Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#2 Michael Sikillian 1 Jan 1993


Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, Routledge, London 1988

The term 'global village' has become a commonplace in the media to describe societies created and sustained by electronic technology. But are digital computer systems replacing the visual print culture and returning the world to a tribal, oral society? Will literacy, the hallmark of the print age, become irrelevant as digitized audio and video systems supplant them?


Cover of " Orality and Literacy " -

In this work, Walter Ong, a Jesuit philosopher who has written extensively on rhetoric and oral culture, examines various technologies of writing, print, and electronic media on consciousness and society.

Electronic technologies, such as television, computer networks, and electronic forums create societies which are similar to pre-literate, tribal groups. For example, a forum on an information service such as Compuserve has group activities, conferences, discussions. It has a group identity and an identifiable membership. The basis of most discussions are threads which are dialectical discussions on a particular issue. Sometimes discursive, other times impassioned,
they are interactive conversations. There is a spontaneity and unpredictability which is not found in the more analytic, reflective medium of the book. Yet there are significant differences between these communities and oral ones: membership is more numerous and geographically dispersed. Most significantly, the individual joins them by a conscious choice. No one is born into an electronic community. Family ties, geographic closeness, and occupation are all unimportant. The virtual community can be moved to different sites without a noticeable difference. Further, they are organized by individual interest: one can join a forum to discuss sports, or Latin poetry or mountain climbing. All members of the forum will share the same common interest. Unlike a tribal community where the members lack individuality, and so look to the group for an identity, members of an electronic forum are individuals first, then join a
group which expresses their individuality. Electronic technology does not represent a rejection of print media and a return to oral society. Instead it is a secondary orality, deriving from both print and oral culture.

Unlike speech, print requires words to be fixed in a visual space on a page. Typography encourages orderly, legible characters in well defined paragraphs and sections and pages. Books are mass produced commodities with definite dimensions, unlike discussions which are more fluid and unpredictable. Print gave rise to the practice of reading silently by oneself. This is impossible in an oral culture where literature and learning can only exist in group discussions.

When printed texts first appeared in the Middle Ages, they were criticized as being inhuman and unreal. Learning from a book is much less personal than having a group discussion. Books are non-living objects which can only represent reality. Further, reading damages the mind by making it dependent on print technology. Rather than relying on human memory, print acts as a crutch, and weakens the human mind. These same criticisms have been leveled against computers in our own time. Debates about depersonalizing education and weakening mathematical training reflect the same concerns. Yet much earlier, in Plato's time, these arguments were used against alphabetic writing.

Writing is the technology underlying both electronic media and print. It requires tools, such as paper, pens, rulers, and ink. Unlike speech, it is a planned, conscious effort. Initially, writing needed a class of technically adept people, scribes to produce manuscripts. Print required typesetters and computers, programmers. Writing – whether syllabaries, pictographs, or phonetic symbols – lacks the spontaneity of speech. Dictionaries, grammars, indices only
became necessary when written language became dominant. In an oral culture, introspection, self-consciousness, and privacy, are unknown. Only with the change in social structures caused by writing could these develop.

In the Middle Ages, the Latin of the schools remained the bridge between the oral culture of antiquity and the incipient culture of print. Latin had already passed out of common usage and was maintained as the language of scholarship and science. Everyone who could speak Latin could also write it. The use of Latin also kept alive the rhetorical traditions of ancient Rome, as well as the oral culture.

Primary oral cultures are rare today, as literacy, printing and alphabets are so widespread. Most of the current understanding of them comes from the resolution of the Homeric question. Are the Iliad and the Odyssey the product of one poet or many? Although this seems a minor point, of interest only to Classics scholars, it had profound implications for understanding modern as well as ancient society. The American classicist, Milman Parry (1902 - 1935)
theorized that the Homeric poems were produced by one poet from an oral culture. The poet would assemble set pieces of verse, depending on the metrical needs of the line. Further, the poem was built ad hoc, as it was delivered to an audience, containing repetition, and redundancy. Many of the epithets, such as
'wine-dark sea' or 'rosy fingered dawn' were used repeatedly, to meet the expectations of the audience. Figures were highly stylized: the great hero, his faithful friend, the brave warriors. Poems were improvised, expressing the same ideas and story, but adapted to each group.

This was contrary to the expectations of a literate culture, where the poet is primarily a creator, not an assembler of commonplaces. Poets were expected to create fresh, unconventional combinations of words and sounds, not cut and paste from pre-existing verbal phrases. The story line should have the unexpected; nothing could be worse to a modern poem than to describe it as 'trite' or 'commonplace'. A poem was an original work of art created ex nihilo by an artist.

Yet for an oral culture, repetition ensured that things would be remembered. Standard metrical pieces are common in any art form which requires improvisation. The epithets and characters reinforced cultural norms, rather than shattering them. Many of the same characteristics are present in the secondary oral culture created by electronic technology.

Will secondary orality increase? Will it supplant the print culture? A good clue is in one of the newest technologies, object-oriented programming. Procedural programming is very linear: programs have a definite beginning and end. The programmer writes commands in a particular order to accomplish a specific goal.
An accomplished programmer will create a new algorithm using a tricky or obscure method of coding. In object-oriented programming, programs consist of messages passed between collections of objects. There is no definite beginning or end; everything is interactive between the user and program. The
programmer's task is to manage communications between objects. Further, code is reusable, and the programmer is assembling code and objects, rather than writing complex code sequences.

A similar pattern can be seen in multimedia. By using digitized music, clips of songs or speech can be assembled and combined in the program. Artwork can be either cut from standardized collections of clip art or assembled from collections of shapes. Video can be sampled, enhanced, and combined to create new
sequences in the program. On-line libraries, bulletin board systems, and cd-rom collections encourage combining rather than creation by hand.

Will secondary orality survive? Or will it be replaced by a 'secondary literacy'? What form will that take? The book contains an excellent bibliography which can be used for further exploration.