• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Divergent dynamics

The oAgora and eAgora are linked systems of potentials; conversely, the tAgora amounts to an assembled collection of things.

The first two of these gathering-places consist of sets of intangible pathways activated by navigators making their own decisions and choosing among ever-contingent realities. The other is an expansive, generously stocked warehouse of already-finished items accessed by clients seeking an “objective” reality.

The oAgora and eAgora present multiform possibilities, and only in the act of speaking or clicking do potentials produce unique instances. And notice that we said “instances,” most decidedly in the plural, not in the singular and epitomized. Given the complexity and interactivity of the linked choices that constitute both oral performances and Internet sessions, a nearly limitless number of actual instances is possible. Indeed, that’s the whole point of these two textless technologies—“infinite riches in a little room,” to echo Christopher Marlowe.

The tAgora, on the other hand, works like a brick-and-mortar library, with an established and well-ordered collection of finite items in place and with new acquisitions always being added to its catalogued holdings. Links versus texts, systems versus things.

Divergent activities

Whether you’re surfing through electronic or story-based pathways, you’re co-creating the reality as you go. You the surfer are a full and necessary partner. Nothing happens until you engage the system, summon its open-ended but rule-governed potential, and literally em-body its innate power.

Without the hands-on flexibility and generativity of the system that supports oral performance, the oAgora would cease to function. The network would collapse into singularity. All possible stories and versions of stories would fossilize into a unique version of a unique story, a master-text repeated verbatim forever. Em-booked and non-morphing, effectively “writ in stone.”

Likewise, without the hands-on flexibility and generativity of the system that supports navigation of the web, the eAgora would cease to function. Its complex route-map would collapse into a single one-way street. Hypertext would devolve into a predetermined, invariable sequence with sharply curtailed power to support exploration and representation.

Oral performances and Internet performances would become mere texts, mere dead letters.

Open-ended but also rule-governed

Systems draw their power from an interactive combination of open-endedness and rule-governed behavior. Systems provide users with a frame and a set of techniques within which individuals can create a series of unique instances. And because systems are both open-ended and rule-governed, rather than only one or the other, works created within them are both original and intelligible. You aren’t slave to a system in the oAgora or eAgora, but neither can you do “just anything.” You have to play the game by the rules.

The best analogy is simply language itself, of which OT and IT (Internet Technology) are highly coded special cases. After all, language operates by balancing the flexibility that fosters creativity with the grammatical, lexical, and idiomatic forms that together provide the vehicle. Subtract that flexibility and language fossilizes, loses its human usefulness altogether. Subtract the grammatical, lexical, and idiomatic forms and anarchy ensues; no one will be able to communicate with anyone else. But meld the two together, combining the ability to morph with systemic rules for allowable variation, and the possibilities for expression become inexhaustible.

Proverbially speaking, OT and IT work like language, only more so.