• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

The idea of pathways

Pathways sport a double identity: individually, they lead from one node to another; but corporately, they constitute an interactive network with innumerable built-in possibilities. The idea and term stem from the oAgora, the arena in which Homer describes the qualities that an ancient Greek oral epic singer must possess in order to be a successful bard. Here’s a hint—he doesn’t mention a loud and clear voice, a fine memory, or a large repertoire:

For among all mortal men the singers have a share in honor
and reverence, since to them the Muse has taught the pathways,
for she loves the singers’ tribe. (Odyssey, Book 8, lines 479-81)

What the Muse teaches, in other words, is the ability to navigate the web of OT, to surf through the shared riches of the story-hoard and shape a performance that is intelligible to and enjoyable for performer and audience alike. What the Muse imparts is knowledge of system or process, not of things or products. She teaches not “what,” but rather “how to get there.”

What ePathways support

Individual ePathways route an Internet experience from one point to another as the surfer/co-creator initiates the event, generates a constellation of linked options, chooses one of those options and generates another set, and so forth. Watch the Pathways Project animated logo at the top of every node and you’ll see how options lead to more options. Recurrent visits will follow roughly construed linkmaps, with alternatives available at every node in the network. But within each click-sequence, there will always be multiple opportunities for co-creation: you can refine the expedition, decide on another journey, discover a new and unexpected thread, or explore wholly unknown regions in the ever-expanding Internet universe.

This flexibility and generativity—rather than the twin illusions of object and stasis at the heart of the tAgora—are the lifeblood of communication in the eAgora. And everything is accomplished by leveraging a system of linked ePathways and a vocabulary of eWords.

A simple Wikipedia search provides us undeniable evidence of this dynamic of variation within limits. Let’s say you decide to research the French impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. On arrival at his main Wikipedia page, several dozen options present themselves: you can view the Wikimedia Commons images of his artworks and some helpful bibliography at the bottom of the entry, for instance. But, more to the current point, you can follow ePathways to Renoir’s birthplace, other impressionist painters, his son Jean (the celebrated filmmaker), his debilitating diseases, his place in the overall history of European painting, and so many other related topics. And that’s just the first tier of navigable options, each of which will potentially lead you to dozens more options, and the potentials multiply as you surf. This kind of experience just can’t be gleaned from a brick-and-mortar book, no matter how clever its design. The tAgora can’t manage links, continuous updating, or pathways. It’s a matter of cognitive differences.

Homology and difference

Pathways are the essence of the eAgora and oAgora, where surfing through networks of multiple possibilities is the core process that underlies all communication. Even though it will seem counterintuitive to readers of fixed, warehousable items, constellations of oPathways and ePathways boast a dynamic strength and diversity of expression and reception that texts cannot match. The tAgora, which depends on an ideological commitment to spatialization and storage of knowledge, art, and ideas as inert things, is for that very reason pathwayless.

ePathways work for the same reason that the Internet works—because they actively support morphing and insure that reality remains in play.