• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Suppose our foundation myth celebrating completeness and fixity didn’t explain the world of communication in all its diversity. Suppose there existed an alternate mythology, heretical to the tAgora faithful but defensible and applicable in its own right. Suppose further that this alternate media-story offered a better explanation of the expressive dynamics typical of the oAgora and eAgora. What would such an explanation look like? What features would it support and maintain? What assumptions would it make? Just how would that story go?

OT networks

We can begin to answer these questions by highlighting core characteristics of verbal exchange in the oral marketplace, as explored throughout the Pathways Project. Here are some of them. Oral tradition doesn’t repeat, it recurs. It employs oWords rather than tWords to communicate its message. It is accurate not in the familiar (but under-the-radar) terms insisted upon by textual ideology, but rather on its own co-creative, emergent terms. Instead of seeking to foreshorten and limit experience, OT creates a frame of reference in which reality remains in play. Instead of restricting even the most independent-minded reader to an exitless one-way street, it uses oPathways leading to a web of linked options and to variant but always related versions. Most fundamentally of all, OT operates by surfing through networks rather than trekking through texts.

All of these features point toward a rule-governed flexibility that licenses innovation and creativity within a powerful and highly resonant idiom. What’s more, that signature power derives – however counter-intuitive it may seem – not from monolith-like immutability but from variation within limits.

An analogy from telecommunications

The everyday technology of radio and television transmission and reception offers a simple comparison to the rule-governed media environment of OT and IT. In this technology a carrier wave serves as the regular, recurring vehicle and platform that supports the broadcasting of specific, uniquely configured sound and video. In the case of radio, for example, the center frequency of the carrier wave provides the singular call number for the particular station, whether modulated by amplitude (AM) or by frequency (FM). As you move off that center frequency, reception will suffer, initially with increasing static, and will eventually founder. By continuing to move through the frequency spectrum you may well encounter another station you can listen to, but the original experience will be unavailable in the new frame of reference.

Which of these two dimensions, we might ask, is the more important, the carrier wave or the input signal? Which is primary, the vehicle or what it’s conveying? In a sense the best answer to this question is “yes.” The carrier, whose function is to establish the basic structure and set the outer limits for the exchange, can transmit an infinite diversity of input signals – films, talk shows, advertisements, news updates, or whatever other material is to be broadcast. But both dimensions – the generative, recurrent pattern and the unique modulations – must be part of the synergistic process if the communication is to succeed. Without the cyclical rhythm of the carrier wave, content can be neither sent nor received. On the other hand, without the input signals “written onto” the wave, even the most advanced megawatt radio or television station can transmit nothing but silence. In other words, both morphing and well-defined limits are essential to the physics of effective telecommunications.

OT code as performance platform

OT code functions like a carrier wave, precisely because it’s a platform for performance; but we also need the input signals exchanged between a performer and audience. Just as with radio and television broadcasting, we have symbiotic, interacting aspects. The specialized language, or register, is the vehicle for whatever specific narrative is being (re-)created and received. By the same token, the actual content emerges only when the network is activated by users. Without the shared code, OT performance is impossible; without OT web-surfers, the code is non-functional. To put the matter proverbially, without pathways there is no language; without a surfer there is no performance.

As illustration of how OT code works, consider some examples of oWords from two particularly well-studied traditions. Let me emphasize that these are merely a few among myriad possibilities, cited here to give at least a small idea of the resources of a dynamic system of expression and reception.

Arming and disarming

In South Slavic oral epic, as in many other oral epic traditions, the hero is armed in a highly conventional fashion before he or she enters battle. Audiences hear – and expect – an elaborate description of armor and weapons, as well as an often equally detailed and equally conventional preparation of the hero’s horse. Performance variables such as the attentiveness of the audience or the nature of the occasion will influence the poet’s surfing of the traditional oWord, but it’s not unusual to hear 100- or 200-line versions that mention everything from boots, spurs, and helmet to sword, spear, bow, and pistols. Likewise, the poet may choose to insert a long list of equine-related activities from grooming through saddling and mounting, or he may be content with a briefer navigation of the arms-horse intranet. Shared code for this recurring pattern constitutes what many have called a “typical scene,” with the generic template adapted to the specifics of individual characters, situations, and events. This oWord, best understood as a morphing unit, thrives by varying within limits.

Against this background, in his poem entitled The Death of Prince Marko, the South Slavic singer (or guslar) Tešan Podrugović portrays the demise of one of this tradition’s greatest heroes as the ultimate dis-arming. As Marko recognizes his imminent fate and nears his demise, he finds a quiet, deserted site in which he forsakes all future battles in a highly idiomatic way. Instead of donning armor and weapons, and instead of grooming and readying his faithful horse Sharats, the celebrated hero does precisely the opposite: he kills Sharats and destroys or discards his famous weapons one by one. Outside the epic oCode and the associations built into it, this series of actions is dramatic in its own literal terms. But because Podrugović is working within a familiar pattern known to his oAgora partners, his unique adaptation of the oWord or typical scene is also a powerful instance of variation within limits. Heroes conventionally arm for life-or-death combat; this hero now disarms to die.

Getting back home

Across the Indo-European family of languages, the long-absent hero struggling to find his way home is an extremely common story-type, possibly the most widespread and oldest tale we have. Conventionally, this epic pattern of Return, or nostos in ancient Greek, begins with the hero mired in captivity and trying to negotiate an escape, usually through the agency of a powerful female. (It is worth noting that the implied back-story involves his prior participation in a composite army aimed at rescuing a kidnapped fiancée or wife, an army led by a duplicitous or at least undependable leader.) At any rate, within the story-pattern the hero manages to exit his imprisonment and returns, always in impenetrable disguise, to test the loyalty of family and colleagues and to defeat the rivals vying for his mate. In the larger morphology of the story, however, it is his mate who holds all of the cards; she may prove faithful or unfaithful to him, with both options very much in play within well-collected traditions. A secret signal shared between them is the tipping point for the narrative, and keys either a reunion (the positive ending) or a deadly conflict and sequel (the negative ending). Even our Odyssey – very much the portrayal of the faithful spouse, of course – contains the seeds of the alternate climax. There are no fewer than nine mentions of the Agamemnon-Clytemnestra-Orestes family triangle as a parable-like contrast to Odysseus-Penelope-Telemachos, and Agamemnon’s ghost actually discusses the two story-alternatives in Book 24.

Against this background, or carrier wave, Homer configures his Odyssey as a specific realization of a generic pattern, as a rule-governed variation within limits. Audiences fluent in the OT idiom (experienced navigators of the Return web) will recognize the pattern early, and will know in general terms what to expect. Long separated from his homeland and community because of the Trojan War and its aftermath, Odysseus negotiates with Calypso for his release and, with the powerful Athena’s help, eventually finds his way back to Ithaca. Like all nostos heroes, whether in Greek or other traditions, he infiltrates the company of suitors in disguise and defeats them in athletic contests before dispatching them altogether. Penelope poses the secret riddle of the olive tree bed that only her true husband can solve, and their exchange leads to recognition and resolution. Return epics from other traditions – as widely separated as British, South Slavic, and Balochi – reveal the broader morphology: variations include names of characters and places, faithful and unfaithful mates, culture-specific athletic challenges, different secret signs, inclusion of slaughter or not, and of course opposite outcomes. Most crucially, however, all of these details are contextualized by the Return pattern, which provides a shared vehicle for performance and reception.

IT networks

We can continue to answer our opening questions about alternate mythologies of communication by highlighting core characteristics of exchange in the electronic marketplace, as explored throughout the Pathways Project. Here are some of them. IT doesn’t repeat, it recurs. It employs eWords rather than tWords to communicate its message. It is accurate not in the familiar (but under-the-radar) terms insisted upon by textual ideology, but rather on its own co-creative, emergent terms. Instead of seeking to foreshorten and limit experience, IT creates a frame of reference in which reality remains in play. Instead of restricting even the most independent-minded reader to an exitless one-way street, it uses ePathways leading to a web of linked options and to variant but always related versions. Most fundamentally of all, IT operates by surfing through networks rather than trekking through texts.

All of these features point toward a rule-governed flexibility that licenses innovation and creativity within a powerful and highly resonant idiom. What’s more, that signature power derives – however counter-intuitive it may seem – not from monolith-like immutability but from variation within limits.

IT code as performance platform

IT code functions like a carrier wave, precisely because it’s a platform for performance; but we also need the input signals exchanged between a navigator and the Internet (and ultimately the site-builder). Just as with radio and television broadcasting, we have two symbiotic, interacting aspects. The specialized language, or register, is the vehicle for whatever specific web-expedition is being undertaken. By the same token, the actual content emerges only when the network is activated by users. Without the shared code, IT performance is impossible; without IT web-surfers, the code is non-functional. To put the matter proverbially, without pathways there is no language; without a surfer there is no performance.

As illustration of how IT code works, consider some examples of eWords. Let me emphasize that these are merely a few among myriad possibilities, cited here to give at least a small idea of the resources of a dynamic system of expression and reception.

Clicking through options

When you click on a link, it’s the morphology of the underlying URL-system—not the link-name itself—that empowers your journey. Even though the link-name itself is nominal, it depends for its meaning and efficacy on the rule-governed code from which all unique URLs are generated. Once you register your domain name, effectively activating its potential, variation within limits prescribes that you affix a universally idiomatic protocol, such as http://, and a contracted-for suffix such as .org, .com, or .net. If you install addresses that follow this template of structure and morphology, they will successfully connect to web destinations. If, on the other hand, the addresses lack the carrier-wave syntax required for all input signals, they will fail. Clearly, the highly generative but limited nature of the link-driven network means that you can’t go just anywhere; in fact, “anywhere” has no meaning in the context of multiple but restricted options. To travel an ePathway and reach your destination, you must click on a link to a viable URL.

Of course, this initial step is merely the prologue to an ongoing, ever-evolving, and inherently unpredictable story that takes shape in real time rather than asynchronously. As such, it can’t be flattened into a predetermined, optionless blueprint. It has to be “lived through” as an emergent experience. No sooner than the first click brings you to your initial destination, you’re immediately presented with another choice to make: explore that node, whatever it is, then get ready for the next step, whatever it may prove to be. So you select another ePathway from among all routes available, and travel somewhere else, but your co-creation of reality still isn’t by any means “complete.” Why not? Because you have multiple options at every juncture, choices that appear because of a prior choice you’ve made, and together they offer almost infinite variety – always within limits, of course. In fact, the whole notion of completeness in eNavigation is fundamentally illusory. Until you close your browser, the ever-expanding diversity of links offers a continuous opportunity for performance, for personal, highly individual surfing within an option-driven system.

Building and friending

Taking a step back, consider the process of building the complex and diverse network that you travel by clicking on eWord-routes. Web designers work within languages defined as much by their options as by their set structure; once again, the carrier wave / input signal analogy proves applicable. Unless designers install appropriately configured code, their sites will founder. To create interactive facilities in the eAgora, web architects must be fluent in the dedicated language of that marketplace. At best, the lack of suitable, coherent code will translate to a static eFile, a species of text that will not foster two-way exchange. At worst, non-idiomatic eCode will fossilize into meaningless junk and a broken link.

Social networking involves some highly successful—because nimbly interactive—facilities, none more popular or more highly used than Facebook. eCode is operative at a number of levels in the virtual community enabled by this mega-site, which leverages variation within limits in powerful and innovative ways. The continuous building-out of the site deploys idiomatic programming language to create opportunities for friending, writing on walls, tagging photos, issuing invitations, convening real-time group discussions, and much more. The inner workings of the site are invisible to the end-user, but they support and license every action undertaken by every participant.

But that’s hardly the end of the story. These same participants are building as well, co-creating within a flexible, interactive environment, adding and revising within patterned constraints. While site architects provide the shared platform for all activities on Facebook, millions of surfers contribute the always-developing content, stimulating emergent behavior on the part of their friends in a never-ending personal and collective navigation of multiple, networked eCommunities. Just as in OT, the option-driven nature of the code—most essentially its variation within limits—is the crucial and enabling feature of the joint process. Website designers and individual users alike work within a language that supports rule-governed exchange, that meshes the generic and recurrent with the particular and unique. And again as in OT, one aspect is useless without the other. Even the most elegantly programmed site lies dormant until a surfing partner accesses it and begins to convert its potential into kinetic reality. Code just doesn’t work unless there are architects and surfers to modulate and activate it.

The “other” mythology of communication

In short, our standard myth of fixity and completeness—the default and sustaining credo of the tAgora—cannot explain the thought-traffic characteristic of the oAgora and eAgora. To understand the dynamics of OT and IT, we need to explore another mode of creating, expressing, and receiving: variation within limits. Although the textual marketplace has trained us to distrust morphing and to value instead a message and a medium that (seem to) resist change, the oral and electronic marketplaces actively depend on and profit from rule-governed morphing. It is, then, up to us as responsible, cosmopolitan citizens of multiple agoras to update our cognitive firmware and to understand the inimitable power and efficacy of navigating through networks of oPathways and ePathways.

Chinese_version