• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Remember your grandmother’s desk?

It wasn’t so long ago that oral tradition was understood as a static inheritance, something like your grandmother’s desk that traversed the generations relatively inert until it reached you. Your task was then to take your part in the preservation process: to maintain the beloved inheritance in the best shape possible for handing on to the next generation. “Tradition” in this sense was understood as a monolith, a static item whose value derived from its (perceived) immutability, its capacity for resisting change, its essential thing-ness.

Although this notion comfortably fits our cultural fantasy of absolute objectivity and stasis, applying it to oral tradition amounts to “bookifying” a bookless phenomenon. After all, OT depends for its very existence and continued viability not on fossilization but on the restless dynamic of rule-governed change. That is, OT continuity and sustainability stem not from fixation but from its polar opposite: innovation within a system available in the public domain. In this sense tradition means, first and foremost, a generative mix of pliability and pattern. It means a process rather than a product, sharing rather than owning. It means a living and evolving entity rather than your grandmother’s desk – however precious and irreplaceable that family-honored heirloom might be.

To illustrate this reality of continuity-via-innovation, and to provide another perspective on the OT-IT congruency that is the fundamental subject of the Pathways Project in general, let me propose an IT-to-OT “translation.” In the present node I’ll be attempting to convert an eAgora charter document – the Open Source Definition of software (OSD) – into the cognate language of the oAgora. In what follows we’ll be considering how the ten guidelines of the OSD also speak directly and importantly to the equally Open Source phenomenon of oral tradition.

Hopefully, this translation will help shed light on all three agoras and their importance for understanding the dynamic correspondences among media-technologies.

Two preliminaries

Register = Source code

At the basis of this IT-to-OT translation lies a fundamental parallel between IT source code and OT register, or way of speaking. Just as the specialized language of the oAgora is a particular “way of speaking” that supports particular expressive tasks, so software, the specialized language of the eAgora, amounts to a particular “way of programming” that supports specific cyber-tasks. In both cases the register/source code serves as the dedicated instrument or vehicle for building myriad possible products. Both vehicles amount to plastic and yet patterned media used by the performer/programmer to create and to innovate. In both cases we are dealing with processes that actively profit from being open, collective, and amenable to rule-governed change. Registers and source code are alike in being productively protean.

Translating the OSD for OT

The Introduction to the OSD cautions that “Open source doesn’t just mean access to the source code.” In OT terms, we could translate as follows: it isn’t enough simply to expose audiences and other performers to the particular way of speaking, or register, that performers and audiences use to negotiate the performance. Such access is the crucial starting-point, of course, but only that. Other provisions must follow if OT is truly to be regarded as open source. We can derive those provisions by analogy to the ten OSD stipulations, as follows.

1. Free redistribution

The OSD mandates that a software license must not restrict any party from transferring software to any other party, and must not involve a royalty or other fee. The rationale explains that this requirement “eliminate[s] the temptation to throw away many long-term gains in order to make a few short-term dollars,” and that failure to redistribute freely will generate “lots of pressure for cooperators to defect.” The logic is plain – conventional IT vending segregates rather than aggregates; it disassociates contributors within the collective software project. It sets innovators competitively against one another and constrains joint creativity by diminishing the energy of the larger group and foreclosing on its time for development. And all for the sake of a short-term result that can never achieve the long-term gain and stability that open source innovation fosters.

Correspondingly, and here our translation begins, OT depends for its viability on free distribution among its creative constituency (subject to the constraints of individual cultural patterns, of course). If there are commercial or other barriers erected to impede the flow and continuity of the innovative process, then the “T” effectively disappears from “OT”: it may be oral, but the continuity and ongoingness of tradition will fade away, potentially to disappear.

Examples of the crucial importance of free distribution abound. Xhosa and Zulu praise-poets from South Africa must be able to draw on the living resource of their tradition as they construct individually tailored “résumés” for tribal chiefs. Kaqchikel-speaking storytellers from Guatemala must be able to pass their tales along a continuous human chain that stretches from the distant past through the present and into the future. Mongolian epic singers must be able to narrate the particular cycle-chapter they happen to be performing on this occasion, and at the same time to imply other characters, stories, and events from the hugely larger Gesar and Janggar oral epic repositories.

Without this kind of free distribution – from one performer to the next, between performers and audiences, and over centuries and myriad different locales – OT becomes (at best) a static item, an artifact. Singular and self-contained, perhaps, but an evolutionary dead-end. What once were pathways become cul-de-sacs.

2. Source code

The OSD calls for all programs to be distributed “in source code as well as compiled form” in order to facilitate modification, to empower users to innovate as they wish and need to do (and to foster subsequent acts of innovation by others).

Compare the distribution of OT via the face-to-face, emergent situation of actual performance (that is, via source code) versus its transmission as a reduced, fossilized record in a published anthology or other paper edition (the compiled form). As the static, spatialized texts with which we’re so familiar and comfortable, paper editions present a digestible tAgora trace of OT. Ready to go and ready to use, this trace unquestionably “works,” at least according to the built-in expectations associated with our default agora. But can the compiled form of OT – the book – foster exchange, modification, and innovation among its users? Is it truly open?

Along with its superficial convenience, the (unrealistically) tidy textual edition reveals little or none of its source code: nothing of the living, morphing phenomenon as we know it in the oAgora. We entirely miss the many levels of sound and intonation, rhythm, gesture, vocal and instrumental music, visual signals, audience interaction, and other codes that make up the OT register. From the point of view of OT participants seeking to use and build on the living reality of performance, and here I include both other potential performers and all potential audience members, the way is blocked by their lack of access to the source code. Fluency in the compositional idiom – the ability to make and remake – is an impossible achievement if all we can experience is the superficial, radically reduced reflection we find in the textual edition.

eEditions, whose goal is the resynchronizing of the oral performance by electronically linking audio or video, transcription, translation, and contextual materials within an interactive whole, can’t ever substitute for actually “being there” as a member of the original audience. But at least they can offer access to some of the source code, representing the performance not as a finite series of static pages (the compiled form) but as the multidimensional, emergent, participant-driven phenomenon it once was and, to a degree, still can be.

3. Derived works

According to the OSD, a software license “must allow modifications and derived works, and must allow them to be distributed under the same terms as the license of the original software.” That is, the IT license that accompanies the program must explicitly permit retooling by users to foster values central to the open source movement: “independent peer review and rapid evolutionary selection.”

Although the OT license in question is implicit rather than explicit (though no less binding because it hasn’t been formalized in tAgora terms), oral tradition certainly follows this same model for “derived works.” The key feature here is to avoid any and all barriers to recomposition and reperformance, to insure that transmission through evolution doesn’t reach a dead-end, and thus to guarantee as far as possible that multiple generations of OTs will be born, thrive, and engender subsequent generations.

By analogy to the OSD, every OT performance amounts to one individual’s independent peer review of previous performances. Likewise, every performance is peer-reviewed by each of the audience members—sometimes with not-so-subtle results. Anything less than completely unfettered evaluation and remaking, followed by free distribution of the “derivative” performance on the same terms as its predecessors, will hinder “rapid evolution” in the oAgora. In the cases of both OT and IT, we should add, evolution will not be limited to a single direction or outcome but will organically proceed in many different directions with correspondingly diverse outcomes. Multiple navigable pathways inherently mean multiple realizations. While natural selection may accord special prominence to a particular performer or story, for example, the overall, long-term ecology of OT will be healthiest when it’s most diverse and most open to rule-governed morphing.

4. Integrity of the author’s source code

Some features of this fourth guideline pertain only to IT, with software authors and users being required to identify themselves and acknowledge responsibility and rights. But one regulation applies importantly to OT: “the license must explicitly permit distribution of software built from modified source code.”

Understanding as above that the OT “license” is implicit in the social act of performance and transmission, this regulation would allow for modified versions of the register – both dialectal (regional) and idiolectal (single-person) – to serve as the basis of future performances. Again the emphasis is on meshing individually driven innovation with collective tradition.

To illustrate, consider the case of an oral epic singer from a particular geographical area who learns most of his or her “source code” from the other performers in that region, and perhaps especially from a close relative. Every performance that such a singer gives will reflect the regional form of the OT prevalent in that area (the dialect), as well as the individual language of his or her relative (the idiolect). Just as surely as a child raised in south Boston in the U.S. state of Massachusetts will speak a certain dialect of English, performers will use an OT source code that is in some respects typical of their home region. And just as surely as that same child will also reflect the pronunciation and vocabulary used by immediate family and peers (who may have lived elsewhere), performers will echo the individualized compositional register of the particular performers who taught them.

Extrapolate out a few generations of OT performers, and you can see that everyone will soon be working with a “modified source code” of one type or another. Broad similarities will exist alongside specific differences. Until the central, federalized, tAgora regulation made possible by print and static recordings arises, OT will evolve in many different directions, creating a scenario that once again fosters innovation by evolution. The truth is that Proteus never really stops morphing until you take drastic measures to try to hold him still. And even then what appears to be absolute stasis can turn out to be a tAgora illusion.

A mid-translation summary

Let’s take a moment to sum up what we’ve uncovered so far. Up to this point we’ve noticed that the specialized, dedicated languages of OT and IT resemble one another in fundamental ways – that the source code that supports Internet innovation corresponds to the register that supports the process of (re-)composition in oral tradition. The open-source concept applies, in other words, to OT’s “way of speaking” as well as to IT’s “way of programming.” This is one more way in which the three agoras align themselves: the oAgora and eAgora dovetail, while the tAgora stands apart.

5. No discrimination against persons or groups

The OSD mandates that “the maximum diversity of persons and groups should be equally eligible to contribute to open sources.” Here we glimpse a bedrock correspondence between OT and IT, one that stems from their shared core dynamic of navigating public-domain pathways. Unlike the tAgora, the two bookless media actually nurture creativity through sharing rather than through ownership. Because they don’t operate by fixing and copyrighting, they encourage broad, democratic participation, everything else being equal. They draw from the collective strength of their users, rather than sequester a fossilized product behind the locked and bolted door of proprietary, legalized vendorship.

Of course, certain varieties of oral tradition may seem to discriminate against some potential user/performers, whether by gender, age, ethnic affiliation, or some other index. Viewed in context, however, this apparent exception merely proves the “no discrimination” rule. If a particular Navajo group mandates tribal membership or a specific time of year as a prerequisite for performance of a story, they are still licensing all eligible members to deploy the tale-telling register, to use the source code in a timely manner. If the South Slavic village tradition of magical charms requires that “conjurers” (bajalice) be female and pre-pubertal when they learn the spells and post-menopausal when they practice them, this restriction simply identifies the broad-based membership among whom there can be no discrimination (though of course there may be individual competition or further focusing via inheritance patterns).

This kind of limitation on eligibility is no categorical departure from the OSD definition, anymore than an analogous type of focusing would amount to discrimination in the IT sphere. Depending on its range of usefulness and its availability, a piece of software will always select a user-group much smaller and more focused than the entire eAgora population as the specific membership among whom there can be no discrimination.

The rule of thumb here – as in most IT and OT matters – is to respect the variety of the different situations and avoid committing blindly to a false (text-reflective) uniformity. Some open source software will involve smaller groups, some larger. Medical records or tax preparation software will no doubt attract more potential sharers than high energy physics or foreign language instruction programs. Likewise, the oral contest poetry of the Basques may well involve a much wider and more diverse group of participants than the Navajo and South Slavic traditions mentioned above, simply because it is more public and less restrictive in its rules about performers and performance. Perhaps most significantly, oral stories pass freely across national and even linguistic barriers via bilingual speakers – for example, bilingual epic singers who were preliterate in both Albanian and South Slavic were able to fluently manage the oral epic registers of both languages and traditions. THey were fluent in both codes.

The key is that within the relevant, culturally defined group there is a free, unrestricted flow of rule-governed creativity. People and groups cooperate and share.

6. No discrimination against fields of endeavor

Any license for open source software “must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor.” The OSD argues that the same programming instrument should theoretically be as usable in business as in genetic research, for example.

Correspondingly, OT thrives precisely by being transferable to multiple performance situations and, by being deployable, within culturally approved rules, for many different purposes by users involved in different “fields of endeavor.”

For one thing, the performance arena – the recurrent, essentially virtual venue for the performance of any given OT activity – takes myriad different actual forms that vary over time and place. Different performers and audiences participate at various times and places, all with roughly congruent assumptions about what’s transpiring in the arena. When they attend – whoever they are and wherever and whenever they participate in the particular event – they do so by speaking and hearing fluently within the register, just as IT adapters of open source software work fluently within a shared source code. In broad perspective the goal is never a static, book-like item, but movement within an ongoing, rule-governed process.

Beyond the innumerable unique instances of any generalized performance arena lies another level of adaptability. An OT genre – complete with its register, implications, and idiomatic force – may migrate to a starkly new use, as when the source code of South Slavic oral epic was pressed into service to chronicle the exploits of Tito and the Yugoslav resistance fighters during World War II. These “partisan songs,” as they’re known, invoke the epic apparatus current in oral tradition from at least the fourteenth century in order to portray the heroism of twentieth-century guerilla warriors. Or consider the South African praise-poets who have adapted their résumé-building oral poetry, originally composed to “publish” the reputations of tribal chieftains in the non-textual medium, in order to celebrate or criticize contemporary political figures. This kind of evolutionary adaptation is another way in which OT avoids discrimination against particular fields of endeavor.

7. Distribution of license

The OSD stipulates that “the rights attached to the program must apply to all to whom the program is redistributed without the need for execution of an additional license by those parties.”

In oAgora language, the corresponding regulation would call for the implied license attached to the register (OT source code) to extend automatically to all who seek to employ that register in performance or any other venue. In both IT and OT this requirement really amounts to attaching a smaller codicil to a more globally oriented will. Here’s the comparison. Barring discrimination against members of IT groups or fields of endeavor means extension of the original license to all subsequent users of the designated software and its source code. Barring discrimination against members of OT constituencies and against extension to new fields also means that the license to perform – and to serve as a fluent audience – cannot be required anew in each case (for each individual or performance). In an important sense, the implied license for OT is a fundamental aspect of the overall speech-act: every performance assumes (and operates under) its open-ended governance.

8. License must not be specific to a product

Correspondingly, the OSD mandates that “the rights attached to the program must not depend on the program’s being part of a particular software distribution.” In other words, each single program within a larger conglomerate should be available and approved for sharing on its own, without the necessity of involving or transferring the entire conglomerate.

The analogous situation in OT might involve a cycle of stories about a particular character that are learned from a single individual – a small collection of Native American Coyote tales, for example, that a person might hear from an older family member. The implied license to perform any one of these stories doesn’t depend on a license for that cycle or any other. Instead, each story is individually licensed for performance and reception, even though one tale may implicitly refer to another within the tradition. OTs aren’t explicitly defined and delimited items, but rather implicitly linked and pathways-enabled patterns.

This is a bit of a slippery distinction, especially for those of us accustomed to thinking and interacting by creating and exchanging texts in a sort of potlatch ritual. True enough: most oral stories, for example, are in one sense complete in themselves, quite intelligible as isolated events. On the other hand – as with language itself, of which OT is but a special case – the fluent audience will be able to bring a great deal of idiomatic meaning to the isolated tale. They will “fill it out” with their background knowledge of the tradition, the character(s), the location(s), and the storytelling patterns that underlie what may otherwise seem a novel or even unprecedented plot. They’ve transacted business in the oAgora before, and for that reason they’re equipped to co-create the story.

Tell one, two, or more Coyote tales as you please. Each one is both its own story, licensed for distribution on its own terms, and by extension and implication a part of something much larger and more comprehensive. Nothing need stand in the way of telling and receiving the isolated tale, but it’s conventionally told (and meant for reception) within an implied, immanent context. The individual story works like a hot link in hypertext, providing built-in connections to other pathways. Click on the individual tale and its context—complete with built-in oPathways—comes up on your oDesktop.

9. License must not restrict other software

According to the OSD, “the license must not place restrictions on other software that is distributed along with the licensed software.” In a sense this is the obverse of the preceding regulation: just as the whole cannot limit its parts, so the parts cannot limit one another.

We find an analogue in the real-world ecology of OT, the cultural system of various OTs that operate cooperatively but according to different rules, very much like a naturally occurring ecosystem with a diversity of species. Even though each of the OT forms is open-source, with its register or code available to all whom the genre selects as eligible practitioners, their diverse dynamics involve different performers and variant audiences. Rules for one species do not necessarily coincide with rules for others. One size doesn’t fit all.

Within the South Slavic ecosystem, for example, oral traditions are organized by gender, age, and social function. As we observed during fieldwork in Orashats, Serbia, women perform magical charms, lyric songs, and funeral laments (all in eight-syllable poetic lines), while men perform epics and genealogies (both in ten-syllable poetic lines). Magical charms and genealogies were primarily the province of senior women and men, respectively, while the other genres were age-independent. The actual function of the oral poetry – whether to cure ill humans and animals, to celebrate or criticize love and marriage, to mourn the dead, to affirm ethnic and historical identity, or to preserve the family tree – is a third axis for differentiation within the ecology of OT forms or species.

The implied license to perform any one of these genres applies to all practitioners of that particular oral tradition but does not extend to other forms in the overall ecosystem. Within the set of conjurers, for example, there is freedom to share, learn, and perform according to pertinent societal practices (charms are passed only from grandmother to grand-daughter). But that freedom does not extend to men or non-kin, nor can the charms be voiced in the men’s ten-syllable meter or enlisted to serve another social function. Although open-source, each of the ecosystem’s species plays by its own rules.

10. License must be technology-neutral

The OSD requires that “no provision of the license may be predicated on any individual technology or style of interface.” Much of the language describing this regulation is specific and technical, but its general thrust is to avoid limiting transmission of software to and within GUI (graphical user interface) environments and to allow for sharing “over non-web channels that do not support click-wrapping of the download” (those check-boxes you find at the end of contractual agreements formulated by proprietary software manufacturers).

In regard to the implied license underlying the use of OT’s source code or register, this means that the tradition and its code must be able to be shared outside the foundational technology in which they arose. In other words, an OT register must be transferable to – and functional within – other communicative media, without the user’s having to seek a separate implied license.

How would this work with an actual OT? Consider the case of Petar II Njegoš, a nineteenth-century Montenegrin bishop who grew up in a rural village, mastered the local method of composing oral epic poetry, and eventually became a learned, highly literate, and tAgora official. His “textual” poetry – never performed but rather written and published in books for readers – used the source code of oral epic to express his ideas on current political topics as well as traditional heroic mythology. He was employing OT source code to create a text.

Or how about Elias Lönnrot, the Finnish physician who scoured the Karelian countryside for what he posited were remnants of a once-expansive oral epic, the Kalevala? Although highly literate, he learned the special register of that oral poetry well enough that he was able to compose “missing” passages to cement these collected shards and re-create his envisioned national epic – which he then published as a book.

For both Njegoš and Lönnrot, the implied license to perform oral tradition transferred to a new medium, in this case that of the authored, published text. They managed a repurposing of oAgora source code for the tAgora venue.


The OSD prescribes the rules by which the IT community can share software and its source code in an open, contributory manner. Each of the ten tenets distinguishes open source philosophy and practice from proprietary, vendor-driven philosophy and practice, under the assumption that continuous, shared development is the most productive and sustainable way to foster innovation and create an inclusive constituency. Oral performers are effectively online with OT.

Our translation of the OSD from eAgorese to oAgorese suggests a kindred dynamic in another media-technology. Instead of depending on individual authors of individual texts, which are then packaged and sold as the concrete items they are, OT thrives on sharing among a collective. Discrimination among people, groups, or media is prohibited (except for specific cultural constraints). Stories and other forms remain open and malleable; even the source code that underlies them is freely distributed. Historically, the result has been that OT “software” travels widely and easily across continents and eras – the Gesar epic is known across the face of central and eastern Asia, and ancient Homeric laments have descendant forms alive today in the Greek islands. Books and manuscripts – even in the form of digitized fossils – are far too brittle and user-unfriendly a medium to support the kind of generative sharing and sequel innovation that is the lifeblood of OT as an open source phenomenon.

In this way as in so many others, the eWorld mirrors the oWorld, while both stand “worlds apart” from the tWorld.