• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

It’s agreeably dark and rainy outside, late morning perhaps, and your cup of tea has been brewing for a good five minutes. There it sits steaming within easy reach as you settle into your favorite spot on the couch, where your tAgora quarry awaits you, chapter 22 at the ready. You soften the light from the table lamp, pull your feet up onto the ottoman, turn off your cell phone. The scene is taking shape just as you’d planned. You’re prepared to relinquish your allegiance to the hustle and bustle of the here-and-now, to enter the world of the book, to focus exclusively on trekking through a text. All’s quiet, peaceful, and entirely as it should be.

A world apart

Sometimes we people of the book forget how removed, detached, and solitary the world of text-using can and (we suppose) has to be. At the anecdotal level, we marvel at friends who read or study with music playing or a television switched on or friends hotly debating a political issue not five feet away. What they’re accomplishing, or so it appears, is next to impossible: magically insulating themselves from their immediate context in order to live apart in a parallel, silent world. They somehow manage to trick themselves into playing by the rules of the applicable game no matter what’s transpiring all around them.

An agora-specific scenario

But beware the unwitting default to textual ideology. Strange as it may seem, the book, the couch, and the cup of tea don’t always provide the scenario of choice for communicative technologies. For one thing, there were tools long before there were texts, we must remember; for another, those tools weren’t (and aren’t) deployed in splendid, comfortable isolation. Far from it. And what’s true of oral traditions is also true of Internet activities: the contemporary media-world allocates diminishing time and space to accommodate the lonely, pathway-less processing demanded by fixed, non-interactive texts. Navigation – whether within the oAgora or the eAgora – is a noisy, multi-dimensional process where participation endemically means multitasking.

Commotion and community in the oAgora

Consider a well-documented example of an OT arena: the competitive, improvised Basque oral poetry called bertsolaritza.

The most common setting for Basque contest poetry is the so-called bertso dinner, with approximately one thousand such events staged each year in various towns and cities throughout the Basque country. Bertso dinners feature two or three improvisers who compete before an audience of 60-100 or more for at least two to three hours, during which time they interact – not only with each other but also with their constituencies – continuously and unpredictably. Having previously solicited information about the local people in attendance, they often work personal comments and references into their presentations as they proceed, while at the same time seeking to outdo one another as they juggle constraints of meter, rhyme, verse form, and musical pattern.

Every poem is both spontaneously composed and rule-governed, and is delivered in an atmosphere characterized by cheering, joking, drinking, and general conviviality. (It may be no accident in this regard that performances of oral poetry in the early medieval and oral-derived poem Beowulf are idiomatically said to embody dream, an Anglo-Saxon word often translated as “noisy merriment.”) Audience members feel free to shout out positive or critical reactions at will, to confer with one another, even to get up and leave for as long as they wish. Nothing is stable or predetermined within or outside the ever-morphing ritual of the event, as the scene changes in unanticipated ways from one moment to the next due to audience participation as well as performers’ initiatives.

Bertso dinners are thus the antithesis of urbanely polite poetry readings where well-behaved audiences sit in rapt silence at the feet of the master poet (who is voicing a fixed text from a book, after all). Bertsolaritza lives and evolves in the hurly-burly of the oAgora, where all concerned are multitasking – responding to a complex array of stimuli as improvisers co-create their poems by navigating through noisy, multidimensional, collectively driven networks.

Commotion and community in the eAgora

Now consider what it means to enter the arena of the Internet, whether in a highly populated urban café or “alone” at home.

The ecology of the café situation is straightforward enough, and mirrors the OT arena in the physical human commerce that surrounds the laptop- or smartphone-user. You’re subject to interruptions by friends, strangers, and coffeeshop staff, not to mention the distractions of shop, sidewalk, and street traffic and the broad spectrum of sounds and sights just beyond your LED screen. But that inventory hardly exhausts the noisiness of the network, or the multiple stimuli that come your way in the eAgora.

To make the larger point, let’s head back to the couch for a “private” Internet session. Maybe you have push notifications set for e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter—or perhaps you’ve arranged for alerts about weather or news or sports events in progress. When these intrusive signals arrive, you have to make a decision: do you check and respond to that e-mail, do you read what your brother in Boston wrote on your wall, do you Tweet back? Does the weather forecast affect your plans for walking your beloved dog Cyrus this evening? Does a late-breaking news development mandate sending the link to a college roommate? Does the baseball score update mean an adjustment in your Fantasy League line-up for the next game? All of these options are present and even insistent; they insert themselves into whatever else you’re doing or trying to do. They demand your attention – if only to notice and then ignore them.

Immersed in a noisy crowd

The community among whom you navigate may be both “real” and virtual (the oAgora usually involves a physically present community as well as a virtual network of options for performance and reception used by others). Or it may be chiefly virtual (the eAgora explored from your couch rather than the café). In either case, you will inevitably be faced with what some would inaccurately label distractions. To put it less parochially, you’ll necessarily be multitasking. Neither of these marketplaces supports the kind of quiet, uninterrupted, individually driven inquiry and one-way routing that the tAgora demands and thrives on. Instead, the oAgora and eAgora thrive on a counter-scenario of multiple options, serial decision-making, emergence, and, yes, noise.

Built-in biases notwithstanding, the cup of tea scenario doesn’t apply to negotiating potential pathways, to managing an ever-evolving, multidimensional task. Networks are inherently noisy and full of options and interactively, and they involve communities in acts of co-creation.

Whether the technology in question is OT or IT (Internet Technology), no navigator is an island.