• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

An agora is a verbal marketplace –a site for creation and exchange of knowledge, art, and ideas. The Pathways Project recognizes three agoras, or arenas for human communication. This node is devoted to the IT (Internet Technology) arena, the eAgora.

Roman Agora, Athens
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roman_Agora_in_Athens.jpg

The true currency of exchange in the eAgora is eWords—coded, virtual, and linked words. Not typographical prompts, but an actual, clicked-on, in-context performance experienced at that moment and in that place by a present audience. You participate in the electronic marketplace via real-time, directly engaged transaction, not by swapping texts. Everything happens “in the moment”—right now, not at some convenient future time to be chosen by a detached, independent reader and forestalled until the time seems right. The eAgora event is all-consuming for webmaster and surfer alike. Why? Because in interactive format it is unmediated by texts, with nothing held at arm’s length.

 

Agora-mirrors

Before proceeding any further, let’s highlight a built-in structural comparison among the three nodes on principal media types: the oAgora, tAgora, and eAgora. From this point on – and across all three involved nodes – the section headings and organization will follow a mirroring logic. In other words, immediately below this paragraph you will find two sections entitled “Genus and species” and “Word-markets,” followed by another with the subheading of either “Public, not proprietary” or “Proprietary, not public,” depending on the agora in question. In fourth position you will encounter a brief discussion of “The evolutionary fallacy,” and so on. The purpose of this organizational strategy is to help demonstrate the comparisons and contrasts that lie at the heart of the Pathways Project. For a complete list of the inter-agora parallels, visit Agora correspondences.

 

Genus and species

The virtual landscape is awash with newly evolved species that simply can’t be understood through the default technology of the tAgora. We can speak of “pages” and “destinations” and “data,” but concentrating on what seems thing-like (and comfortably familiar) misses the point. What makes the eAgora categorically different from textual items and repositories is its ability to morph within limits and to support navigation and co-creation by surfers, and at the same time not to foreclose on alternate possibilities. What matters is the network of links and ePathways, which distinguish systems from things. Even a few hours’ experience on the web highlights the remarkable diversity and complexity of eWorld ecology, and the futility of trying to reduce that world to the pathwayless tAgora.

Within the IT genus, then, we can discern many different and fascinating species or types of Internet technology, with many more types on the near horizon. Suffice it to say for now that this host of species varies by genre, social function, surfers, sites, and modes of interaction with other agoras. Some of these interactions are counter-intuitive for tAgora citizens, and the ever-increasing variety of IT types on the web shows no sign of diminishing. The watchword for species within the genus IT must always be diversity.

 

Word-markets

Consider the wealth of different word-markets in which IT users ply their trade, whether users of Internet browsers, Facebook, Twitter, open source software, or mashups and remixes, all of which are discussed below, or some other IT option. There’s little or no possibility – and in many cases no need – of copyrighting what surfers do via these eInstruments. And why? Because they are rooted in the public domain, where sharing and rule-governed morphing are the source of power and where fixity and stasis mean death. Public-domain roots are both nourishing for each immediate event (for each pass through the multiply linked network) and necessary for the continuing survival of IT as a whole. This last point may be difficult to grasp for those who aim to police the eAgora by trying to enforce tAgora rules, but citizenship in multiple agoras makes it only too evident.

 

Public, not proprietary

Subject to specific legal and financial constraints, IT strategies can be deployed by multiple people without fear of violating any laws governing exchange in what amounts to an open-source marketplace. Those rules may limit eligibility by password-certified membership or financial constraints on access, for example, but no individual ever wholly “authors” a strategy in final, invariable form, any more than a single individual ever authors a language. Nor can any one person ever deliver the final, canonical, “best” navigation of the involved network until texts enter the picture and make this kind of dead-end concept of verbal communication imaginable and feasible. Such a monolith simply isn’t either imaginable or feasible within the eAgora. Once the economy of the tAgora is fully in place, however, public gives way to proprietary, open-access gives way to object-exchange, and web-systems stop being web-systems. The difference is between downloading things and engaging in emergent experiences within an arena that is forever under construction.

 

The evolutionary fallacy

With the variant dynamics of the oral, textual, and Internet arenas in mind, it’s easy to see why “oral evolves to written” and “written evolves to electronic” are fallacies traceable to the ideology of the text. If we model our understanding of all verbal commerce on a singular creation attributed to a singular author and consumed by a singular audience (one-by-one), then the necessarily plural identity of web architects, surfers, and IT strategies will appear primitive, underdeveloped, and in need of streamlining. Likewise, we’ll fail to understand and credit the plural identity of architects and surfers with their shared but diverse experiences in the eAgora.

In either case, non-written, non-textualized communication will seem to lack something, to fail to measure up according to our ideologically imposed criteria. For example, how many times each day do you hear or read about people bemoaning the informality and impermanence of the web? Likewise, until recently collectors of OTs have unquestioningly subscribed to an implicit rank-ordering by converting the living webs that support oral traditions into freestanding objects suitable for display in the Museum of Verbal Art. They too undergo a kind of media-specific culture shock and feel compelled to “diss” whatever isn’t text.

But of course it’s not just a matter of one situation—one agora—evolving progressively and inevitably toward another. Each arena operates according to its own idiosyncratic economy. The oAgora uses a different currency of exchange than the tAgora – embodied versus entexted words, oWords versus tWords. And the eAgora uses eWords, similar in many ways to oWords and far removed from tWords. The eAgora sponsors code – like URLs and HTML – that depends for its power and efficacy on its performative nature; eCode actually causes something to happen, and does so recurrently, not repetitively. None of the three currencies is inherently better, more valuable, or more advanced than the other two. Each is simply the coin of its particular realm.

This is not to claim that any arena is entirely homogeneous. Nor is it to contend that they never interact, or that hybrid agoras can’t form; they do and they can, in fascinating ways. But it is a fatal mistake to posit a one-way developmental trajectory, to view verbal technology as working its way inexorably from a text-deprived Dark Age toward a thoroughly evolved and fully textual us, and on the way to a (fascinating though feared) virtuality. We need to resist the ideologically driven assumption that limits our imagination and citizenship to the textual arena.

 

Five IT word-markets

Of the many possible eFacilities and eTools we could examine, I have chosen five that are familiar to many if not most patrons of the current eAgora: namely, browsers, Facebook, Twitter, open source software, and mashups and remixes. As the Pathways Project wiki develops, it is my hope that contributors will broaden the discussion, both by furthering our understanding of these five areas (and their inevitable evolution) and by addressing other (including yet-to-be-invented) facilities and tools.

Browsers



Firefox LiNsta (Linux is not Vista)

The most basic tool for transacting business in the eAgora, for navigating through networks, is of course the Internet browser. Those in common use include, in descending order of market share as currently reported, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Mozilla’s Firefox, Google’s Chrome, Apple’s Safari, and Opera, all of them offering different configurations, speed, and options and all of them except Explorer compliant with web standards.

Browsers open the network and make possible your active participation and co-creation. Using eWords in the form of special coding, they support your self-generated itinerary by revealing and making available the host of options that present themselves at any point in your journey. When you open to a start-page you enter a performance arena, a virtual space where sharing is accomplished by exchange in the specialized language of URLs and HTML, the lingua franca of the web. Because the website architect and browser-maker have “written” the enabling code deep into their facilities, the surfer is automatically fluent in web-speak: if you can click, and perhaps occasionally type in a pathway-word (a URL), you can communicate without a hitch. Select a link, and a new set of choices appears; select one of those and another set of links pops up. Potential avenues for discovery and co-creation are everywhere, and it is inherently impossible to exhaust the network.

But caveat lector; let the reader beware. For all of the myriad actions and adventures they support, for all of the resources they put at our fingertips (literally so, with touch devices), browsers cannot offer permanence, fixity, or closure. In true eAgora style (and parallel to oAgora style), they operate by resisting textualization, by always opening another connection, another option, another encounter with knowledge, art, and ideas. A browser’s strength resides in its open-endedness, which runs absolutely counter to the twin illusions of object and stasis so central to tAgora exchange. Think about it: just like oral traditions, and just like language in general, eAgora tools must do their job by means of variation within limits, by remaining forever under construction. If a browser were somehow to submit to textualization, it would lose its engine of rule-governed variation, and thereby its purpose. It wouldn’t be a browser, any more than a text is an oral tradition.

Facebook

So you’ve signed up for a Facebook account, entered your information and photos, started friending, and are well on your way to becoming happily enmeshed in a shared matrix of electronic events, groups, causes, and other virtual relationships. What’s more, you’ve set up apps on your iPhone and iPad so that either of these devices will keep you plugged into an ever-morphing scene chock full of correspondents’ everyday remarks, deep thoughts, and inane patter – all of it precious and unthinkable without the Facebook prosthesis. So what does it all mean? What have you and your ePosse co-created? What permanent cultural intervention has occurred?

Well, if your Facebook crew is anything like mine, it’s an incredibly diverse lot, so diverse that there isn’t the remotest possibility of their ever gathering anywhere non-virtual for any reason whatsoever. And that’s not merely because they happen to hail from 19 different countries and have interests so wildly non-connected that most of them would have nothing to discuss with one another. Different languages would constitute one barrier, maybe different cultures as well, but different idea-worlds would be the principal obstacle. Put them in the same physical space and not much would happen – just puzzled grins, frustrated grimaces, and an early exit.

Non-connected interests, non-connected people in a physical, brick-and-mortar world. But notice that I didn’t say UN-connected. Using the special eTool called Facebook, you somehow managed to connect them. YOU created this world. YOU linked it up. And of course you aren’t alone: each of your friends did likewise – not by replicating what you did, but by assembling their own networked worlds according to their priorities and interests. What they and millions more have accomplished isn’t repetition, but rather recurrence. Because Facebook offers a platform that supports the core eAgora (and oAgora) function of variation within limits, these millions could also preside over the miracle of creating their own communities that otherwise couldn’t exist. And they did so by deploying a shared facility to do something unique, using an open-access, public domain eTool in inimitable, individual fashion. From an oAgora perspective, they’re using a shared tradition to tell their own stories. No tAgora tool could manage that.

And not only does Facebook make it possible to found new, never-before-realized and otherwise impossible communities, it also supports their emergent, interactive ecology. Its various channels encourage connections by “writing on walls,” for example, by leaving simple messages and observations that restore the everyday comments, ironic reactions, and unpredictable whimsy that bind communities together in just as important a way as the much more formalized (and severely limited) swapping of texts. You learn about trips, family members, food, films, political stunts, and a hundred other aspects of your friends’ lives, all without having to combat the inertia of tAgora-appropriate communication. Just dip your digital toe into the online water and sample the ongoing conversation, wherever you enter it. Contribute something, react to a long-lost friend’s post, share a photo, or just sit back and lurk, absorbing what your impossible virtual community is saying, thinking, and doing. Just as in physical communities, there is no single approved form of communication, and participation is always multi-sourced – rule-governed (by Facebook formatting and options) but multiply authored. Such is the richness of chaos when reality remains in play.

Facebook supports eCommunity-building, and serves a crucial function in the eAgora, a function that depends upon recurrence rather than repetition, upon variation within limits rather than fixity, and the open-ended quality of remaining forever under construction rather than aspiring toward closure. Its survival as an eTool actively depends on resisting fixity and closure, on keeping its ePathways open and connected for the greater good of the overall network. For this reason we can only hope that Facebook’s increasing trend toward the commercially driven release of users’ personal information is reversed. Nothing will bring down an eAgora facility more dependably than violating the eSharing compact that governs its fundamental dynamics.

Twitter

Public versus private is also a fascinating aspect of Twitter, where tens of millions of electronic correspondents co-create a bewildering array of virtual communities – 140 characters at a time. Via this eTool you can broadcast your verbal reflexes and tip-of-the-iceberg philosophies to anyone who signs up to “follow” you. The formation of your web village is considerably less formal than the invitation approval process in Facebook, but Twitter will allow you to block those you want to keep outside your networked circle. And of course you can follow anyone you wish – from friends and colleagues you see every day to voices from other chapters in your life to the previously untouchable celebrities who have turned their ”@” observations into a viral species of PR. Once again we can form and join communities that could not exist outside the eAgora.

So we can easily enough grasp the importance of Twitter as a social networking tool powered by IT, and the trademark phenomena of rule-governed variation, recurrence, resistance to fixity and closure, and permanent under-construction status are clearly enough at its functional heart. But does this connection-engine offer us any discernible long-term cultural value apart from its immediate purpose?

Well, the Library of Congress certainly thinks so. They’ve begun to archive Tweets by the million, and plan to make them available to qualified researchers on a timetable and under conditions that are still being formulated. The idea is to offer future historians a glimpse into the everyday stuff of life, unfiltered by historians’ chosen paradigms or perspectives – a peek into “Everysurfer’s Chronicle of My Self-generated Virtual Community,” mutiplied almost infinitely.


Library of Congress

From one point of view, this makes excellent sense. In recent years historians have begun to tap into unofficial sources in order to understand the age they’re portraying, paying less attention to government edicts and more attention to what ordinary and sometimes disadvantaged groups and individuals have to say. Witness the burgeoning accounts of women’s lives and influence, so often ignored in earlier years, as well as the slave narratives that have not only humanized but often entirely “rewritten” our understanding of that tragic and shameful period in U.S. history. What top-down, corporate, officially sanctioned sources ideologically weed out, Twitter may well help to reinstate as realities to be confronted and interpreted.

Open source software

In what some would call the best of all possible worlds, open source software would win the day in every situation and at every level. All software products would be open, the code that enables them would be open, and everyone would have the same, shared, malleable platform from which to innovate. All subsequent innovations would remain effectively in the public domain, and the momentum of development would be maintained on the principle of “many heads [or groups] are better than one.” To an extent that’s what goes on with the Mozilla Foundation and their popular “public benefit” browser Firefox, as well as with the Open Office productivity suite, which has seen over 100 million downloads. Open source would conquer proprietary, to everyone’s benefit, and ultimate democracy would reign.




Typewriter on steroids

But at this particular point in eAgora history we find ourselves embroiled, either directly or indirectly, with something considerably more complex than an either-or binary. The openness of a system will always matter, because without the key quality of variation within limits all acts of co-creation and innovation are limited or even impossible. The question has become not whether but rather at what level individual manipulation of software’s rule-governed variability should take place. If a proprietary program or application, bought and sold in what amounts to a tAgora exchange, constrains the creativity of even the most inexpert user, then it isn’t fulfilling the practical philosophy of the eAgora. Word-processing software that relies on tiered menus folded deep within its hierarchy, predetermining most of what one can do because of its effective pathwaylessness, are simply reifying the textual mindset. They amount to typewriters on steroids, machines designed to produce a limited range of fixed texts and little else.

On the other hand, to the degree that proprietary programs open up creative possibilities – promoting easy intermingling of multimedia using shared open standards and aimed at producing new kinds of vehicles like interactive magazines and morphing books – they support a measure of openness more suitable to the average user’s role in the eAgora. From this perspective, software that is strictly speaking not open source (that is, you buy it and use it under copyright, and the code isn’t available for retooling) can still foster a kind of “open” co-creativity. It can foster what amounts to unconstrained innovation for the end-user, who isn’t interested in (or capable of) reworking code. Such users, and they surely account for the huge majority of eAgora patrons, will actually profit from the decisions made at a lower level – often to optimize the hardware-software synergy, as in the Apple universe. In such cases “open” innovation can be enabled by providing a vehicle with many of the lower-level decisions already in place.

Mashups and remixes

What does it mean to use eAgora tools to merge two or more “things” into a third “thing”? What are the implications of that kind of merging – not just legally, but also socioculturally and artistically? For the oAgora such questions never arise, since true ownership of an oral tradition, always a never-finished process driven by distributed authorship, is patently impossible. You can’t own language; therefore you can’t own OT, which amounts to a special case of language. Sharing is not merely the norm but the mandate.

New-media co-creations like mashups and remixes problematize the OT-IT homology. They also demand that we acknowledge some disparities between the core comparison of the oAgora and eAgora that the Pathways Project seeks both to understand and to represent. Of course, this is hardly anything out of the ordinary: as the disclaimer to the Project affirms in the strongest possible terms, a homology is a parallel and an analogy, and most definitely not an identity. We intend no simplistic, reductive equation of marketplaces. Indeed, it’s precisely the disparities between OT and IT that give the fundamental, base-line comparison its vigor and depth.

For the sake of ready reference, let’s use the examples of eHybrids featured elsewhere in the Pathways Project: musical mashups and their ancient precursors on the one hand, and the McLuhan remix on the other. Many of the principles associated with these particular instances apply to the much wider range of eAgora cross-species.

In musical mashups, two, or potentially more than two, recorded songs are combined to produce a hybrid that is meant as a separate creation. But here the easy description ends and the challenges begin. If the hybrid could not exist without its sources, to what extent can it ever be understood as an independent entity? If, further, that “new” creation varies over different performances, never taking precisely the same form twice, does that demonstrable lack of fixity affect how we regard its status? Should we distinguish its rule-governed variability from live performances of a single-authored, copyright-protected song? How do we characterize the authorship of these digital amalgams, which appears to be distributed over at least three individuals or groups?

At this juncture in rapidly evolving media history it would be foolish to see these questions as anything more (or less) than heuristics, as points of inquiry, and I will not attempt categorical answers. Our concern here is to emphasize that these are questions being posed in the eAgora that could not have arisen in the tAgora. Let’s also admit that in trying to untangle their complexities we have so far mostly applied tAgora rules. In a real sense, our very approach to mashups – legal, sociocultural, and artistic – has been decidedly agoraphobic, a study in culture shock.



Gregg Gillis, AKA Girl Talk

Distributed authorship (and for that matter, distributed editorship) are also the co-creative force behind Jamie O’Neill/Kurt Weibers’ highly suggestive remix of Marshall McLuhan’s ideas with contemporary eAgora interventions. The Medium Is the Mix, which portrays O’Neill/Weibers in a virtually constructed interview with McLuhan, examines how meaning is derived not through what we pretend is wholly original thought but through sampling the ideas of others and blending them into something new. During the faux-discussion, the interviewer channels McLuhan with remarks like “originality isn’t what it used to be,” emphasizing the role of digital media in enabling previously inconceivable hybridization. In fact, he goes so far as to observe that “today we do not think; we mix other people’s thoughts.” Radical commentary indeed.

But in terms of the Pathways Project this bold reformulation should come as no surprise. If as citizens of multiple agoras we look beyond the ideology of text and its pretense of individual authorship and ownership of knowledge, art, and ideas, we’ll recognize the fundamental principles and dynamics of the oAgora re-emerging in the eAgora. Mixing other people’s thoughts? Navigating networks and co-creating? Actually, that’s what we’ve always done.

 

No real authors

Authors – in our modern and highly ideological sense of the term as individual creators of original, unique, fixed, and usually published works – simply don’t exist in the eAgora. And if such authors as such don’t exist, then the burden of “protecting the work” can’t fall to them. Most fundamentally, there’s usually nothing to protect, since the browser or Facebook exchange or Tweet-sequence or open-source routine or mashup usually doesn’t belong exclusively and forever to any single individual. Individual steps in the evolving sequence can be attributed, especially the initial creation of an open-source application, for example. But the shared, emergent process can’t be owned in the way a freestanding text-object can be owned, and therefore can’t be used or transferred under carefully written and implemented guidelines appropriate to text-objects. In most cases there’s nothing to prevent another person, sooner or later, here or somewhere else, from performing the “same” work, although the next performer will inevitably make changes in “the primary version” (which of course is one of many equivalent versions). Even when a surfer creates and re-creates a singular work (as with mashup artists), each transaction in the word-market – always involving multiple sources and open to reconstruction in multiple performances – is but one transitory instance of an ever-evolving process. Culture gets continuously mashed-up and remixed in the eAgora.

 

Five non-authors

The five word-markets mentioned above are alive and bristling with verbal exchange, but they all lack what we would call “authors.” Consider the dynamics of each IT arena. With their navigational horizons spread out all over the endlessly expansive Internet, browser-users can hardly be classified as authors in our tAgora sense of the term. Facebook friends likewise depend on and draw from a malleable common source, creating unique posts by performing within the designated rules that govern their eAgora. The situation is extremely similar with the legions of Twitter enthusiasts, who construct and share personalized mini-portrayals of their private lives by working within a 140-character matrix. The ability of this kind of conversation to morph is well illustrated by the array of subjects and viewpoints it supports in emergent fashion. And though a degree of ownership does enter the picture with open-source software, every singular product derives its identity as much from the ongoing, fluid nature of its never-finished process as from its latest incarnation. Even the (re-)creators of mashups and remixes, who generate unique, never-before-uttered compositions that may well be fixed via the text of a recording, are also providing undeniable evidence of multiple authorship. How could we interpret their work as necessarily “the final step” if it actively depends on recombination and repurposing for its very existence? And when it may well be re-produced through a variant re-performance? Strange as it may seem, there are no true authors anywhere to be found in the eAgora.

 

eAgora sharing and re-use

As a first premise, let’s start by observing a simple truth obscured by the powerful (yet almost always unexamined) ideology of the text. The welter of rules that govern sharing and re-use of tAgora materials, embedded in a long and intricate sequence of legal battles that shows no signs whatsoever of abating, are largely inapplicable in the eAgora. To put it as straightforwardly as possible, tAgora rules were fashioned for the tAgora and don’t work in other verbal marketplaces. As long as we continue to apply the wrong rules for transactions and (re-)creations, we will continue to be frustrated by the non-fit.

If we evaluate the situation from the perspective of diversity in media, we’ll see why. In fact, it’s nothing less than inevitable, whatever the other agora involved. For example, for many years we misunderstood the communicative features and resources of oral traditions because we proceeded by insisting on a textual frame of reference. We imposed irrelevant and frankly damaging concepts such as single authorship, epitomized versions, and silent, spatialized, one-way pages on the multiply authored, Protean, and networked identity of the oAgora. We denatured the living reality of oral traditions, and of their oral-derived progeny, in what amounted to a desperate attempt to bring their natural variability and responsiveness into line with our philosophy of verbal art as a singular, owned, and purchased/bought thing. We tried to turn ongoing, ever-emergent navigation into a single, authoritative map. And of course we failed. How could we do anything but fail? Does French serve its intended expressive function (or any expressive function at all) when we sweep aside its native character and impose Swahili vocabulary and grammar?

The long and the short of it is that conventional copyright (a.k.a. “Big C”) can’t apply to the itemless word-markets of oral tradition or Internet technology. But maybe another kind of “little c” copyright might apply to these two non-textual agoras. Let’s briefly consider two of the licenses offered by the Creative Commons website – the most and the least restrictive of the six contracts – with a view toward determining whether either of them could help in governing surfing and exchange in the eAgora.



The most stringent

The “Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivatives” license stands at the conservative end of the Creative Commons spectrum, that is, closest to the ideologically driven concept of Big C copyright that governs the tAgora. This contract “allows others to download your works and share them with others as long as they mention you and link back to you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.” Of course, since truly interactive transactions in the eAgora don’t involve authors or static, finite works – not to mention tAgora definitions and rules – this license can have no utility for IT exchange.

The most open

At the other end of the spectrum lies the simple “Attribution” license, which “lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation.” This one sounds like a perfect fit for the business of our online word-market until we get to the final clause calling for acknowledgment of an original work by, we must suppose, an original creator. In other words, even the most liberal license offered by Creative Commons, an institution dedicated to enabling the remixing of culture, assumes a fixed, finite object eligible for sharing and remaking. Although this least inhibiting of licenses speaks cogently to the realities of distribution, remixing, tweaking, and building upon as we encounter them within the eAgora, it still doesn’t recognize the radical morphing and objectlessness of interactive surfing. The ideology of the text – whether a book, a musical score, a painting, a film, or whatever – dies hard.

 

Variation within limits



Fork in the road

It’s counterintuitive for us, but continuous morphing in the eAgora doesn’t lead to anarchy. Things don’t fall apart, primarily because there aren’t any “things” in the first place. IT in fact draws its strength from variation within limits, from its rule-governed ability to change systemically – just like language itself, only more so. Surfers always have a choice; they can select from viable, systemically arrayed options. They can follow multiple different pathways in realizing their emergent performances, which will not be photocopies or diskcopies of yesterday’s or last year’s or any other “edition.” They may choose one route today, another similar but non-identical route next week, and so forth, depending on factors such as their own state of mind and the particulars of the occasion. Motion never freezes into stasis, the journey of discovery never devolves into the closed circuit of a daily commute, pathways never become ruts.

This dynamic is clearly visible (and for some users just as clearly nettlesome) in simple navigation of the Internet via the browser of your choice. Even if you’re embarked on the same quest as yesterday, what are the chances that you’ll navigate identically through the linked potentials that await you? Maybe you’ll get “sidetracked” – though the meaning of that designation doesn’t really work in the eAgora – or discover new facets of even the most well-defined topic or theme. Or perhaps the website architect has added new features that cry out to be explored, or deleted some pathways you surfed along in prior expeditions. Did friends suggest what amounts to a linkmap? If so, were you able or willing to retrace their steps exactly, or did the natural subjectivity of confronting untextualized reality lead you elsewhere? Only too quickly the twin illusions of object and stasis begin to break down.

Or consider how variation within limits fosters interaction within the eAgora. When a “citizen reviewer” rates and describes a new application online, that communication becomes part of the conversation that surrounds the app. When software engineers respond to suggestions or requests from user (sometimes acknowledged in subsequent reviews), for example by installing a new feature or making another kind of co-creation possible, that step forward is directly attributable to the architect-audience interaction. In a similar vein, eye-tracking devices, which chart exactly how users explore electronic pages, offer another avenue for understanding eAgora itineraries and joint communication. Like the singer and audience in an oAgora performance, the key to success is continuous, fluent exchange, with shared responsibility for outcomes. Of course, even the term “outcome” textualizes the process somewhat, since the goal is not to finish but to continue innovating. Without rule-governed variation, none of these OT and IT exchanges would be possible.

 

The analogy to language

Think about living, spoken language – continuously mixed and remixed – rather than its reduction to the printed or pixeled page. We don’t resort each and every day to one of a limited number of fixed monologues or conversations, do we? Even similar pronouncements or exchanges on identical topics involve innumerable choices and adaptations, made in the moment and outside the scope of any fossilized, predetermined scheme. We depend on our human ability to generate rule-governed communication, we vary our speech-acts within limits, we suit our discourse to different situations. IT does the same.

A basic proverb

Consider this OT-to-IT modification of a homemade proverb: “Internet technology works like language, only more so.” IT is anything but objectified and static. It morphs according to rules that provide guidance and stability, but which also promote – to different degrees depending upon the particular vehicle – creativity and individual realization. In that regard, IT is simply a special case of language.

But how about the “more so”? Everyday language is necessarily broad-spectrum; general conversational language, for example, supports a great many interactions, with optional adjustments for your relationship with your addressee, or for the physical site of the exchange, the time of day, the weather, and so on. But IT code requires more rules. Superimposed on the broad-spectrum language are additional rules that identify the communication as a particular kind of coded expression – perhaps the HTML underlying website navigation, or the URLs that serve as the ePathways to get there. IT languages are narrow-spectrum tools; they serve fewer functions, but they fulfill those fewer functions much more economically than could more general languages.

This built-in focus in turn means that IT languages are more densely idiomatic, with designated parts standing for much larger and more complex wholes. Thus, and despite its literal meaning, 43 things carries the connotation of a social networking site when provided with the http:// prefix and .com domain suffix. Similarly, enclosing a word or phrase within the HTML sequence <em> … </em> changes the font to italic, while the sequence <strong> … </strong> changes it to boldface. None of these specialized meanings is reported in any conventional dictionary or lexicon, since such textual resources gloss the broader-spectrum language of texts; they are formulated to serve the specific purposes of the tAgora. The codes employed to fashion the eWords that serve as currency in the eAgora operate under an enhanced set of rules and confer an enhanced idiomatic value. Like the oWords that we discuss in relation to the oAgora, they “work like language, only more so.”

 

Recurrence, not repetition

What does it mean to say that something repeats? The scenario is familiar enough: a discrete and item-like event happens once, then it happens again, and so forth. A best-selling novel, for instance, may be published one year and reprinted the next, so that the title repeats on the bookstore or library shelf. Or consider a poetic refrain that appears at the end of every stanza, so that each iteration echoes those that precede it. Or the chorus to a song, which will dependably repeat after each verse. All of these cases are clearly repetitive because subsequent occurrences derive their meaning primarily from earlier ones within a finite, limited context. The chain of meaning is linear and contained, deriving from direct correspondences from one item to the next.

But that isn’t the way IT works. IT actively depends on recurrence rather than serial repetition. It operates via idiomatic responses that follow networked pathways. Consider two simple analogues. Perhaps you’re a college student and you make a habit of greeting your friends with a wave of the hand and a ritualistic phrase like “What’s up?” You react in this way regularly, every time you pass any of your friends on the street. Or perhaps you’re a Navy airman and your daily routine involves saluting a succession of officers, using exactly the same motion on every occasion. But in neither case are you really repeating the greeting; instead, you’re resorting to an approved, idiomatic signal that indexes your encounter and relationship. You’re following an established pathway, using a recurrent action to accomplish your purpose.

To illustrate the nature of recurrence in the eAgora, here are two simple examples from our shared web-world: recurrent beginnings and recurrent performances.

Recurrent beginnings

Surfers within the IT marketplace initialize their performances by opening their browsers to a start-up page. This is, of course, a page of their own choosing, and it can be changed at any time, but the point is that summoning that ePage – the function that puts idiomatic code to work in the service of navigation to come – is a recurrent and not repetitive action. You don’t open your browser for the third or fourth time in an afternoon because you did so two or three times before. You begin your surfing by employing the equivalent of an OT prologue, a ritualized introduction that bears little if any relation to what follows outside of its core function as a designated ritual precursor. Start-up pages are first-step ePathways that get things underway by convention. Surfers cannot know in advance how the specifics of the subsequent Internet session will unfold, but that brief idiomatic gesture unmistakably marks a pathway toward whatever emerges. Most fundamentally, then, the start-up page fulfills its purpose not because it repeats (in this session or any other), but because it recurs.

Recurrent performances

Just so with entire surfing performances. Unless you pursue the very same static eFile, which is itself pathwayless and offers no further options, your navigation of the web today is highly unlikely to follow the very same set of pathways as yesterday’s surfing. In other words, today’s navigation will not repeat yesterday’s. Instead, with every click you’ll be presented with new opportunities, each of which will generate another new set of potential destinations, and so forth. Even the most assiduous of explorers will find it hard or impossible to repeat under such conditions. More to the point, in the web arena it will be difficult to find a reason to repeat, or even to conceive of such tAgora-based activity. The eAgora operates, as does the oAgora, via variation within limits – the antithesis of repetition.

Now let’s examine your surfing performance in closer focus. When you click on a link, you visit the site that’s indicated by the underlying code. Neither the choice to do so nor the result of having done so constitutes repetition. If you know where you’re headed (in the sense of having visited the website beforehand), you may have a general idea of what the idiomatic convention will produce. But you can’t know that the site will be a mirror-image of what you encountered yesterday, and you certainly can’t guarantee that you will make the same decisions once you get there. What did your college friend write on your Facebook wall overnight, and did she leave a link for you to follow? What about those reactions to your latest blog entry – did they contain any useful eAgora leads?

While many will worry over the openness and unpredictability of Internet-based navigation, we should remember the built-in comparisons and contrasts between and among agoras. The eAgora has its own rules and its own advantages, which run parallel to the rules and advantages of the oAgora but not those of the tAgora. To avoid the culture shock and agoraphobia associated with imposing the ideology of the text in all marketplaces, we must remember the importance of citizenship in multiple agoras. In IT as well as OT, reality remains in play.

Surfing performances don’t repeat; they recur.

Built-in “copyright”

It will seem counterintuitive to us at first, but the Internet is powerful precisely because it can’t be fixed, precisely because it morphs while you surf it. Because it isn’t predetermined and remains open to innovation that is idiomatically driven and forever under construction, the Internet harnesses the cumulative energy and contributions typical of distributed rather than single authorship. Unless or until it gets textualized, the web never weakens into finite, fossilized, and therefore discardable items.





What’s more, and again it will initially seem contradictory, the non-fixity of the eAgora guarantees a built-in kind of “copyright protection” for website-creating and -using activities by setting limits on variation. Rule-governed flexibility is of course the engine of recurrence and continuity, but too radical a departure from the implicit rules is impossible. Fluent performance (on the part of the surfer) requires both an inherent grasp of those limits and an ability to fashion a here-and-now, true-to-the-place-and-moment experience. Otherwise the “surfing story” can have no narrative shape, no discovery, no co-creation. It might as well be a text.

 

Survival of the fittest

To put it another way, the self-sufficient ecology of the web will naturally select which websites and surfing performances are to be understood as viable. No single site will be able to claim completeness, absolute independence, or permanence. Likewise, no single surfer will be able to claim—or have any need to claim—that he or she “owns” a particular navigation of the web, at least in our default textual sense. If it’s not recognized as a freestanding, tangible item, you can’t own it. And if you can’t own it, you can’t restrict it. There’s nothing (no thing) to restrict.

In the IT arena, strength and continuity reside not in stasis but in ongoingness, not in fixity but in rule-governed flexibility. The eAgora is a word-market for living, embodied, systematic communication.

The eAgora works via pathways.

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