• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

OT and IT don’t provide us with things;
instead, they offer us pathways.

Let’s start with Corey Doctorow’s neat, succinct contrast between old and new media, taken from a talk on digital rights management he gave to Microsoft’s Research Group as early as June 17, 2004: “New media don’t succeed because they’re like the old media, only better: they succeed because they’re worse than the old media at the stuff the old media are good at, and better at the stuff the old media are bad at.”

In other words, success derives from doing what each medium is meant to support. It’s not about competing media; it’s about using the right tool for the job. As Doctorow goes on to explain how conventional paper books and eBooks contrast in their goals and delivery systems, it’s hard or impossible to disagree with his “different agendas” dichotomy.

Different tools for different jobs. Different tools for different agoras.

Disjunction between media

In fact, we can extend his argument a step further by noting that the once-new medium of page and book originally succeeded for precisely the same reason: disjunction between media. The tAgora innovation offered a better way to accomplish certain tasks (emphatically not all tasks) than did oAgora strategies. Separate vehicles, separate agendas—at least in the most straightforward cases.

And how does that separate-but-equal arrangement work? Well, the page was (and remains) unarguably “worse” than oral tradition for transacting oAgora business, but far “better” at accomplishing the program of the tAgora. As emphasized and illustrated throughout the Pathways Project, we won’t ever be able to compress the living reality of OT into even the most elaborately configured book. They’re simply different animals—or rather one is a living animal and the other a taxidermist’s museum-ready reduction of the now-dead beast.

And what does the page have to offer? What can it do for us that OT can’t manage? History, partnered by the ideology of the text, teaches that the cognitive prosthesis of texts can freeze (or appear to freeze) performances into conveniently spatialized items that can then be copied, stored, transported, and consulted at leisure. Simply put, the book converts online OT surfers into offline text-consumers. So not only does Doctorow’s theorem apply to the book versus IT (Internet Technology) disjunction, then; it also accurately characterizes the role-segregation of OT versus the book.

OT and IT versus the book

On the surface it may seem as simple as two negatives yielding a positive match—OT and IT resembling one another because of their contrast to the book. In terms of core dynamics, however, the fundamental similarity between OT and IT (and their difference from the book) stems from their shared, trademark activity of navigating pathways.

As we’ve observed, the oAgora and eAgora actually have a lot in common, all superficial appearances to the contrary. Both technologies thrive on morphing, on variation within limits, on open sharing among a broad-based community; and they both lack the concept of the freestanding, complete-in-itself item that’s at the very heart of the book-and-page medium. OT and IT don’t provide us with things; instead, they offer us a system of pathways.

Books are offline, OT and IT are online

Or, to reframe the relationship in a version of Doctorow’s helpful theorem, OT and IT are worse at the stuff books are good at, and better at the stuff books are bad at. Furthermore, they succeed because they’re good at the same stuff—namely, promoting interactive, alternative experiences via a network of options. It’s in this sense that books are offline, while both OT and IT are online.

Media recursiveness

On the face of it, then, we’re confronted with a rather striking phenomenon of media recursiveness. OT contrasts diametrically with the book, which in turn contrasts with IT—making OT and IT similar to each other and distinct from texts. Could it be that with the Internet we’re returning to a way of representing and communicating more fundamental that the default medium of the book and page? Could it be that we’re casting off what some philosophers have called “logocentrism” (a fixation on the myth of objectivity) and exposing the ideology that supports the tAgora? Could we be returning to the kind of medium that mirrors the contingent nature of reality even as it mimes the way we think?

After so many centuries of offline activity, are we now getting back online?