, all media are restrictive to some degree, but open Internet media are enormously more accessible than written and printed media. As detailed in the node chronicling its publication history, our journal Oral Tradition saw its readership explode from an annual high of about 1200 in the paper format to more than 30,000 unique visitors from 216 countries and territories for the open-access website. While there are limitations on any facility or transaction in any agora, it’s abundantly clear that open eMedia foster a radical and unprecedented democracy of access. Second, and in keeping with the new diversity of audiences involved in eAgora-business, we have a responsibility to construct delivery systems that serve the whole spectrum of potential users. That’s why the Oral Tradition site was built as a platform for downloadable PDF files with linked eCompanions, for example, opting for simplicity and relatively small download size while still preserving the option to engage heavier media such as video, audio, photo slideshows, and the like. It’s also why the Pathways Project sits on top of a simple wiki engine that, while password-protected, aims to offer users an uncomplicated experience of surfing through its network.

Provoking exchange

Finally, let me close this node with a blanket response to all reactions and suggestions, large and small, positive and negative, from these two reviewers or from the audience of the morphing book and wiki-website. The Pathways Project is meant first and foremost as a provocation, and certainly not as a “final answer.” In my view any contribution or intervention worth the name has as its most basic responsibility the stimulation of dialogue – more accurately, polylogue – that will lead to greater understanding than any single contribution can ever engender. As Walter Ong so often put it, “the conversation is never over.”

In that respect the Project follows its own credo: it is a heuristic, a stimulation toward further discovery, and as such it must remain forever under construction. Once the blinders of textual ideology are removed, perhaps we can see that the Pathways Project is hardly an exception to communicative rules. All initiatives, no matter how finely crafted, are essentially provocations in a long, continuous, and unpredictable series—they’re never finished things, but always experiences in search of “completion.” The larger process amounts to navigating through networks, and the purpose of that navigation is to gain fresh (but always contingent) perspectives on the creation, transmission, and reception of knowledge, art, and ideas. You’re involved in that process right now, and with every book, website, and oral performance you engage.

After all, tAgora reflexes aside, that’s the way we think.