• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Misgivings over “soft” media

It’s a stubborn, recurrent, and seemingly unanswerable question. How can oral traditions, which live to morph and morph to live, ever provide suitable, sustainable support for the unimaginably rich and complex embeddedness we know as “culture”?

You know the objection: OTs just involve too much variation and not enough stability over time, too many nagging loose ends in an ever-fraying fabric. And of course there’s the more recent version of what amounts to the very same complaint – namely the charge that the Internet just isn’t stable or dependable enough to trust for really important cultural purposes. Again the specter rises: disabling fears associated with variation, instability, and loose ends. How do we cope if the eAgora goes down? What do we do if the electronic marketplace just isn’t available, either temporarily or, perish the thought, permanently? Won’t culture as we know it and as we image it simply vanish?

In both cases the root of the perceived problem is flux. We agonize over the intangible and putatively impermanent nature of these “soft” technologies, a species of agoraphobia that never fails to enervate well-meaning, thing-centric denizens of the textual universe. From this parochial perspective, OT and IT (Internet Technology) seem fundamentally evanescent, insubstantial; they threaten to disappear any moment, and then where would we find ourselves?

We imagine losing access to the OT’s untextualized tradition or IT’s remotely based cloud, and along with them our ability to manage daily activities as well as long-term plans, to discharge our individual and collective responsibilities alike. The powerful illusions of object and stasis convince us that transacting business in either the oAgora or the eAgora means being cast adrift on a sea of uncertainty, desperately seeking the safe harbor of brick-and-mortar reality that only the tAgora can provide.

Texts in hand and always at the ready, we scratch our heads and wonder how OT- and IT-enabled cultures ever survived or ever will survive. We examine the core dynamics of the oAgora and eAgora and ask ourselves a chilling question: “How can such unfixed, ever-morphing systems of pathways possibly support the depth, complexity, and manysidedness of culture?” We’re ideologically committed to the belief that culture requires a page, a book, a library, something substantial that we can count on.

Escaping ideology

But wait just a moment. There’s a hidden snare lurking in that shopworn formulation – the rhetorical equivalent of asking whether you’re still cheating on your wife. Instead of falling victim to the built-in trap, let’s try posing a counter-question: “How could any technology except a system-based technology ever aspire to meaningful, continuous cultural support?” And here’s another: “If textuality and its mythology of fact really were the holy grail we long for, why would we ever need more than a single book on any subject?” And yet a third: “Is there any human endeavor – in any area whatsoever – that doesn’t demand serial adjustment and continuous re-thinking and re-invention over time and across different contexts?” Aren’t cultures more like the mercurial Proteus than even the most splendid and “timeless” ancient monument?

To get beyond the ideological impasse imposed by unexamined text-religion requires two steps. To start, we’ll have to be willing to entertain the possibility and the value of pursuing citizenship in multiple agoras; then we’ll need to qualify for visas that allow us to work in the oAgora and eAgora without succumbing to culture shock.

That is, we’ll have to step outside the tAgora (reset its textual defaults) and consider – without bias – just how cultural business is transacted in each marketplace, according to the rules of each venue. Then we’ll need to learn how to manage our activities in the two new environments. It won’t do any good to lament the lack of tAgora-style “certainty” in the oral and electronic marketplaces, or the lack of fixed, paper pages in OT or IT. We need to apply what amounts to the Golden Rule of Comparative Media: ask what each medium does best, and accept the reality that other media may well support other functions more faithfully.

The cosmopolitan citizen

The Pathways Project is devoted to just such a multiple, cosmopolitan view of human communication and of the technologies we have developed as cognitive tools for carrying out our various cultural activities. Toward that end the Project itself – like the homologous technologies of OT and IT – mimes the way we think. In other words, it depends not upon a linear inventory of fixed, invariable items but rather upon the systemic potential of a linked, morphing network of nodes that can be navigated in innumerable ways. It explores the advantages of systems over things.

The navigability of the Pathways Project network is described in the node Getting Started. The reader/surfer can pursue multiple citizenship in four ways:

  • by consulting the three extensive nodes on principal media types (oAgora, tAgora, and eAgora),
  • by following predesignated routes called linkmaps,
  • by clicking on branches within nodes in whatever fashion one sees fit, or
  • by reading “straight through” the contents of the morphing book or wiki according to the alphabetized list of node-titles.

Any and all of these navigation methods will open up an understanding of comparisons and contrasts among technologies of communication, and especially of the OT-IT homology.

Network versus text

Consider a few disarming observations, all of which lead to a simple conclusion – namely, that cultures are better understood through, and represented by, networks rather than texts:

1. Text and network are antonyms.
Texts derive their actual and perceived value from resisting change. They can be forced to morph on a limited basis, as in the book component of the Pathways Project, but they aren’t “wired” to do so. Unless we redefine cultural reality as a still photograph of one moment in time and space as experienced by a single observer from a unique perspective, texts will always remain partial solutions. They will always do their explaining via analytical fragmentation rather than holistic embodiment. So what’s the upshot? Well, you’ll need an ever-accumulating collection of texts – scores of them now and scores more in the future – to create even a staccato approximation of what a network can do. And no matter how many you have, still photographs are now and forever still photographs. Texts offer only an arithmetic of frozen, one-dimensional culture, whereas networks provide a calculus for change.

2. oNetworks and eNetworks, but no tNetworks.
Networks can exist only where there is rule-governed variability. A one-way street cannot qualify as a network; only a route-system, with built-in support for multiple modes of navigation, constitutes a network. For that reason the oAgora and eAgora support web-thinking and linked exploration. Texts can’t do that.

3. In other words, oPathways and ePathways, but no tPathways.
Since pathways are provided by networks, tPathways are by definition impossible.

4. Cultures, unlike texts, “remain in play.”
Here is the most important point, and the most important response to misgivings about “soft” technologies and questions about their ability to support ever-morphing cultures. Simply put, cultures don’t hold still: they are morphing now, even as you’re reading and navigating the Pathways Project, even as you go about your mundane daily tasks, even as you withdraw to splendid isolation in your cabin in the woods, apparently far removed from the hurly-burly of onrushing civilization.

And because cultures are emergent – changing right now and then changing again and again without ceasing – they are constantly in the process of becoming something else. You can no more stop that (life-giving and life-enabling) process than you can freeze language forever at an arbitrary date, time, and place as an exchange limited to a single ideal individual and a single interlocutor. Cultural codification, like linguistic codification, is a temporary, workable, mythic approximation at the very best, and in the long run simply an inevitable distortion. Cultures thrive not by reaching some evolutionary fixed point but by remaining forever in play.

The last word isn’t the last word

In other words, cultures are networks, and are therefore best represented and best supported by networks. To the extent that texts capture a well-focused photograph of a moving process, they can be useful in the overall project of explaining singular moments along an ever-evolving story-line, isolated scenes from an ever-emerging narrative. Such quanta can help us imagine the flow of culture, but they can’t really embody it, either statically or dynamically. Even the best editing involves deletions and can produce jump-cuts.

In the end, the relationship of culture and medium can be expressed as a simple theorem: only rule-governed morphing can effectively mirror and support rule-governed morphing. To chronicle and experience culture, as opposed to sampling it through items that become obsolete as soon as they’re fixed, the oAgora and eAgora are the systems of choice.

It comes to this: tAgora’s powerful mythology notwithstanding, you can’t textualize culture.