• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Real proverbs serve as behavioral guides in various societies, providing generic, time-tested perspectives on the apparent chaos of everyday life. In this node we’ll offer a group of homemade, entirely non-traditional proverbs to help recall how the oAgora and eAgora share similar dynamics. Originally formulated for understanding OT, these eight “pearls of wisdom” also speak to transactions in the virtual marketplace of IT (Internet Technology).

Several of the proverbs appear without change from their original form1. Others have been slightly modified to accommodate Internet technology alongside oral tradition.

1. OT and IT work like language, only more so.
Both media are special cases of language, with additional, denser coding to support the enhanced functionality of each medium. OT uses structural patterning at many levels—phraseology, narrative, story-type, and so forth. IT employs its own set of structures and specialized codes with which programmers and web designers create systems of pathways for web-surfers to navigate through. Each technology depends for its efficacy on a dedicated register—that is, a rule-governed way of speaking or expressing.

2. OT and IT are very plural media.
Just as oral traditions dwarf literary works in number and diversity, so the Internet offers us an unprecedented inventory and variety of sites and experiences. Furthermore, no OT or IT ever holds still; everything is constantly varying within limits, taking on one “new” shape after another. Unlike the fixed, tangible items that serve as currency in the tAgora, OT and IT simply can’t be confined to a single, stable, counter-plural form without the enforced euthanasia of textualization. The central truth of both morphing technologies is that reality remains in play.

3. Performance makes it happen, while idiom provides the context.
OT depends on performance for its continuing existence; action and involvement—surfing through a network of possibilities—are the hallmarks of the oAgora, and even lie at the root of oral-derived texts as well. Likewise, actually negotiating the ePathways of the Internet is the necessary precondition to making meaning in that arena. Nothing happens in either medium until the performer/surfer begins the journey, and the evolving itinerary is always potential until that same performer/surfer co-determines it through a tiered sequence of decisions. OT and IT can happen only in the oArena and eArena, respectively.

And just as performance drives reality in OT and IT, so both technologies depend on embedded idiomatic implications for their core communication. OT encodes its surface with “more than meets the eye” in terms of traditional, more-than-literal, add-on meanings. A phrase, a gesture, even the performer’s costume may harbor whole reservoirs of associated signification. Likewise, IT offers links, portals, clusters of sites, and other emergent, interactive strategies that lead the surfer beyond the immediate and the literal to a richer constellation of implied possibilities. Navigating along established but multiply interconnected pathways (always according to the surfer’s own initiative) opens up the implied context. Meaning is engaged idiomatically.

4. OT and IT work through rather than in spite of their coding.
Largely because we are accustomed to analyzing communication textually, we instinctively try to understand OT and IT through a tAgora lens. Another way to say the same thing is to observe that we are often victims of the agoraphobia and culture shock induced by having to manage unfamiliar ways of thinking and communicating. But if we shift our default perspective and confront the oAgora and eAgora on their own terms, then the specialized coding that seems so strange or artificial will make much more sense. That coding, as Lawrence Lessig puts it, is performative. Far from serving as a barrier or a clumsy, unnecessary interface, it is the fundamental register—the expressive heart and soul—of the two technologies in question. It’s what makes each medium work.

5. OT and IT function best without depending on published books.
How do you capture Proteus? How do you reduce a living, morphing experience to a page or photograph or even video and still keep it alive and faithful to its true nature? Simply said, you can’t. Ideological claims aside, fixed texts do not and cannot faithfully represent such plastic, rule-governed processes. The tAgora—no matter how highly developed—can never house and nurture the expressive ecology of either the oAgora or eAgora. For precisely the same reason, then, freestanding book-editions of OT and one-dimensional how-to manuals for the networked, ever-evolving web will always be deeply unsatisfactory representations of their respective realities. OT and IT operate outside fixation; in fact, their core strength actually derives from resisting fixation.

6. The play’s the thing, and not the script.
By its very nature drama lives to be performed, a truth so self-evident that we’ve invented a term—“closet drama”—to identify dramatic writing meant for the lonely occupation of silent reading. Yet conventional tAgora assumptions only too often focus on the script as the irreducible core of dramatic art, understanding the comfortably tangible “source” as being “reinterpreted” in various ways. This text-centric attitude not only denies drama its root dynamics; it also reverses its logic. After all, playwrights write not to assemble items complete in themselves, but to enable real-time, flesh-and-blood enactments. Just so with OT and IT. Neither the oAgora nor the eAgora depends in any fashion on a tAgora script. Instead, the morphing technologies are primary and central in and of themselves, and can be only very poorly represented via the default medium of page and book. When we attend a play, we go to experience the performance, not to see how the sacred script gets rendered this time around.

7. Repetition is the symptom, not the disease.
OT and IT are far too often accused of repeating, of doing the same thing over and over again, perhaps ad nauseam. Well, if you’re trekking through texts according to the one-way route to which texts confine you, then the second or third or fourth occurrences of a word, phrase, scene, or even whole story clearly does constitute repetition. It happens a first (and unprecedented) time, and you remember that first time when it happens again and note the instance-to-instance correspondence. Along a linear platform that owes its primary allegiance to sequence, repetition can and does take place.

But when—as with OT and IT —the medium is fundamentally contingent, when it has no predetermined linear platform, when it requires active co-creation on the part of the user/surfer, repetition is the wrong concept. Recurrence is the right concept, because each instance amounts to an independent event and a choice made not on the basis of sequence but rather of fluency in the medium. Another instance occurs not because the first one did, but because the performer/surfer is responding idiomatically to the situation that very moment. “Once upon a time” opens many Grimm Brothers fairy tales not because it’s being repeated, but because its recurrence idiomatically sets the scene for a certain brand of storytelling. That’s why clichés are strictly tAgora phenomena: linearity saps the strength of even the most well-turned phrase after too many iterations in the tAgora. And it’s also why OT and IT recurrences (which are not repetitions!) remain fresh and clickable-on; each one is effectively the “first and only,” each is made singular by its unique moment, each one carries coded meaning that emerges with unimpeachable idiomatic force.

8. Without pathways there is no language, without a surfer there is no performance.
Disagreements have raged for decades if not centuries over which is the dominant member in the envisioned contest of tradition versus the individual (or group of individuals). Does an OT owe its primary allegiance to what gets passed down from prior performers or to the person or group who mold it into an idiosyncratic form? The ideology of the individual literary genius has long tilted the scales toward the individual and the unique work—so much so that we have trouble imagining verbal art without a single person fully in control of a singular, well-made item. Similarly, we may question whether the worldwide web (unfortunately too frequently understood as the fixed item it’s not) or the surfer has priority in the search for knowledge, art, and ideas.

For OT and IT alike, the notion of distributed authorship offers a way past this agoraphobic dilemma. All performers in the oAgora share some sort of specialized oRegister, some way of speaking, some network of oPathways to navigate. Likewise, all surfers in the eAgora share some sort of specialized eRegister, some way of exploring the web, some network of ePathways. In both cases the languages that these two groups of agora-citizens employ is malleable, rule-governed, coded, and idiomatic. Both groups are essentially working cooperatively and online. In the end, as our proverb urges, there is no victor in the imagined contest between tradition and the individual. Both sides are absolutely necessary to the chemistry of the enterprise; both partners are functionally complementary.

Why the proverbs don’t work for the tAgora

In telegraphic fashion, and by proverb numbers, here are a few reasons why our OT-IT proverbs just don’t work for verbal commerce within the tAgora. For all of their many strengths, and despite our attempts to make them morph, books can’t support the kind of network navigation that characterizes and generates OT-IT expressive power. Briefly, then:

1. Books aren’t language; they’re scripts for language.
2. Books operate by fixing knowledge, art, and ideas into singular, inert items; they are limited in the possibilities they present and don’t live through morphing.
3. Reading a book means following the textual trail rather than navigating through interconnected pathways.
4. Books don’t depend on specialized coding as much as OT and IT, or derive as much from that expressive strategy.
5. Books function best as published books.
6. Books reduce the living reality of performances into much-diminished, static, and non-living reflections.
7. Books support and house repetitions; they can’t support recurrence.
8. Books have no pathways: tPathways are impossible. tAgora authorship is individual and non-distributed.


1 Foley 2002:184-85.