• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Sometimes it seems as though writing has been with us forever in one form or another. Pre-Gutenberg media such as the rich manuscript traditions of the ancient and medieval worlds, not to mention even earlier inscribed tablets from the Middle East, are commonly thought to offer evidence of writing systems coeval with the development of civilization as we know it.

But perhaps that’s the point—just how do we “know it”? Our default notion of history is founded on documentation, that is, on textualized knowledge. And what precedes documentable reality? Although archeology can extend our knowledge further—albeit by resorting to interpreting objects—its reach is necessarily limited. The pejorative label “Dark Ages,” for example, regularly denotes pre-textual eras, conventionally understood as periods when writing was unavailable to light the way.

Commitment to a textual definition of origins has blinded us to the technology of oral tradition that long predated writing and texts of any sort and which served as the principal communications medium through which pre-documentary societies were built and maintained. By insisting on history as text-derived, we’ve artificially defined whatever preceded writing out of existence. We have foreshortened our species’ history.

Given our unthinking faith in the ideology of the text, we may be surprised to learn that writing is in fact a very recent invention. It most certainly wasn’t there at the beginning, or even near the beginning for that matter. Just how much of the life-span of homo sapiens is implicated by this media chauvinism? What part of our history as a species is lost to the (indefensible) assertion that communication and culture-building begin only when the tAgora is founded?

Our species-year

As Carl Sagan often remarked when discussing the age of the universe, huge numbers can be very hard to grasp and therefore deceiving. The enormity of astronomical time and space is intrinsically difficult for most of us to imagine, and only made more difficult by the scale of measurement: a million or twenty million or a billion are figures that don’t get much play in our everyday experience.

What’s true of the story of the universe is to some degree true of the tale of media invention. Taking a cue from Sagan, then, let’s consider the advent of writing and related events on a calendrical rather than an absolute numerical scale1. Let’s think of homo sapiens’ entire history as a total of 12 species-months spread over a single species-year, and then plot the various media-events on this more manageable grid.

We start with two preliminaries about the calculations that appear in the table below. First, they’re based on a very conservative estimate of the longevity of homo sapiens: 100,000 years. Many sources cite a much longer period of time. Second, the dates assigned to the media-inventions are taken largely from a major source entitled The World’s Writing Systems; the most modern events, such as the emergence of the Internet, are plotted on the basis of commonly agreed-upon dates2. Lengthening our species’ life-span would only make this demonstration more dramatic (moving all of the charted events later in the calendar year), while absolute date-shifts of even an entire millennium would move the invention only 3-4 species-days one way or the other. In other words, the table presents a conservative and reliable if rough chronological perspective on the origins of various landmark media.


Species-date   Invention
November 22   Numeracy
December 10   Egyptian scripts
December 10   Mesopotamian cuneiform
December 19   Greek alphabet
December 20   Mayan & Mesoamerican scripts
December 24   Chinese printing technology
December 27   Gutenberg’s printing press
December 31, noon   Typewriter
December 31, 23:44   Internet


In other words, the first real writing developed by humankind appears more than 11/12—or about 95%—of the way through our species-year. Another way to put it is that the tAgora has been open for communicative business for only 21 species-days, merely 5% of the time we’ve been creating and maintaining societies. Of course, the Internet and the eAgora it supports have been available only 16 species-minutes, or .003% of homo sapiens’ life-span.

The relative age of the oAgora

But for our purposes the most striking figure is the relative longevity of oral tradition and the oAgora that it makes possible. The ideology of the book notwithstanding, OT far predates any other medium of communication. And it continues today, worldwide, supporting myriad activities and social functions.

Quite clearly, the documentary understanding of cultural knowledge comes up far short of the mark. The eAgora has been with us for a mere 16 species-minutes, and the tAgora for not quite three species-weeks. But there is every reason to affirm that the oAgora was coeval with the emergence of homo sapiens, from the very beginning of our species-year.

Although other technological prostheses may appear more prominent in today’s Western world, OT alone has stood the test of time as a medium we have used continuously since the beginning.

1 For a more detailed exposition, see Foley 2002: 23-25.

2 See Daniels and Bright 1996.