• 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 textual arena, the tAgora.

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

The negotiable currency of exchange in the tAgora is tWords—written or printed or onscreen bytes of information that we identify by inserting white space between them and enshrining them in dictionaries. Unlike oWords, which are spoken, heard, and physically embodied, tWords promote and enable asynchronous communication, whether they’re scratched on the back of an envelope, etched in gold on a wedding invitation, or configured in Unicode-mapped pixels within an e-mail or text message. You participate in the textual marketplace by swapping tangible items that reach beyond exclusive embedding in a single moment or event. These tBytes promise, uniquely, to free you from “right now” involvement and to convey hard, invariable facts when and where you or others want to use them – as long as you can get your hands on these textual marvels, of course.

 

Disembodied transmission

So how does that miracle of disembodied transmission happen? Well, the textually mediated environment essentially removes the defining constraints of space and time. Entrust your ideas to a text and they go offline, so to speak. Exchange can happen without the online connections that drive activities in the oAgora and eAgora, and it can take place anywhere and anytime that the artifact is physically available. The sender inscribes, and the receiver asynchronously reads what’s inscribed – one letter after another; one tWord after another; one paragraph, page, and text after another. Put in Pathways Project terms, the cognitive and technological prosthesis of tWords supports the illusion of object.

Not insignificantly, that same prosthesis reinforces the cultural fiction of objective reality, a deeply embedded fantasy that has empowered so many of homo sapiens’ achievements since the relatively recent invention of writing. Instead of the all-consuming, ever-emergent oAgora event that vanishes as soon as the event is over, or the eAgora website that has morphed significantly since your aggregator last checked it, the tAgora fosters communication via what we take as permanent, immutable artifacts. And because those artifacts aren’t subject to built-in contingencies shared by the other two agoras, texts can deliver the message the inscriber intends – exactly, verbatim, with no slippage.

What’s more, it will be precisely the same message every time, delivered according to the reader/user’s terms and timetable. You can choose to delay the experience until you’re ready to start – since you’re confident the text can’t morph – and you can stop and restart just as frequently as you wish. Pick it up where you left off, put it down as often as you like; no need to worry because you’re in control. There are no networks to navigate, no pathways to choose among, because texts don’t have pathways. Texts, which readers necessarily hold both literally and figuratively at arm’s length, serve their users as still points largely undisturbed by the hurly-burly of everyday life that swirls around them. Or so goes the ideological folktale.

 

An ancient witness on the tAgora


Plato

No less an authority on knowledge, art, and ideas than the ancient Greek philosopher Plato was keenly aware of the advantages and disadvantages of disembodied textual words as long ago as the late fifth or early fourth century BCE. Here Plato recounts what his mentor Socrates had to say about writing as Socrates addressed his follower Phaedrus in the dialogue of the same name (Phaedrus 275D-E):

“Writing, Phaedrus, has a certain strangeness about it, very much like painting, whose creatures, we can say, stand there like living things; but if one poses a question to them, they maintain perfect silence. And it is the same with written words. You might suppose they would speak with understanding, but if you question them at all, wishing to inquire about what they are saying, they always indicate only the very same thing. And whenever any word is written even once, it will be tossed about everywhere, both among those who understand and among those for whom it is not at all a concern. Moreover, such a word does not know to whom it must speak or not speak. And when it is taken wrongly or unjustly abused, it always requires the help of its ‘father’; for it is not able to defend or help itself.”

For all of the many advantages of tWords, we might paraphrase, there also exist serious and inescapable liabilities. tWords may seem to represent pure, uncompromised reality, but their inertness and detachment from real-time, emergent communication leave them vulnerable to wholesale reconstrual and outright misinterpretation. And they most certainly cannot operate interactively; without their “father,” the one who wrote them into the text, they are helpless to respond. Most fundamentally, then, the price of asynchronous, inflexible, non-interactive representation is the impossibility of living exchange.

Offline and into the tAgora is where oWords (and eWords) go to die.

 

Agora-mirrors

Before proceeding any further, let’s highlight a built-in structural correspondence among the three nodes on principal media types: the oAgora, tAgora, and eAgora. From this point on – and across all three involved nodes – the internal section headings and organization will follow a mirroring logic. In other words, immediately below this paragraph you will find 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 mirrored organizational strategy is to help emphasize the comparisons and contrasts that lie at the heart of the Pathways Project. For a complete list of the inter-agora parallels, which also charts the structure of each of the three principal nodes, visit Agora correspondences.

 

Genus and species

Of course, all texts are hardly identical. In fairness, we should recognize that the tAgora is – like the two other verbal marketplaces – an inherently complex and heterogeneous arena in its own right. Indeed, it would be a crippling mistake to collapse that complexity into over-general, simplistic remarks about all texts belonging to a single, absolutely uniform category. That would amount to the same blunder as deciding that all oral traditions are essentially identical (an error that has been made only too frequently and which handicapped our understanding for a long while), or that all ePhenomena answer one narrow definition. Agoras can’t be understood as archives or mausoleums; each of them bristles with supported activities that show real diversity in their relatedness.


Gutenberg Press
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gutenberg_press.jpg

 

So how do we customarily think of texts? Primarily, by default, as sequences of letters, spaces, words, paragraphs, pages, chapters, and so on. These are some of the major reading codes used for post-Gutenberg, book-based transactions within the tAgora. They all take part in the tWord program, and collectively they constitute a repertoire of familiar, standard signals that we learn to use, both as consumers and as creators of texts. But the printed page isn’t by any means the sole species within the genus “Text.”


Beowulf Manuscript
Photo courtesy of Kevin Kiernan

Early manuscripts didn’t use most of these modern tWord codes, which developed hand-in-hand with the platform of multiple identical copies made possible by the printing press and its computer-driven descendants. The unique manuscript of Beowulf, for example, presents the Anglo-Saxon epic entirely without poetic lineation and almost wholly without the punctuation or capitalization we require today, leaving to prospective editors the challenging job of imposing our now-conventional reading cues back onto texts that never used them. That’s an irony we conventionally submerge in the name of (unexamined) standardization.

At the other end of the historical spectrum, with conventional books in the middle, stand static eFiles of pixel-pages, as well as audio and video files. These items (and they manifestly are items rather than experiences) also qualify as species within the genus “Text.” Why? Because they operate by foreclosing on variation and by transmitting identical, stable messages (at least until computer-enabled mashups and remixing begin). All of these texts are typically used and exchanged as fixed, complete products, whether as downloaded manuals, purchased music, films licensed for distribution, or whatever. Although they can certainly be carved up in innumerable ways after the fact, the reality remains that they represent integral wholes ordered by a designated and unique linear sequence. We customarily buy or rent eBooks, eSongs, and eFilms not to co-create them, but to “read” them as texts. Although they’re digital-only, such static eFiles belong most essentially to the tAgora.

 

Word-markets

Consider a few of the myriad word-markets in which text-exchangers have characteristically plied their trade, the last two very much in use today:

Each of these tAgora transactions will be examined below, with special attention to the rules that govern its particular dynamics. Meanwhile, here are a few of the questions we should keep in mind as we consider what’s been swept under the rug of unchallenged conventions. What are the rules and conditions underlying exchange? Who owns the product and who gets to use it? How do texts gain the unchallenged authority they unquestionably enjoy? How do texts transfer knowledge, art, and ideas? Most generally, how is the tAgora categorically different from those other twin-sibling marketplaces, the oAgora and eAgora?

 

Proprietary, not public

The tAgora is fundamentally proprietary. It restricts access to exchange by requiring potential users to qualify as owners, not sharers, of its contents. Generally speaking, then, it’s the antithesis of an open-source marketplace like the oAgora or eAgora. Of course, we must always remember that any agora can and does impose certain restrictions on those who practice exchange within it. The eAgora imposes its passwords, firewalls, and member-based privileges, and the oAgora makes some transactions more public than others. But as a rule the tAgora is far the most doctrinaire of the three marketplaces in requiring ownership as a blanket provision for conducting legalized verbal business.

Not surprisingly, the word proprietary stems ultimately from Latin proprietas (“owner”). It appears initially in English about 1450, with the narrow sense of “possessing worldly goods in excess of a cleric’s needs.” The year 1589 marks the first attestation of the more generic modern meaning, “held in private ownership.” From the beginning, then, and throughout its history, this word amounts to code for sequestering by an individual as distinguished from providing broader access for a community. It speaks to the acquisition of tangible goods, to owning rather than sharing.

Ownership is absolutely central to proper and continuing tAgora function (consider the positive spin engendered by the contemporary advertising euphemism “pre-owned”), and can take a wide variety of forms. Access depends upon legal possession, whether by a single person, a group, or an institution. A unique author creates a unique text, sells it for money and/or rights to a publisher, who then establishes the rules for exchange with those who wish to read it. And this proprietary, monetized, and legally controlled chain of transmission derives inevitably from the categorical difference between OTs and texts.

OTs, on the one hand, circulate virtually among the eligible members of a community. They are enacted and re-enacted by various performers over different times and places in an arena that prizes emergence and morphing, and which depends crucially on a navigable, multidimensional network rather than a collection of static, one-dimensional things. Authorship in the oAgora, as in the eAgora, is thus distributed, not unique.

Texts, on the other hand, circulate as fixed entities, complete in themselves, and are transferred only in strict accordance with the legal regulations of the tAgora marketplace. Books are not emergent, they do not morph (except within the Pathways Project), and they have no pathways. Most fundamentally, they do not involve networks of potentials. Again we return to our default concept of ownership, of proprietas, a characteristic of the tAgora but not the other marketplaces. It’s difficult or impossible to own the truly virtual and interactive, as contemporary skirmishes over digital content illustrate only too painfully and effectively.

 

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 performer(s), OTs, and audience(s) will appear primitive and underdeveloped. Likewise, we’ll fail to understand and credit the plural identity of web 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. After all, until only too 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. Taxidermy trumps the living. And how many times each day do you hear or read about people bemoaning the informality and impermanence of the web? Confronted by the virtual world, whose riches lie in its rule-governed flexibility and ceaseless morphing, they too undergo a kind of medium-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. Both the oAgora and eAgora sponsor code – like the patterned speech of the oral arena or the URLs and HTML of the Internet arena – that depends for its power and efficacy on its performative nature. oCode and eCode actually cause something to happen, and to happen recurrently and idiomatically. 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.



Blues artist BB King in performance

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. The back-and-forth transmission of blues songs between the oAgora and tAgora is one example, the Somali oral contest poetry that has now migrated to the Internet is another. Just more reasons why it will always prove 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 in some quarters feared) virtuality. We need to resist the ideologically driven assumption that limits our imagination, our allegiance, and our citizenship to the textual arena. We need to learn to manage the natural diversity of human communication, to think within the cognitive frames of OT and IT (Internet Technology) as well as textual technology (TT).

 

Five TT word-markets

Let’s sharpen the focus of these general remarks by visiting five tAgoras to investigate who “shops” there (both writers and readers) and how their economies work, at least in broad terms. For this purpose I’ve chosen examples that range all the way from some of the earliest extant inscribed objects through the most modern textual documents, all the way from symbols and numbers scratched on clay counters dating to 8000 BCE through the static, pixel-imaged eFiles we summon to our computer screens today.

One important word of caution and definition before embarking. Here we distinguish carefully between two media experiences: co-creative navigating through an interactive web with interactive sites that belongs to the eAgora, versus tAgora trekking through linear, one-way texts that just happen to be configured in pixels rather than on paper. Just because we encounter something on the Internet doesn’t qualify it for inclusion in the eAgora, in other words. What matters is whether the experience involves rule-governed flexibility and morphing (OT and IT) or static items (TT).

The examples are intentionally highly diverse, engaging different chronological periods, geographical areas, compositional styles, modes of reception, and cultural functions. But within that diversity they also have something vital in common: they all depend upon several key tAgora features – fixity, single authorship, exact replicability, resistance to morphing, free-standing status, proprietary nature, and a lack of pathways. They also share the function of masking contingency, a crucial dynamic in the textual marketplace. The degree to which these features can be implemented using the technology of the time varies, of course, and we must be careful not to impose anachronistic restrictions. Still, within the tAgora the most basic rule is survival of the “fixed-est.”

These five cases, which include numeracy as well as later-arriving literacy, collectively span about 10,000 years. But let’s not lose our perspective. As ancient as Mesopotamian cuneiform, the oldest script, demonstrably is – dated to at least 3200 BCE – it arises fully 346 days into homo sapiens’ species-year, on or about December 10th in calendrical terms. That’s roughly 94% of the way through our history. Archaeologists have placed the invention of numeracy, as opposed to literacy, some 18 species-days earlier, on approximately November 22nd. This set of arresting facts might well surprise us, blinded as we are by the ideology of text.

Think about the implications. If late November is the earliest possible date for the founding of the tAgora, a date before which there cannot possibly have been a textual marketplace of any kind, then the oAgora must have been the only word-marketplace open for cultural business for more than 90% of our existence as a species. When we add the observation that OT remains the most widespread communications technology worldwide on a per capita basis, the status of texts as the default medium in the Wired West – for the moment, at least – seems ever more misleading and in even more serious need of re-examination.

Here, then, are the five tAgoras for your consideration:
  • Symbols of/on clay
  • Greek letters on papyrus
  • Latin and runic letters on sheepskin
  • Typography on paper
  • Static eFiles in pixels

 

Real authors

Authors – in our highly ideological sense of the term as individual creators of original, unique, objectifiable, and usually published works – have proven themselves the movers and shakers of the modern tAgora. Their works exist as freestanding textual objects, made available to consumer-readers in multiple copies via print technology. Ownership and protection are core concerns, and are controlled legally. Internal tAgora rules prevent another person, or another publisher, from conveying the “same” work, which is understood as initiated by a single person and licensed by a single publisher, without arranging some sort of permission or fee.

On the other side of exchange, the audience or readership for such texts can be remarkably diverse, since the textual medium relaxes or eliminates all constraints on their reception. Today an elderly woman from the Netherlands may pick up a book that yesterday found its way to a library bookshelf in Cape Town, South Africa, where it will be read by dozens of people of various ages, genders, ethnicities, and life experiences. To the extent that a given book penetrates diverse tAgora communities, then, it may contribute to remixing culture. But as the non-morphing, pathwayless objects they are (except in the Pathways Project, and then only to a limited extent), books themselves are authored tAgora objects and don’t undergo remixing.

Outside the familiar realm of typography—beforehand, afterward, and alongside—the ideological aim is similar, even if these other textual media affect how that core ideology plays itself out. Clay tablets are certainly fixed, to the degree they can be, but also eminently reusable for other purposes, and the ascription of authorship from the ancient world is of course far less dependable than a twenty-first-century book review. Less meaningful in many cases as well. Still, the fact remains that there were performers and authors whose performances and works were recorded on tangible, exchangeable surfaces. Even if the traditions behind those fixed versions continued to morph, the tablets themselves were meant and deployed as permanent items, as stable points of reference. Ideologically they followed the same overall recipe for the transmission of knowledge, art, and ideas as do printed books: fixity, ownership, and licensed consumption. And all of it was author-ized.

Likewise with manuscripts, whether Greek letters written on papyrus or Latin letters on vellum or sheepskin. Although papyrus did not easily lend itself to repurposing, it was cheap and readily available. Likewise, sheepskin was often scraped clean of earlier writing to accommodate something new in the form of a palimpsest. In their uniqueness, and in the difficulties associated with their (re)production and their limited user-bases, these media certainly diverged from the modern book. But the larger point is that the works written into ancient and medieval manuscripts were for the most part attributed to specific authors. Whatever other factor we cite, they were understood as created by real-life individuals. Other than Written Oral Traditions, which employ oAgora technology in a written medium and amount to singing on the page, these manuscript works belong to the tAgora marketplace. Their non-distributed authorship was as textual as ancient and medieval media could support.

On the other side of the ledger, in the post-typographical world, eFiles have proven only too malleable and reconfigurable. Although they were in almost every case intended by their individual authors for bona fide tAgora trade, their digital make-up has proven dramatically less fixed than analog paper pages. This vulnerability has of course given rise to unanticipated manipulation of all forms of electronic files, and thus to legal wrangling over who can own, change, and retransmit works encoded (and re-coded) with the aid of eAgora tools. Authorship of original works is still understood as real and important, however, and even the mashups and remixing that sometimes ensue are also seen as yielding authored items that require authorial attribution. It’s as if unforeseen ePathways cropped up in what are meant to be tAgora works.

In the end, authorship—as we customarily mean the term—is not at all an archetypal, universal role or function that arose as a necessary condition of verbal art or communication in general. It was not with us from the beginning of homo sapiens' calendar year, but arose only in late November (numeracy) or early December (writing) as an enabling cornerstone of the tAgora. And with the advent of the eAgora it is once again fading into the background, or, more precisely, into the distributed authorship that powers the IT the network. While there are thus no true authors in the oAgora, and while a fair-minded search finds the eAgora to be similarly authorless, the textual marketplace is by necessity categorically different. It depends for its existence and operability upon the concept and the reality of singular, original, fixed-and-static things.

In a word, the tAgora constructed authors, and authors constructed the tAgora. Without that reciprocal relationship this marketplace’s ecology will utterly fail.

 

Five real authors

In the five examples of tAgora activity examined above, we can see authorship emerging through the different types of media from different periods. Consider the dynamics of the various TT arenas. The clay tablets that stem from counting technology encode information that had to be compiled by someone, whether a merchant, government official, record-keeper, historian, or whomever, and it was intended for consumption as an objective, static item. The second and third types worked similarly. Given the delegation of duties typical of the textual marketplace in ancient and medieval times, delegation reigned: professional scribes no doubt wielded the stylus and pen, but the result was nonetheless an authored, owned object prized for its permanence. Whether the encoding involved Greek letters on papyrus or Latin and runic letters on sheepskin, the intent—however imperfect the result from a post-Gutenberg perspective—was to deposit the work into an authored textual vehicle. With the era of paper-based typography the picture becomes clearer because more familiar: books and pages trace their origins to real, fully empowered authors, even when they’re anonymous. And static eFiles are no different in this regard. In every case authors are the builders of the tAgora, and their edifice-making creates a platform on which they can ply their communicative trade.

 

tAgora sharing and re-use

In the textual arena sharing and re-use are governed by applicable legal rules, which restrict free exchange of the tangible, fixed, owned items that real authors produce. The oAgora, which allows and promotes open exchange (subject to cultural assignments by gender, age, or some other parameter), actively depends on network-based sharing for the continued function of its marketplace. Without such sharing it cannot survive the test of time; it can’t serve its ever-changing constituencies via the unique power of its ever-morphing, public-domain technology. And the eAgora likewise depends fundamentally upon navigation and webs of potentials to deliver its function. Once the virtual world moves beyond static files and owned resources to interactivity and pathway dynamics, it works by engaging networks that must always remain under construction and open to individual, emergent navigating. The tAgora, on the other hand, exists by standing firm as a bulwark against unlicensed sharing and re-use.

Ironically, where contemporary tAgora practices have begun to unravel is actually in the opportunities presented by digital representation. New-media technology has shown itself able to outstrip, or at least to circumvent, longstanding rules about copyright and fair use. Faced with this novel instability, publishers struggle to find ways to maintain their grip, to affirm their ownership, but suddenly the old strategies aren’t working anymore.


 

Nor is this a vulnerability exploitable only by IT pros. Digital manipulation tools put unlicensed transfer, remixing, and mashups into the hands of Everysurfer. Issues associated with politics, artistic freedom, and identity have destabilized every level of the textual marketplace, which must discover new ways to keep its business functioning. Models for electronic publication of newspapers, books, and music are constantly being proposed and tested, for example, and some dedicated solutions are successful in specific ways. But whether the old system of item-based exchange can survive—at least in anything like its present form—remains very much in question.

Certainly the tAgora is not about to collapse; one of the major points of the Pathways Project is to illustrate that we live in a world of multiple agoras and that we should aspire to multiple citizenship. But neither can tAgora users ignore the radical shifts in the ways that we now create and transmit knowledge, art, and ideas. In an increasingly wired environment, with open source initiatives and web-driven empowerment, can non-navigable texts command their traditional authority? Can texts sustain the near-monopoly they’ve enjoyed for centuries? Almost certainly not; sooner or later the tAgora has to come to terms with users more and more adept at exploring pathways, and consequently more impatient with pathwayless media. tAgora rules and operating procedures will need to be amended, and in some cases wholly reformulated.

 

Verbatim means no variation

Verbatim literally means “word for word,” and names a highly prized quality in the tAgora. Of course, we need to specify that we’re dealing in tWords here, in the textual currency of this particular marketplace and not in oWords or eWords, since these other kinds of thought-bytes thrive on rule-governed variation. And variation is anathema to those who crave verbatim replication, who deal in repetition rather than recurrence. The text promises capture, preservation, non-slippage—it fosters trekking linearly through its well-mapped territory one word, paragraph, page, chapter, and book after another.

Over the five textual types examined above we saw different versions of the myth of fixity so central to the core philosophy of the tAgora. Tablets and manuscripts aspire to the verbatim accuracy that we can envision once the “thingness” of static media presents itself, and in their time and place such ancient and medieval vehicles maximized available “word-for-word” potential. tWord for tWord, that is. Until recently, variations among tablets or manuscripts were views as errors, as scribes’ real-world failure to accomplish their goal of perfect recording and transmission. Now we’ve learned that scribes, and more modern text-makers as well, can re-compose in writing, sometimes by surfing oPathways.

Post-Gutenberg, we have the wherewithal to control tWords with absolute accuracy, and the contracts negotiated in the textual marketplace demand no less. Likewise with the static eFiles that, while assembled and conveyed electronically, are essentially texts that belong most importantly to the tAgora. As our media have supported closer and closer approach to the ideal of verbatim accuracy and transmission, in other words, our tolerance for unlicensed sharing has diminished. An individual might lend a copy of Robinson Crusoe to a friend, but a publisher will still charge $10 even for an ePub copy. With the demise of variation and the rise of verbatim replication, the tAgora has tightened up its policies for exchange.

 

The contrast to language

Our proverb teaches that “oral tradition works like language, only more so,” and the technology of the eAgora mirrors that of the oAgora. But things are very different in the tAgora. Echoing the proverb, we might observe that “texts don’t work like language, they commodify it.” How can that be, you ask, when the very tWords you’re reading clearly qualify as in-use, dictionary-approved integers for communication?

Most basically, a tWord is not an oWord or an eWord, and a text is not a network for navigation. Texts are spatialized road-maps that define a single route, scripts for readers’ activities that achieve unprecedented economy by reducing the options built into language to a single choice. Simple conversations make the point. We do not converse or interact by exchanging fixed texts; instead, we depend upon the variation inherent in language to construct and react as we proceed. There can be no predictable (because pre-existing) “page 2” of a conversation, which is by nature fluid and rule-governed rather than predetermined. Language itself is always emergent, full of more possibilities than we can imagine, while texts are static and resistant to morphing.

OT takes advantage of the rule-governed pliability of language and adds more source code. On top of the grammar and syntax of everyday speech, performers learn and deploy a specialized mode of expression characterized by idiosyncratic features and idiomatic implications. That’s what we mean by the “only more so” of the proverb. And IT does likewise, using a multiform code that causes things to happen as the surfer, navigating through webs of potentials, co-creates the experience. The oAgora and eAgora function by extending the natural properties of language, not by resisting them.

On the other hand, this very resistance is the secret of effective exchange within the tAgora. Writers and readers operate under the assumption that their journey can be charted and replicated exactly, that they can march in tandem from point A to point Z without detours. Of course, texts can be interpreted in different ways, as contemporary literary and philosophical theory has emphasized, and we should not lose sight of that reality. And textual media are responsible not only for unprecedented kinds of storage and (limited) accessibility, but also for the ways in which we conceive of knowledge, art, and ideas. We cannot overestimate the power of what remains, for now, our default technology. But texts themselves aren’t language.

 

Repetition versus recurrence

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, closed context. The chain of meaning is linear and contained, deriving from direct correspondences from one item to the next.

Recurrence, on the other hand, stems not from linearity and containment but from an idiomatic connection between a sign and its significance. Recurrent phrases don’t draw their meaning from the last instance; they resonate against collective cultural fluency. Thus OT phrases and IT code speak primarily not to their immediate surroundings but to the larger referents to which they’re linked. The situation in the eAgora is homologous. When you click on a link, you’re taken to the linked site not because of the last visit but because of the established idiomatic connection between the sign (the URL) and its significance (the destination website). Surfing through the web, like surfing through an oral tradition, is a recurrent rather than repetitive activity.

Only when the route-system of pathways gets converted into a textual landscape defined by its lack of options can true repetition actually arise. It’s a matter of what activities are supported in each agora. Linearity leads to inflexible sequence, to an ideal of precision that has reigned since early December of our species-year. But linearity also runs the risk of generating the worn-out signifiers we call clichés, which are categorically impossible in OT and IT language. To each marketplace its own: recurrence drives verbal exchange in the oAgora and eAgora, while repetition is a creation of the tAgora.

Imposed copyright

In everyday tAgora life we’re quite comfortable with the phenomenon of copyright. It’s what we expect as the default condition of creating, sharing, and consuming texts of any sort, no matter the medium (books, films, music) or the particular marketplace store where we shop. This expectation is so strong and operates so far below the radar that many of us initially accepted its awkward, agoraphobic application to digital, electronic media—and thereby hangs a still-developing story.

But perhaps we don’t fully grasp how unnatural an imposition copyright is across the other two agoras. It demands the ability to own a tangible thing, rather than share an evolving experience, and owning just isn’t a viable category in the oAgora and eAgora. If the dynamics of sharing knowledge, art, and ideas involves navigation through linked options instead of trekking through texts, there isn’t any “thing” to “own.” Only when instances get epitomized, only when emergent experiences get converted into singular, pathway-less artifacts, can they be possessed and exchanged as copyright-protected objects in the tAgora.

As powerful a force as copyright has become in the text-trading we tend to take as the norm (remixing and mashups notwithstanding), it functions as intended only within the object- and stasis-oriented tAgora.

 

Survival of the “fixed-est”

To put it another way, the ideologically driven textual ecology will naturally select which verbal artifacts are to be understood as viable. Single members of that ecosystem – whether individuals, groups, or corporations – will claim that they “own” a particular work, and the operative legalities will bear out that claim. If it’s recognized as a tangible item, you can indeed own it. And if you own it, you can restrict its use. There exists a brick-and-mortar thing to restrict.

In the textual arena, strength and continuity reside not in ongoingness but in stasis, not in rule-governed flexibility but in invariability. The tAgora is a word-market for asynchronous, disembodied, non-systematic communication. In this marketplace the survival of the fittest means the survival of the “fixed-est.”

There are no pathways in it.

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