• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

In comparison to the maladies of oAgoraphobia and tAgoraphobia, eAgoraphobia is of course a relatively new ailment, datable to the browser wars and the emergence of widespread digital coding in the mid-1990s. But just because it’s only recently been diagnosed, that doesn’t make the effects any less disabling for those it afflicts. And many of us are afflicted to some degree.

Consider two scenarios, both of them real and both illustrative of how a person outside the eAgora can prove helpless and unable to function within it. One scenario involves immigration, the other documentation.

The perils of immigration

For those of us who came of communicative age in the tAgora era, texts represent our native medium. Schooled in such legacy technologies as proper penmanship and typewriter mechanics (with or without electricity or interchangeable balls for fonts and languages), we grew up mapping our ideas spatially on sheets of paper, always aiming at (the fiction of) a finished, complete-in-itself job. What’s more, the end-product so assiduously assembled would, we felt confident, belong forever to us; nobody else could claim “it.” Likewise, we were warned continually against appropriating other people’s “its,” whether in whole or in part. Such misappropriation was regarded as the most serious of academic and cultural sins, as nothing less than a moral failing that carried with it a social stigma. There were and are rules for creating and using brick-and-mortar items that must not be transgressed, all rooted in the ideology of texts and all assuming that communicative strategies always and everywhere amounted to managing finite, freestanding things.

Now enter the present generation of college students, less and less encumbered by the strictures of the tAgora arena and more and more comfortable with the online, interactive arena. They are of course native to a technology and media-world that prior generations can encounter only as immigrants, as an imperfectly acculturated population aspiring to citizenship in multiple agoras but destined to remain “second-language speakers” of eLanguage. Even if we immigrants are able to overcome the culture shock of a foreign frame of reference and gain a working fluency, we don’t ever assimilate entirely. Some of us still consult manuals and Help functions, while natives just start using new eTools – wholly without any associated fear and trembling. Some of us still struggle to discover how to navigate through new applications or sites, while natives just click or touch their way through what strikes them as a welcoming web of possibilities. One generation’s forbidding maze is another’s network of opportunities. Cognitively, then, many immigrants will never be quite as comfortable with the new experience as they are with speaking their mother-tongue: tLanguage.

When machines don’t work

Instances of immigrant frustration abound at every level of our daily lives, and you could doubtless contribute your share of personal or vicarious anecdotes about eAgoraphobia. One of my favorites has to do with a well-meaning eAgora native – actually a quite sophisticated navigator very much at home with the newest devices and software – who decided he should introduce his father to the advantages of the electronic marketplace by purchasing him an iPad. [Please note: what follows is a verifiably true story.] He reasoned that his immigrant father, who had resisted conventional laptop and desktop computers altogether, would be far less threatened by a touch interface and simple apps for weather, contacts, calendar, stocks, and so forth. He might even enjoy the experience of traveling to another medium, another arena, for a different kind of transaction. That was the hypothesis, at any rate.

Well, his father received the thoughtful gift with much initial enthusiasm, only to telephone his son (from a landline, of course) a few days later to request an iPad manual – so that he could page through and investigate how to turn the tablet on. Disappointed but still committed to the ongoing acculturation project, the son patiently explained that there really wasn’t any need for such a textual prosthesis; simply pressing the switch on the top righthand rim of the newfangled machine would do the trick. The elderly gentleman could just boot it up and proceed from there. And his father seemed content with adopting that textless, hands-on approach, at least until the phone rang again and he confronted his son with the following patently eAgoraphobic query: “Well, all right, it’s turned on, so what do I do now?” At that point the native made plans to drop by later that afternoon and pick up the iPad.

The challenge of documentation

Even when it’s used in the general sense of “to establish, offer proof of,” the verb “to document” can’t entirely escape its underlying tAgora roots. We document not by navigating pathways but by trekking through pathwayless texts, not by negotiating an emergent route through a system of potentials but by depending on the objective and static nature of tangible, unique items. Documents don’t morph within limits; they perform their function by acting as a dependable bulwark against change. Or so goes the ideological story.

But can we actually document in the eAgora? To rephrase the question, can we import textual technology into a non-textual environment and support the same kind of creation, storage, and transmission functions that the tAgora supports? Here we need to note a crucial distinction made elsewhere in the Pathways Project, namely that static eFiles – devoid of opportunities for pathway-enabled co-creation – are essentially texts. True eAgora transactions depend on interactivity, on a platform and arena where reality remains in play, whereas static eFiles are fundamentally pixel-pages. In other words, you can compose and transmit and read electronic documents, but the core activity is ultimately textual. The lack of pathways in these artifacts disqualifies them from the eAgora network.

When the web falls short

As one illustration, consider a sidenote to the publication history of the journal Oral Tradition, from its inception as blue-penciled typewritten copy and bound pages through its migration to the web. As explained elsewhere, moving the journal to the Internet was a strategy aimed at increasing and diversifying both the readership and the potential body of contributors, as well as to offer eCompanions with audio, video, photographic, and other resources. Since 2006 anyone with a connection to the web could access all of these materials free of charge, and the website offers links to all back issues, a search function, a continuously updated master bibliography, and other pathway-driven features.

Notwithstanding this eAgora enhancement of Oral Tradition’s article-texts, however, we regularly received a number of what can only be described as eAgoraphobic inquiries. A typical one went as follows: “Thank you for making these materials available online, but could I please order a printed and bound copy of volumes 18, i and ii? These issues are very important and necessary for my research.” Although all articles were posted as downloadable PDFs, which users are free to print as they wish, this and other queries revealed an ideologically based nostalgia for brick-and-mortar artifacts delivered to one’s doorstep. Somehow the forum that the journal provided just wasn’t research-worthy until and unless it was reduced to a disconnected series of items. Not unlike the initiative to freeze Wikipedia, readers’ yearning for “hard copies” demonstrates more than a simple denial of open-access, web-based facilities. “Bookifying” OT would sever links to all of its vital eAgora features – eCompanions, more than 500 other articles on the site, an open-access bibliography of more than 15,000 entries, and many more features and resources. In this case, documentation in its strictest sense would only reduce and distort the journal’s mission: to create and maintain networked connections between a highly diverse audience and the wealth of the world’s oral traditions.

So the short answer to the inquiry quoted above and others like it had to be a polite “sorry; no, we can’t.” The better, fuller answer is that the journal has evolved since 2006. It isn’t the same creature anymore. It’s now a species that lives partly in the tAgora and partly in the eAgora, and thus can no longer be textualized. Documentation is out of the question.