• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley


Here’s the scenario, doubtless only too familiar to all of us. A colleague, friend, family member, or student – or even, perish the thought, one of us – gets “cyber-detoured.” In the midst of serious, sustained investigation of Internet resources, navigating through networks and co-creating an experience, he or she (or we) illogically veer(s) off-track, abandoning the pertinent and productive in favor of the irrelevant and time-wasting. Likely interruptions can include incoming e-mail, updated weather reports, the latest news from RSS feeds, an episode of online gaming, a Facebook encounter, an irresistible Tweet, and myriad other distractions.

Depending on the severity and duration of the detour, it can register as anything from a momentary, attention-deflecting nuisance to a flagrant abuse of the medium. As a second-order reaction to such media-malfeasance, some of us might well find ourselves not merely condemning the outrageous behavior in question but ascribing it to a fatal weakness in the technology itself. What good is a medium that compromises its own mission by offering such built-in distractions? How defensible is Agora-Business that can so quickly and easily lead to its own demise?

The short answer

The short answer to such questions: tools are tools, nothing more and nothing less. Even the most exquisitely balanced, ergonomically sound hammer can, if wielded without sufficient dexterity, accomplish little more than bruising your thumb. Just so, any technology can be used well or badly. Any medium, and any language, can be engaged fluently or clumsily. In other words, responsibility for conducting and sustaining effective Agora-Business rests not with the tool, but with its user.

A few longer answers

To level the playing field, let’s have a look at how Agora-Business can go awry in our two other marketplaces: the word-worlds of oral tradition and text. After that, we’ll cycle back to the cybersphere with a more realistic (because comparative and contextual) perspective on use and misuse.

Flawed fluency in the oAgora

Not all oral performers are created equal, any more than all speakers of English – or the aspiring poets among them – stand shoulder to shoulder with William Shakespeare or John Keats. Experience with South Slavic oral epic tradition, for instance, teaches that bards range from magisterial to workaday to unsuccessful, depending on their talent and on their fluency in the dedicated creative idiom of the oAgora. And yes, because they are embedded in the flux of everyday reality, individual performances, even those by the very same guslar, also show considerable variability. At a third level, singers can find themselves distracted or diverted even within a single performance, veering off from an expectable constellation of pathways, losing the thread of the particular story. Such things do occur.

At times like these we recognize that the ideal of continuous, “perfect” navigation amounts to a text-fed fantasy; as long as reality remains in play, nothing happens until it happens. Since the process of oAgora navigation is by nature emergent, contingent, and under negotiation, it’s also inherently unpredictable and subject to detours. Two anecdotes will illustrate this point.

1. Preventing performance. The first involves a portrait of dramatically unsuccessful oAgora activity and its ramifications as sketched by the Slovenian ethnographer Matija Murko, who reported an unusual brand of audience critique that he observed in Bosnia in the early 1920’s. An unnamed guslar performed so badly, it seems, that his listeners took a radical step: they covertly greased the single string of his gusle, or accompanying instrument, when he stopped for a rest break. As they intended, this unsubtle intervention left the well-meaning but unappreciated epic singer quite stymied, unable to pursue his particularly unproductive brand of oAgora-Business.

2. Inability to navigate. The second incident took place during fieldwork conducted in Serbia in the late 1970’s by Joel and Barbara Halpern and myself. One afternoon we arrived at the Ilić household, located in our home village of Orašac, intending to record a performance of Christian Orthodox epic from Pavle Ilić, the paterfamilias of his extended family group. But before the old fellow could begin, his impulsive son Dragan snatched the gusle from his hands and tried his best to regale us with a favorite story. After a few lines, however, his story-vessel ran aground. Forced to abandon the rash attempt, he shamefacedly relinquished the instrument to his far more fluent father Pavle, who knew how to navigate.

In both of these cases it was clearly the user and not the medium that led to dysfunction. Neither the nameless guslar nor Dragan Ilić proved up to the task of accessing and working within their oral epic traditions. Neither was sufficiently fluent in its specialized word-technology to communicate effectively. In broad terms, they didn’t know how to travel the oPathways of their epic tradition. So let’s not fault those blameless and longstanding oAgora networks for the failures of prospective oNavigators who simply couldn’t manage the exploration.

Flawed fluency in the tAgora

Nor are all readers created equal. In addition to the free-for-all of interpretive license – visible not just in literature, but in law, business, medicine, and every human textual arena – we need to take full account of the kaleidoscope of prior experience and attitudes, and not incidentally of outright misuse of the written medium.

Yes, texts can be and often are misused. Think across marketplaces: if a college student or an analyst in a large corporation can get distracted from intensive, responsible web-investigation by the lure of social networking or message-checking, then why can’t things go similarly “off topic” in the tAgora? Of course they can and do, as a few anecdotes from university life will show.

1. A term project goes astray. Ariadne, a sophomore at a large urban university, is assigned a paper on the sociopolitical backgrounds of the Spanish-American War, and she heads to the campus library to research the topic. Both brick-and-mortar and electronic resources come into play, the latter chiefly as a repository of fixed, non-interactive texts that require reading via the customary rules governing linearity and predetermined sequence. But suppose the journal that Ariadne consults also contains articles on musical trends or popular culture in turn-of-the-century Spain, and further that those extraneous contents (extraneous to her core topic, that is) simply prove too attractive for her to resist. Suppose, to reduce things to the most elementary and human level, that our intrepid student’s attention falters, and she skips over valuable information essential for her research paper. Is this shortcoming the fault of the resource? Do we attribute the detour to the medium or to the agent trying to operate within that medium? Do we blame the text or the text-user?

2. Manuscripts have their own rules. Our second example emerges from a real-life episode in academic research. Some years ago I, like all prior investigators, was at a loss to explain the phrase on sunde in an Old English poem that links the Christian apocalypse to the widespread destruction wrought by the pagan Germanic storm-giant as he passes over settlements and farms. Literally, on sunde seems to means either “in the water/sea” or “in swimming.” The problem is that neither explanation fits the context, in which the poet is describing how body and soul, flesh and spirit are preserved together. On consulting a photographic facsimile of the original tenth-century manuscript, however, I discovered that the first word on ended one line and the second word sunde began the next, leaving open the possibility that, since under the scribal rules of the period word-division went unmarked, this could well be one rather than two words. If that were the case, and taking into account variant spellings common throughout the preserved manuscripts, the Old English expression could in fact be a single word: onsunde, also spelled ansunde and meaning “safely.” This reading makes sense on both levels of the poem – preserving body and soul together and safely. It’s a small point, but it illustrates how scholars’ misunderstanding of the manuscript medium had led to a persistent error in the printed medium, and thus to bad tAgora-Business.

In both of these cases, as with the two oAgora stories recounted above, the technology necessary to the task is present, available, and (in the “right hands”) effective. We can’t criticize the medium when it’s not to blame, anymore than we can fault that state-of-the-art hammer for a blackened thumbnail. In each instance we need to trace the problem beyond the medium itself to the person who fails in some way to harness its power and possibilities, whether through lack of fluency, lack of attention, or a combination of the two.

Just what is fluency in the eAgora, anyway?

With these few thoughts on oAgora-Business and tAgora-Business in mind, we can perhaps understand cyber-detours in more depth. If oral traditions and texts can be used unfluently or inattentively, then the incursion of distracting opportunities [oops, there goes my e-mail alert again!] into focused pathway navigation may not seem so outrageous. More to the point, such an incursion may not be misinterpreted as a flaw restricted to and typical of eAgora activities alone.

To put it more plainly, only within the tAgora do such natural and inevitable “diversions” escape our notice, and there’s a ready explanation for this peculiarity. Textual ideology has submerged them below the threshold of our active awareness, under the (finally untenable) assumption that textuality freezes knowledge, art, and ideas in a form that keeps them inviolate and immune from change. eTechnology is still very much in the process of being understood and isn’t yet our default medium, so perhaps it’s only expectable that such momentary departures tend to receive undue emphasis. In a sense the situation isn’t so different from aberrant case studies that appear to threaten generally held truths or conclusions.

We look at the wonders of web navigation, which promotes immediate and highly economical access to worlds we could scarcely imagine a decade ago, and even the occasional excursion into Facebook-checking or Twittering seems wrong or wasteful. Never mind that poring over our sacred texts is rudely derailed by telephone calls, coffee breaks, fire drills, note-taking, or a thousand other activities. Never mind that we programmatically dismiss such interruptions by letting them recede into the background noise of existence, always there but hardly ever foregrounded. Unfortunately, in doing so we let textuality cover its tracks, and we continue to participate in the illusion that it offers the sole dependable standard for non-frivolous, appropriately engaged Agora-Business. Culturally set defaults are hard to reset.

Ironically, but from the perspective of the OT-IT (Internet Technology) homology quite explicably, this same “text first” ideology has hindered our understanding and appreciation of oAgora communication as well. If a story or genealogy or history seems to vary within limits, as is characteristic of and necessary within the oral marketplace, we champions of the book and page cry foul. Never mind the brittle, disembodied, non-connected, and non-updatable nature of the immutable text; we’re quite willing to submerge those glaring deficiencies in our worship of the twinned gods of objectivity and stasis.

In other words, our understanding of both OT and IT suffers from an ideological short-circuit that highlights the unavoidable and expectable static of using media in the living human world. And highlighting the static necessarily means diminishing communication. At the same time, adding insult to injury, this predisposition toward the imagined dynamics of the tAgora measures the non-textual according to (a fantasy of) the textual. That’s unfair on quite a number of levels.

Conducting and sustaining responsible Agora-Business calls for fairer practices across multiple marketplaces, for playing by the applicable rules of each venue rather than imposing a blanket policy for communication. Yet another reason to seek citizenship not in one but in multiple agoras.


Extra- (outside) rather than post- (after) a node that’s not conventionally scriptus (written) at all. But bear with me: in an effort to escape ideological bias and reframe so-called diversions as part of the natural flow of experience rather than a fatal technological flaw, I have a set of propositions for you to consider:

What if eDiversions are simply alternate sets of pathways for optional exploration and thus part of the overall eAgora network? What if operation within any agora means confronting and selecting among all of its possibilities and potentials? While we’re at it, who’s to say that Twitter doesn’t flesh out the real experiential context of daily life rather than simply divert attention from more “serious” and “directed” communication? Maybe John Lennon was right: maybe “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”