The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Closing the gap or re-wiring our brains? Maybe both!

Ong states that “the electronic transformation of verbal expression has both deepened the commitment of the word to space initiated by writing and intensified by print and has brought consciousness to a new age of secondary orality (p. 133).” Secondary orality is the way in which technology has transformed the medium through which we send and receive information. Ong includes various examples such as telephone, radio, television and various kinds of sound tape, and electronic technology (Ong, p. 132).

Ong discusses Lowry’s argument that the printing press, in creating the ability to mass-produce books, makes people less studious (Ong, p. 79).  Lowry continues by stating that “it destroys memory and enfeebles the mind by relieving it of too much work (the pocket‐computer complaint once more), downgrading the wise man and wise woman in favor of the pocket compendium.  Of course, others saw print as a welcome leveler: everyone becomes a wise man or woman (Lowry 1979, pp. 31‐2). (Ong, p. 79).”

The World Wide Web has opened up an entirely new sense of “secondary orality”. Prior to the WWW, texts were primarily written by one or a small group of authors and were read by a specific audience.  Today, with the advent of Web 2.0 the underlying tenets of oral cultures and literate cultures are coming closer together.  Even within ETEC540 we are communicating primarily by text, but we are not entering our own private reading world, we are entering a text-based medium through which we can read and respond to each other’s blog posts (such as this post). In addition, we will contribute to a class Wiki where the information is dynamic and constantly changing. How then, is the WWW changing the way we interpret, digest, and process information?

The Internet has brought about a new revolution in the distribution of text.  Google’s vision of having one library that contains all of the world’s literature demonstrates that “one significant change generates total change (Postman, p. 18).”  Nicholas Carr, in his article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and Anthony Grafton in Paul Kennedy’s podcast “The Great Library 2.0” both make similar arguments about the Internet.  Carr points out, the medium through which we receive information not only provides information, but “they also shape the process of thought”.

Carr contends that the mind may now be absorbing and processing information “the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.”  That is, information is no longer static; it is dynamic, ever changing, and easily accessible and searchable.  Carr gives the example that many of his friends and colleagues and friends in academia have noticed that “the more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.”

Comparably, Google’s attempt to digitize all the text on earth into a new “Alexandria” is certainly an ambitious project, but as Postman states, new technology “is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and that (Postman, 5).”  Some see the library as liberating, making an unfathomable amount of knowledge available to anyone with an Internet connection.  Others, such as Anthony Grafton, argue that reading text off the screen takes away from the romantic adventure that one gets from being the first to read at a rare book found in the library of a far-off country (Grafton in The Great Library 2.0).  Grafton also argues that the ability to search for key-words in electronic texts has created “on-time research” which has made academics and others work at a rapid pace, and fill in parts of work very late using Internet sources.  Carr sites other examples of academics who have lost the ability to read and absorb long texts, but instead have gained the ability to scan “short passages of text from many sources online.”

Lowry’s argument that, to some, print destroyed memory and debilitated the mind, while to others, print created equal accessibility to text has repeated itself with the advent of the Internet.  Carr and Grafton are both argue that instantaneous access to huge databases of information such as Google Books may be detracting from our ability to absorb texts.   That being said, Postman states “once a technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do. Our task is to understand what that design is-that is to say, when we admit a new technology to the culture, we must do so with our eyes wide open (Postman, p. 7).”  Thus, perhaps there is no point in arguing the negatives.  Whether it is Google or a different association that makes all the printed text in world available to us, it is the direction that technology is taking us and there will likely be nothing to stop it.  The question is, what will our societies and cultures look like after it is all done?   It will not be the world plus Library 2.0, but an entirely new world.


Ong, Walter, J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London and New York: Methuen.

Kennedy, Paul (host).  (August 24, 2009). Ideas. The Great Library 2.0. Podcast retrieved from

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.

Carr, Nicholas. (2008). Is Google Making Us Stupid? The Atlantic. July/August 2008. Accessed September 30, 2009 from


1 Clare Roche { 11.28.09 at 7:06 pm }

Do we as educators have no control?

2 Stuart Edgar { 11.30.09 at 1:58 pm }

I think O’Donnell made some good points about the virtual library. Like other libraries it will probably have to involve some process of selection and discrimination. A lot of old printed material may not be worth the effort of scanning.

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