• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

A tricky concept, accuracy. And very often a code-word summoned to praise tAgora activities while denigrating transactions in the oAgora and eAgora. We’re told that oral traditions can’t preserve history accurately, for example, or that the web is far too subject to change or multiplicity to be a really dependable medium. We’re asked to subscribe to (literally, to “underwrite”) the credo that text is the only possible vehicle for safely and faithfully conveying the immutable data we need to run our cultures. Beware the oral and the virtual; fidelity lies solely in brick-and-mortar. Or so goes the widespread and enduring myth of Textual Accuracy.

Five propositions

To refute this heavily biased and crippling belief, and to restore an appreciation of each agora on its own terms, I offer five propositions designed to recall the civic responsibility of achieving and maintaining citizenship in multiple agoras. Each of these propositions emphasizes the importance of understanding diversity among media, technologies, and verbal marketplaces. As a group they are intended to approach the common problem of “tAgora default”—and the agoraphobia it engenders—from different perspectives. They’re all getting at the same inconvenient truth, in other words.

I. Accuracy is as accuracy does. This proverbial-sounding observation is a “literal” reaffirmation of communicative democracy. To paraphrase, only if our ideal of fidelity to truth meets the requirements of the particular agora in which we find ourselves can it have any meaning. Otherwise, it remains a foreign and unintelligible term (even if we suppose ourselves fluent, we’re simply imposing an irrelevant and distorting frame of reference).

II. Accuracy is in the eye of the beholder. This proposition emphasizes the myopia induced by parochial, ideologically driven tAgora prejudice. In conceiving of the very idea of “being accurate,” we unconsciously attune the concept solely to transactions that take place within the tAgora, subordinating everything to the rule and model of text. But tAgora accuracy doesn’t fit the oAgora or eAgora.

III. Accuracy is usually, and wrongly, understood as [textual] accuracy. Though we don’t pause to consider the distortion, by accuracy we conventionally mean accuracy as applied to texts, as literal truth, as indisputable fact. As a post-Gutenberg culture, as people of the book, we always and everywhere include the bracketed adjective as an indispensable part of the definition, subscribing ideologically to [textual] accuracy.

IV. Accuracy is “marked” by its covert reference to textuality and the tAgora. Accuracy already means tAccuracy. The proof of this hidden agenda lies in the preordained focus of the term. Consider how parochially we use the word: in order to describe or even imagine other kinds of accuracy, we have to undo the presumption, remove the default. We have to add qualifiers to the monolithic concept in order to deflect its inherent thrust. To designate anything else we need an intervention – as in oAgora accuracy, or eAgora accuracy. We might compare the situation to the coining of “oral literature” as a term designed to overcome the inherent tAgora bias of “literature,” marked for letters and texts. It’s only too easy to see where the cultural conventions lie, and how hard we have to labor to get beyond them.

V. At root, accuracy simply means “taking care of.” It may come as a surprise, but there is nothing fundamental in the term itself that mandates textual definition. The English word derives from Latin accuratus, with the meaning taken care of, exact. And who’s to say that we can’t take care of our verbal business with great precision in the oAgora and eAgora as well – as long as we construe accuracy within their own frames of reference? True enough, sentencing either OT or IT (Internet Technology) to unnatural confinement in the tAgora causes nothing but problems, inducing agoraphobia at every turn. Who can aspire to be accurate when speaking in an unintelligble foreign tongue?

But we can do better than that. Let’s attempt to understand accuracy within the individual agora, according to the applicable rules.

Rethinking accuracy

One of the primary tenets of the Pathways Project is that experience, perception, and communication are always and everywhere filtered by the media and technologies we use. It’s not a question of whether this self-evident proposition is true, but simply how it works out in the case of each medium and technology.

But cognitive habits are hard to break, or even consciously recognize. We are so fluent in tAgora communication that we don’t stop to assess its influence on how we interrelate and transfer knowledge, art, and ideas; without further thought, we take textuality and its arena as the common denominator, the standard, the bedrock. Of course, that working assumption is patently wrong: to map living, multidimensional experience onto a printed page raises as many problems as it putatively solves. Most museums only remember reality. They can’t ever contain it.

Fundamentally, there is no such thing as a one-for-one, mimetic portrayal of reality in any medium, never mind transferral of that experience to another person. Reality can only be sampled, hinted at, and then always in fragmented and reduced form. The overpowering ideology of text – ultimately a deal with the devil – has bewitched us into accepting the tAgora credo that texts can capture and contain reality, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is never a matter of freezing knowledge, art, and ideas for later consumption. It is always a matter of choosing which medium or technology we wish to use and fully appreciating its built-in liabilities as well as its endemic advantages. And there are always both kinds of features to consider.

In regard to media, then, there are no perfect and complete – no universally accurate – representations. There is only a selection of lenses, each of which offers a particular kind of accuracy, an idiosyncratic take on reality. From this principle it follows that a lack of [textual] accuracy in the oAgora or eAgora should be not necessarily be interpreted as an error or shortcoming, but, at least potentially, as its own, agora-specific brand of accuracy.

What is oAccuracy?

If you’re looking for absolute stasis – cold, hard fact that refuses to adjust as the environment around it morphs – don’t bother searching the oAgora. Such immutable, inflexible items are in short supply. And why? Because they serve no useful purpose in a constantly morphing agora. To put it most plainly, all they can accomplish is to inhibit the natural dynamics of navigating through networks of potentials. Accuracy in this marketplace doesn’t have anything to do with the brittleness of verbatim repetition. oAccuracy means fidelity to the system, not the thing.

When a South Slavic bajalica, or conjurer, diagnoses her patient’s malady and adjusts her healing charm to fit the disease, she is oAccurate. When an African society responds to the advent of a new king by systematically “forgetting” one person in the royal lineage, thus keeping the official cultural history of kingship at the authoritative seven individuals, they are cultivating oAccuracy. When Basque bertsolaris fashion never-before-uttered verses that respond competitively to their opponents’ verses and will never be uttered again, everyone involved is behaving oAccurately. When a Rajasthani epic bard narrates what we textualists would consider only a “part” of the overall story-cycle, leaving the whole implied (but in the oAgora very much present to the communicative act for both bard and audience), he is practicing oAccuracy.

Three oPrinciples

In short, then, we can affirm three counterintuitive principles that govern accuracy in the oAgora. First, the operative dynamic is not stasis – real or imagined – but rather malleability and rule-governed variation. Patterned variation (as opposed to willy-nilly change) is the name of the game. Second, to be oAccurate is to navigate through networks of potentials, where each choice generates a host of opportunities and no two itineraries are identical. Dead ends – textual culminations – are death to oAgora transactions. Third, and perhaps hardest to grasp for those pledged to textual ideology, in the oAgora accuracy is the opposite of singularity. Not to morph, not to adjust to an everchanging environment, is necessarily to become oInaccurate, oImprecise.

What is eAccuracy?

Reference “books” – static files of pixel-pages – are certainly common enough on the web, and sometimes more conveniently accessed on a website than in their home marketplace, the tAgora. Indeed, an argument could be made that such items are best understood as located in what amounts to a recently constructed electronic wing of the tAgora marketplace.

But true eAgora systems are a breed apart. If you’re choosing your route, navigating pathways interactively, and exploring via potentials rather than predetermined sequences, then you will search in vain for singular, text-defined accuracy. Given our unexamined bias in favor of tAgora thinking and communication, you may well be disappointed at the nonstop morphing, the refusal of the system to hold still – never mind your own uncertainty about the “best” or “prescribed” way to proceed. You may well experience a severe case of agoraphobia and find yourself categorically dismissive of the web-based, interactive medium itself, criticizing it for not performing textually. You may conclude that you just can’t depend on the web.

But things aren’t that simple. Once again it’s a matter of what activities are appropriate to and licensed by the particular agora in question. If at some point your internet expedition leads to the kind of tAgora accuracy we’re taught to admire and count on, then you’ve stalled and your eExploration is at an end. Why? Because the networked medium that serves by presenting alternatives, by fostering connections, by offering the user participation within a rule-governed system, has ceased any useful function. If your next choice is your last choice, in other words, the systemic power of linked possibilities has failed. Living potential has collapsed to a museum exhibit. A vivid, continuous present has yielded to a flattened, frozen past. You might as well go read a book.

eAccuracy, on the other hand, promises its own kind of fidelity, and for that reason must be assessed on its own terms. Suppose you’re in search of something more than the conversion factor between liters and quarts. Let’s say you’re hoping to learn more about how Buddhism flourished or struggled under various political regimes, and further that you want to take into account different opinions and evolving situations. eAccuracy means plotting a course through dozens of interactive web assets, some of them mutually contradictory, and entertaining multiple perspectives. And don’t forget: even the sites and links you follow can and will change over time – as they must to reflect evolving realities. Charting your own path through continuously updated medical websites in pursuit of a deeper awareness of species of multiple sclerosis is to surf eAccurately (even if, as is likely, none of the sites can ever properly aspire to singular authority). Listening to multiple versions of an Irish folksong posted by many different fieldworkers over many regions and years – and programmatically denying priority to any single one – will go a long way toward providing a facsimile, eAccurate sense of the song’s many-sided, irreducible character. eAccuracy is like a video continuously being shot and (re-)edited rather than a photograph filed in a shoebox.

Three ePrinciples

As in the case of the oAgora, we can affirm three counterintuitive principles that govern accuracy in the eAgora. First, to be eAccurate means to accept and engage malleability and rule-governed variation. Don’t expect either stasis or willy-nilly modulation, both of which are signals that you’re operating outside the network. Second, concentrate on navigation, with full awareness that you’re in charge – and no hesitation or apology is needed. Finally, realize that singularity, epitome, and ultimate authority are foreign values that only compromise eAccuracy.

Accuracy depends on the agora

Data or experience? Item-centric or system-driven? One-way street or route network? No matter how strong our ideological presumptions and cognitive habits may be, the answer is not to choose one alternative or the other. The answer is to choose the alternative that suits the marketplace. No notion of accuracy is universal, and commitment to an impossible universality can engender only flawed perspectives and flawed communication.

To be accurate – to “take care of” – is clearly an agora-dependent activity. And in the oAgora and eAgora accuracy means fidelity not to things but to systems.