• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Fair warning! We start by offering you the chance to “spoil the story” by selecting an immediate pathway to its climax. If you want to navigate directly to the punch-line, just consult the note at the end of this sentence1. But if you’re one of those readers who prefers to work through a story undistractedly and let it play out at its full linear length without interruption, just keep on reading. (Oh, and if you choose the second option, please don’t click on any of the embedded links or menu-bars; in other words, please don’t leave this node until you’ve finished it.) Thanks for your attention.

Noise all around us

Let’s face it: the world is in general a noisy place. And the oAgora and eAgora, where individuals go to network, to interact and co-create, are especially noisy. The act of navigating via pathways, whether through a story-network or through the worldwide web, inevitably involves a host of potential distractions, both for better and for worse. Of course, whether we understand such connectedness as enabling or enervating depends on our point of view, which in turn depends on which agora we’re currently conducting business in.

The cacophony of the oAgora

The oAgora requires continuous, sequential decision-making among alternatives on the part of both performers and their audiences. Because the oral marketplace consists of virtual pathways rather than brick-and-mortar texts, it supports moment-by-moment emergence and rule-governed morphing. The downside (at least from a tAgora perspective) is that this restless movement never seems to end; its outcome can’t be readily predicted or controlled, and the whole process can appear untidy and even unsettling. With performer-audience interaction occurring in the here-and-now, with the next step ever in doubt, it’s impossible to curl up in a snug corner, text cradled in your lap, and get away from it all. You can’t turn off the world because what you’re doing is deeply embedded in the world. With everyone milling around in the shared performance arena, and everyone enjoying access to the cloud of ambient tradition, there’s just too much going on, too much you can’t predetermine, too much noise.

The hurly-burly of the eAgora

The eAgora is no more peaceful. In addition to the destabilizing features shared by IT and OT pathways to navigate, choices to make, a cloud to engage, morphing to manage – the web presents users with agora-specific distractions. E-mail signals, appointment reminders, eBay alerts, incoming Facebook and Twitter messages, and other push notifications intrude upon your reverie as you try to think through that legal brief, solve that closely argued philosophical treatise, or grasp the enormous cast of characters who populate that Russian novel. Open applications, perhaps only too available on your cleverly partitioned desktop, compete for your attention. You’re in touch, you’re networked, you’re enmeshed. But there’s a cost entailed: fragmentation of focus induced by multitasking. In other words, to do your work in the eAgora you have to put up with the noise.

To unplug or not?

Looking for some peace and quiet? Exhausted by the cacophony and the hurly-burly? Remember your options: you can always unplug. You can always exit the oAgora or eAgora, marketplaces that thrive on noise and continuous exchange, to seek the private refuge of the tAgora.

Of course, detaching yourself from the web may seem almost irresponsible in the world we inhabit today: you might “miss something,” events might pass you by, you might forfeit the chance to participate. And similar perils await the oAgora citizen who leaves behind the oral marketplace in search of a textual sinecure. Reception is by definition impossible unless you’re part of the performer-audience community, and reading a transcription, or even watching a well-edited video, just isn’t the same. In either case the price of disattaching from the network means relinquishing your membership in an interactive community. And that’s a kind of exile, a form of self-banishment that carries heavy implications.

How I became unenmeshed

An anecdote will illustrate how one such exile actually played out. Let me provide a modest hint in advance: it wasn’t at all what I expected.

Although an avid eCitizen and gadget hound, I confess that I arrogantly dismissed eReaders out of hand soon after they first appeared. No Amazon Kindle, Sony Digital Reader, or Barnes & Noble Nook for me! Why? Because I was absolutely sure they must be unexciting and primitive tDepositories, entirely undeserving of the “small e” prefix because they presented little or no opportunity for the interactivity so central to the eAgora. Clearly, I concluded, they simply warehoused texts – whether in paper pages or eInk pages amounted to a distinction of degree, not kind. Why shouldn’t I prefer my multifunctional laptop, which offered genuine interactivity and so much more connectedness at the same time? Couldn’t I simply read books on its attractive, brightly lit screen and avoid forsaking the ePathways that had become such a crucial dimension of daily life? Why isolate myself from all of that rich, impinging, insistent reality? Why pretend that it didn’t exist? Why cut the cord?

So, to prove my foregone conclusion and to prepare for writing a node that never saw the light of day (because it was wrong), I went ahead and ordered an Amazon Kindle. My bias against eReaders was so deeply ingrained that I was sure the navigation controls must be poorly placed, that the gray-scale screen must be unutterably boring, and in short that the machine couldn’t rise beyond clunky, unhandsome, and altogether old-school. It was a tAgora device masquerading as the eAgora device it wasn’t. Outrageous deception.

Thus it was that – long before the Kindle arrived – I outright scoffed at the idea of downloading books only to imprison them on this device (though soon a “Kindle for iPhone” app was to pluralize reading platforms). I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to pay to plod through newspapers, magazines, and blogs on an eReader, trekking through texts in maddeningly linear fashion, when I could perfectly well navigate through many of them online for free. Thus it was that, with unhidden eDisdain, I prepared to diss the Kindle – “in person,” so to speak.

In about a week the device arrived and I downloaded several books and subscribed to a few magazines—all in the name of experimentation, you understand. As a serious and thorough evaluator of comparative media (or so I imagined), I planned to sample the full range of this text-machine’s offerings, and gather firsthand information to support an opinion I had already reached months beforehand. I was convinced that the so-called eReader was in effect a tool of the devil, a backward-looking impostor of a device that compromised my beloved eWorld and offered none of the advantages of even the simplest netbook (at about the same price, incidentally!).

Then something extraordinary and wholly unanticipated happened. I began to actually use the thing; I began to actually read, and the experience was nothing short of liberating. I read the The Atlantic monthly magazine, the tech journal Ars Technica, E.L. Doctorow’s charming novel Homer & Langley, Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace, Bill Streever’s Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places, and a few detective potboilers I’d rather not name. And instead of putting me off, instead of stoking my eIndignation, the Kindle provided me that rarest of opportunities in today’s wired society: a quiet place to read and think without interruption. No noise – no push notifications, no open applications, no weather updates. Just me and the text, and that was enough. No, it was more than enough; it was delightful and restorative. I lost myself in the text. I had become unenmeshed.

Agora-diversity

The moral of this small story? For me there are two, and they’re two sides of the same coin.

On the one hand, this enlightening ecounter taught me that even the eAgora-savvy technophile can fall victim to ideology – in this case the ideology of the virtual rather than the textual world. It’s quite possible – indeed, I’d achieved the dubious distinction in the months preceding my Kindle’s arrival and activation – to work up unreasonable and unthinking opposition to the kind of tAgora transactions it fostered. For my part, I’d unfortunately decided, alas without the hands-on contact that I automatically mandated for anyone who wanted to evaluate eAgora tools and dynamics, that the Kindle marketplace couldn’t work. How could it possibly hold any interest or promise for advanced, interactivity-seeking creatures of the web? But as I came to see, this attitude was unwarranted and mistaken. It was nothing short of an ideological short-circuit.

On the other hand, along with the endorphin rewards that doubtless contributed to making eReading so pleasurable and helped convince me of its viability as an option I’d overlooked, I also realized something else. Just as plugging in wasn’t the sole viable media-choice, so unplugging wasn’t the only game in town, either. Becoming unenmeshed certainly had its attractions (although I was too biased to imagine them before trying out the device myself), but it wasn’t the whole story.

The most profound lesson of my eReader experience is that I needed to explore the diversity of agora-technologies rather than restrict myself to a single marketplace. To aspire to responsible communication across the spectrum of technologies, I had to learn to set aside my ideological prejudice for or against certain agoras and acquire at least a workable fluency in all of them. I had to aspire to citizenship in multiple agoras.

In the end, what the eReader episode taught me was a lesson I was already espousing. Via exploration of the diverse dynamics of the oAgora, tAgora, and eAgora, that is precisely the kind of lesson that the Pathways Project was created to teach.

Note

1 The punch-line: It may seem odd or even out of place within the world of the Pathways Project, but this node makes a positive case for becoming “unenmeshed,” for unplugging from the networks of the oAgora and eAgora, for cultivating silence and non-connectedness. It argues that there is virtue in linkless, pathway-less, thoroughgoingly textual experience – certainly not as the sole, exclusive communicative strategy, but rather as one option for the cosmopolitan citizen of multiple agoras. We restrict ourselves exclusively to a single marketplace at our peril.

[If you opted to read the punch-line first, navigating directly from the “fair warning” preface to the note just above, then you missed a precious chance to get unenmeshed. If you leapfrogged the node’s contents—or exited via any of the 29 links I asked you to ignore—you succumbed to the noise of the eAgora, or its reasonable facsimile in the morphing book. If on the other hand you trekked noiselessly through the entire linear length of this node-text without surrendering to other options, your tAgora tour was quite different. It was, in a word, textual, and I hope that tOption proved rewarding in its own right. Diverse agoras support diverse reading experiences.

Now, by the way, you might want to go back and explore some of the pathways you may have successfully resisted. Just a thought….]