The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

What’s Wrong with Ong?

Determinism and Great Divide theory

In Orality and Literacy, Ong sets out some useful comparisons, but falls into the trap of implying that the categories he uses to describe and enumerate the differences between oral and literate cultures are sufficient to describe them.  Further, in an attempt to support the Great Divide theory he elaborates, he ventures into technological determinism with the claim that technology shapes man—particularly, the way people think.

Ong (1982) writes: “Technologies are not mere exterior aids, but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word” (p. 81).  This introduces a kind of chicken and egg argument since man has first to find a reason and the means to invent a technology in order for it to have its purported transformational effect on consciousness.  In Ong’s view, writing is the technology that not only distinguishes oral from literate cultures, but also creates a schism between because it changes the very way they think: “More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness” (Ong, 1992, p. 77).

A more recent advocate of a similar view concerning the effects of technology on the minds of students is technophile Marc Prensky.  He has famously argued that current students, whom he terms Digital Natives, have been mentally transformed by the various technologies to which they have been exposed to the point that the methods used by their Digital Immigrant teachers are no longer effective: “…it is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed—and are different from ours—as a result of how they grew up” (Prensky, 2001).  Prensky has been justly critiqued by numerous writers, including McKenzie (2007), who dismisses Prensky’s brand of determinism in Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants as “…a rather shallow piece lacking in evidence or data, Prensky offers the terms ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ to set up a generational divide. His proposition is simple-minded. He paints digital experience as wonderful and old ways as worthless.”

It should be noted, however, that notwithstanding his journey down the slippery path of technological determinism, Ong has done useful work in elaborating the distinctions between oral and literate cultures.  If, in fact, his categorizations were a rhetorical device of the sort he discusses (Ong, 1982, p. 108), an agonistic means of illuminating the differences between literate and oral cultures, it would be more effective.  Instead, as Chandler (1994) points out, such binaries lead to a “… sharp division of historical continuity into periods ‘before’ and ‘after’ a technological innovation such as writing assumes the determinist notion of the primacy of ‘revolutions’ in communication technology. And differences tend to be exaggerated.”  There is also the danger of generalizing too widely and overlooking potential overlap.

Ardi with cell phone

Technological determinism? It didn't take long for someone to imagine what impact 21st century technology might have had on Ardi.

It is an interesting coincidence that in the same week the class is studying Ong’s Great Divide approach to orality and literacy, another classic Great Divide is being seriously challenged.  News of ‘Ardi’ (short for Ardipithecus ramidus) a specimen of a female human precursor who predates the famous 3.2 million-year-old Lucy by a million years, appears to throw into question the missing link theory of human evolution (Shreeve, 2009).  Paleontologists have long studied chimpanzees, assuming a human evolutionary path from apes to Lucy.  Ardi now makes it appear that any common ancestor might have been much further in the past and unlike modern apes.  Here again, the understandable, logical tendency to categorize, compare and contrast—strategies we teach students in English class to prepare their compositions—sets up overly simplistic false dichotomies which do not, ultimately, provide a complete picture.

As Chandler (1994) observes, dichotomy is sometimes an attempt to simplify complexity—in the case of orality and literacy, cultural complexity.  Such complication is far more likely to result not in a clean break between orality and literacy, but in an overlapping of the various systems based on more mundane and practical considerations such as trade and commerce.  This, in turn, challenges the elitism in the deterministic view such that, as Gaur (1992, p. 14) argues, there are no primitive scripts “…only societies at a particular level of economic and social development using certain forms of information storage” appropriate to their circumstances.  Thus, continuity theories (Chandler, 1994), offer a more complete view incorporating the notion of interaction between overlapping modes and media which, in turn, allows for a more evolutionary and less deterministic understanding which eliminates the need for a missing link to explain historical discontinuities.

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Available:
Gaur, A. (1992). A history of writing [revised edition]. London: British Library.
McKenzie, J. (2007). Digital Nativism, Digital Delusions, and Digital Deprivation [Online]. From Now On, 17(2). Available:
Ong, W.J. (1982). Orality and Literacy. New York: Routlege.
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon. NCB University Press, 9(5) [Online]. Available:
Shreeve, J. (1 October 2009). Oldest “Human” Skeleton Found—Disproves “Missing Link.”  National Geographic Magazine [Online]. Available:

October 4, 2009   2 Comments

Knowledge-Power Literacy-Orality

The Secret and Magic Power: Orality and Literacy

Power-Knowledge Literacy-Orality

Noah Burdett

U.B.C. Master of Educational Technology Candidate

Knowledge is a difficult concept to define.  One point that has been made clear by Michel Foucault and others is knowledge is fundamentally connected to power.  Many have heard the cliché that  “knowledge is power.”  If power relations are viewed in terms of access to knowledge than how is access changed in oral and literate cultures?  The questions itself is of a great divide nature and will help to demonstrate the fallibility of setting oral and literate cultures as binaries.

By comparing characteristics of literate and oral societies one is able to demonstrate that the control of information in any form of society is an important factor in the creation of inequality, regardless of how that information is transferred.

Culture and Language

Culture will be examined in a broad context and will provide a platform for comparison, but it should be understood that “culture” is not meant to illustrate that difference do not exist, not all oral or literate cultures share the exact same attributes.  However, members of a specific community do share culture. To suggest that culture is shared also suggests that it is learned from others and that it is transmitted. If culture is shared than it is also not a private entity thus one cannot have a private culture and must be a participant.

The method of transmission is the medium of language.  Language is thus the key to membership within a culture and to learn a language is to become a cultural member; to become a cultural member is to learn a language (Parkingson and Drislane 1996).  As language is key factor in the creation of culture, does ones participation in relation to other depend on how that language is transmitted either orally or through a written system?

Oral Cultures

In a primary oral culture knowledge is embed within the knower.  To find knowledge one has to seek out a member of the culture that knows.  Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy attributes the need to be intimately connected to the knower because of the property of sound, “sound exists only when it is going out of existence,” (Ong 2008, p. 70). The time space relationship of sound prior to recording technologies creates a circumstance where members of a primary oral culture relate “intimately to the unifying, centralizing, interiorizing economy of sound as perceived by human beings” (Ong 2008, p.73).

When knowledge is embedded in the knower and the knower possess the power to chose and distribute the knowledge as he/she sees fit, a power structure is created. Thus in an oral society knowledge is power as it is embedded.  A member of an oral culture is positioned within their culture is determined by your situation within the collective and how others view your knowledge base.  The act of embedding knowledge within individuals creates a power structure of the knower and the seeker.  The structure is evident in Plato’s Phaedrus[i] where Socrates acts as the knower and Phaedrus as the seeker, the irony being that this is a written work. It can be said that knowledge as power works within oral societies to create inequality.

Literate Cultures

Written forms of language change the embodiment of knowledge, but not the power structure.  Writing provides a way to detach the knowledge from its author and audience, giving knowledge a form permanence, rigor, and objectivity. As Ong describes, with the written word “each reader enters into his or her own private reading world,” (Ong 1982, p. 73).  The act of separation would seem to create a power dynamic between those that can access the information in a written form and those that cannot.  Examining the history of education using Learned Latin and other chirographically controlled languages demonstrates how power and knowledge are still controlled within written systems even though the knowledge can be separated from the knower.

Learned Latin became the written language of scholastics for some 1400 years. Ong describes learned Latin as “a language written spoken only by males, learned outside the home in a tribal setting, (Ong 1982, p. 111).  Learned Latin became a chirographical language spoken and written by its users and separate from their mother tongue.  Learned Latin served as a way to isolate a community of male literate that wanted to share a common intellectual heritage. Creating a group that was in control of it of a form of language transmission further enhanced the isolating aspect of the written word and creates a scenario where knowledge and power create inequality.

Knowledge as power will be controlled and transferred within a culture regardless of how individuals are connected with that knowledge either through orality or literacy or both.  The similarity of the power-knowledge relationship exemplifies that within oral and literate society “differences of behaviour and modes of expression clearly exist, but psychological differences are often exaggerated,” (Chandler 1994).  The human ability to isolated and alienated is not text or orally based.  Demonstrating the connection between power-knowledge relationship in both oral and literate cultures also demonstrates that the binary opposition of the two misses the human component of both.

If the move from orality to literacy continued existing forms of power than using technology of writing as causal mover of change may also be overstated.   For example, Ong attributes the isolating aspect of Learned Latin with making possible “the exquisitely abstract world of medieval scholasticism and of the new mathematical modern science which followed on the scholastic experience, (Ong 1982, 112).  Attributing these scientific and mathematic developments to the language in which they are expressed does not determine that it was because of the language that they were made possible.  Ong’s claim reduces a complex time and process to single phenomenon and does not incorporate a perspective that views the larger cultural and social context.  The above has shown that literacy and orality are components of the human experience but should never be seen as single driving forces for our behaviours.


Excerpt from Plato’s Phaedrus (Retriever, 29 September 2009 from:

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved, 29 September, 2009 from:

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Parkinson, G. & Drislane, R. (1996). Exploring Society: Pathways in sociology. Toronto: Harcourt Canada.

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

Cautions and Considerations for Technological Change: A Commentary on Neil Postman’s The Judgment of Thamus

Cautions and Considerations for Technological Change:
A Commentary on Neil Postman’s The Judgment of Thamus

Natalie Giesbrecht
ETEC 540
University of British Columbia
October 4, 2009


Kurzweil (2001) suggests that nowadays there is a common expectation of “continuous technological progress and the social repercussions that follow” (para. 2). In “The Judgment of Thamus”, chapter one of Technopoly, Neil Postman (1992) cautions us of the implications of technological innovation. More specifically he warns us of the “one-eyed prophets” or Technophiles, “who see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo” (Postman, 1992, p. 5). Postman consciously avoids boasting the opportunities of new technologies in favour of reminding us of the dangers of blindly accepting these. This skepticism and somewhat of an alarmist attitude could be construed as Chandler (2000) calls it “pessimistic determinism” – an almost fatalist perception where we cannot escape the wrath of technology (para. 14). What we are left with is an unbalanced argument whereby Postman assumes his readers are naïve and may well fall prey to the technological imperative. Underlying his negative outlook though, Postman presents key points to consider when thinking about technological change: 1) costs and benefits; 2) winners and losers; and 3) ecological impact.

Costs and Benefits

Postman (1992) uses Plato’s Phaedrus as a springboard for his discussion on technological change. From this story we learn that it is a mistake to believe that “technological innovation has a one-sided effect” (Postman, 1992, p. 4). Postman (1992) argues that every culture must always be in negotiation with technology as it can “giveth” and “taketh away” (p. 5). This stance asserts that technology is an autonomous force, and as Chandler (2001) explains it, technology becomes “an independent, self-controlling, self-determining, self-generating, self-propelling, self-perpetuating and self-expanding force” (para. 1). Postman briefly attempts to illustrate a more balanced critique of the costs and benefits of technological innovation by citing Freud (1930):

…If I can, as often as I please hear the voice of a child of mine who is living hundreds of miles away…if there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town (p. 70 as cited in Postman, 1992, p. 6).

Postman might argue here, what has technology undone? He contends that there are unforeseen side-effects of technology and that we can’t predict what is at the end of the road of technological progress – as “our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end” (Thoreau, 1908, p. 45 as cited in Postman, 1992, p. 8).

Winners and Losers

Innis (1951) discussed the idea of ‘knowledge monopolies’, where those who have control of particular technologies gain power and conspire against those “who have no access to the specialized knowledge made available by the technology” (Postman, 1992, p. 9). Postman (1992) infers that the benefits and costs of technology are not equally distributed throughout society and that there are clear winners and losers. A key example he refers to is the blacksmith, who praises the development of the automobile, but eventually his profession is rendered obsolete by it (Postman, 1992). Again, this viewpoint sees technology “as an autonomous force acting on its users” (Chandler, 2008, para. 8).

There is an unsaid expectation that the winners will encourage the losers to be advocates for technology; however, in the end the losers will surrender to those that have specialized technological knowledge (Postman, 1992). Postman (1992) states that for democratic cultures, that are highly receptive and enthusiastic to new technologies, technological progress will “spread evenly among the entire population” (p. 11). This sweeping statement is what Rose (2003) warns us against. Postman writes off the entire population as passive, mindless victims that have fallen prey to the autonomy of technology. However, he fails to acknowledge that the population may “resist the reality of technological impacts and imperatives every day” (Rose, 2003, p. 150).

Ecological Impact

Technological change is ecological and when new technologies compete with old ones it becomes a battle of world-views (Postman, 1992). For instance, a tug-o-war occurred when print entered the oral space of the classroom. On one side, there is orality, which “stresses group learning, cooperation, and a sense of social responsibility” and on the other is print, which fosters “individualized learning, competition, and personal autonomy” (Postman, 1992, p. 17). Each medium eventually found their respective place to change the environment of learning. Now orality and print wage a new war with computers. Postman (1992) asserts that each time a new technology comes along it “does not add or subtract something. It changes everything” (p. 18). Institutions mirror the world-view endorsed by the technology and when a new technology enters the scene, the institution is threatened – “culture finds itself in crisis” (Postman, 1992, p. 18). With this, Postman gives us a sense that technology is out of control, further evidencing his alarmist viewpoint of technological change.

Finally, the ecological impact of technology extends beyond our social, economic and political world to enter our consciousness. Postman (1992) believes that technology alters what we think about, what we think with and the environment in which thought is developed (Postman, 1992). Postman suggests that the population has a “dull” and “stupid awareness” of the ecological impact of technology (Postman, 1992, p. 20) – indicating that technology may be ‘pulling the wool’ over our eyes.


Rose (2003) warns us against taking extreme stances on technological changes – this leads to ideas that “become concretized in absolute terms rather than remaining fluid and open for analysis and debate” (p. 155). Nardi and O’Day (1999) suggest that extreme positions on technology critique should be replaced by a middle ground where we carefully consider the impact of both sides without rejecting one or another hastily (p. 20). Although it clear that Postman is biased toward a pessimistic outlook of technological change, he presents several key points that encourage us to think twice before accepting any technology and “do so with our eyes wide open” (p. 7). In the end, it is difficult to look past Postman’s bias and thus it is still questionable if in fact culture has blindly surrendered to technology as he suggests.


Chandler (2000). Techno-evolution as ‘progress’. In Technological or media determinism. Retrieved October 2, 2009, from

Chandler, D. (2001).Technological autonomy. In Technological or media determinism. Retrieved October 2, 2009, from

Chandler, D. (2008). Technology as neutral or non-neutral. In Technological or media
. Retrieved October 2, 2009, from

Innis, H. A. (1951). The bias of communication. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Kurzweil, R. (2001). The law of accelerating returns. Retrieved October 2, 2009, from

Nardi, B. A., & O’Day, V. L. (1999). Information ecologies: Using technology with heart. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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

Rose, E. (2003). The errors of Thamus: An analysis of technology critique. Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, 23, 147-156.

Thoreau, H.D. (1908). Walden. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd.

October 4, 2009   2 Comments

Technological Determinism, Reductionism and The Great Divide: A Commentary on W.J. Ong










Technological Determinism, Reductionism and The Great Divide: A Commentary on W.J. Ong


 Erin Gillespie

ETEC 540

University of British Columbia

October 3, 2009



     In his text, Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong (2002) posits the technology of writing changed the human thought process. For Ong (2002), oral and literate societies are distinctly separated, as exemplified in his introduction to chapter four:

…functionally literate human beings really are: beings whose thought processes do not grow out of simply natural powers but out of these powers as structured, directly or indirectly, by the technology of writing. Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does…More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness. (Ong, 2002, p. 77).

            Ong (2002) argues a binary account or a “Great Divide” theory, where oral and literate societies think in significantly different ways due to the introduction of one technology: writing (Chandler, 1994). His binary account of oral vs. literate society suggests significant differences in information processing between oral and literate societies (Chandler, 1994). Ong (2002) supports his theory with academic research where available and his arguments are convincing. Interestingly, he does not include conflicting research which may suggest a continuum between oral and literate societies. Instead, his clear-cut analysis has a generalizing binary effect driven by technological determinism which requires careful consideration.

            Technological determinism is a framework that is influential on theories of culture and technology (Murphie & Potts, 2003). The term refers to technology as an independent agent of social change which shapes society in an autonomous fashion (Murphie & Potts, 2003). Ong (2002) states writing is a technology and “technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word.” (p. 81). Ong (2002) argues the technology of writing determines our behaviour because it changed how we think. However, by postulating a “Great Divide” between oral and literate cultures, Ong (2002) is guilty of reductionism and over generalizing between cultures.

            Ong’s (2002) generalizations across cultures and radically different societies when discussing the features of oral and literate societies weaken his “Great Divide” stance. In his essay “Technological or Media Determinism”, Chandler (1995) claims technological determinism involves reductionism, where complexity of the whole is reduced to the effects of one part on another. Chandler (1995) warns of the pitfalls of generalizing too widely in the area of technological determinism, noting convincing evidence is difficult to cite concerning the relationship between technology and social change.

      In his analysis, Ong (2002) exemplified reductionism by reducing changes, across all cultures, in information processing to the introduction of writing. Ong (2002) does not examine how the introduction of writing may have affected different cultures in different ways. For example, the medieval book of hours included illustrations and text, implying the introduction of writing did not usher in a total cultural transformation in thought (The British Library Board, n.d.). The detailed illustrations provide both oral and literate societies with the same information and provide historical evidence that the two societies coexisted within the same culture. It is fair to say writing affected cultures in different areas in different ways, but Ong (2002) overlooks this.  Ong (2002) itemizes the cultural effects due to the shift from orality to literacy, including artificial memory, analytical thought and abstraction (Murphie & Potts, 2003). However, Ong (2002) simply reduces the change to the introduction of one technology: writing. He fails to investigate other social factors that may have affected human thought such as economics, religion, politics, warfare or education.

      Ong (2002) does not examine how information processing may differ between oral cultures themselves or how thought patterns may differ within the same oral or literate culture in relation to variables other than writing. He instead critiques oral societies by claiming literate people have freer minds because they can store knowledge in written text leading to “more original, more abstract thought” (Ong, 2002, p. 24). Ong (2002) does not include convincing empirical research to support his claim that literacy changes the way we process information. However, Wolf (2008) published results of a scientific historical analysis which supports Ong’s (2002) theory of changes in evolutionary brain pathways in relation to literacy. Wolf’s (2008) research includes studies where brain imaging scans of literate people differ from non-literate and she examines how literate brains process information differently than the brains of dyslexic individuals. Wolf’s (2008) research does lend credibility to Ong’s (2002) claims.

      It would be a mistake to interpret Ong (2002) as completely dismissing the effects of orality in literate societies, despite his technologically deterministic “Great Divide” and his cultural generalizations. His theory of secondary orality implies that our communication methods and our use of language are still affected by primary orality. Considering continuity between orality and literacy, Chandler (1994) includes Ong in a discussion of phonocentrism, an interpretive bias where speech is rated higher than writing in general.  Chandler (1994) points out how Ong (2002) considers speech natural and real, and writing as artificial and dead. Ong (2002) recognizes how characteristics of orality are still apparent in various forms of communication in secondary orality. For example, both primary and secondary orality generate a strong group sense: A “true audience” listening to a speech and today’s global village are both “group-minded” (Ong, 2002, p. 134).

      Ong’s (2002) theory has strong implications for academics and educators should be aware of how any technology can open new kinds of thinking. Despite weaknesses in Ong’s (2002) technological deterministic binary division of oral and literate societies, he does not deny the effects of primary orality on secondary orality. His theory also encourages further research into the field of linguistics and cognitive processing, as demonstrated by Wolf (2008).





Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the ear and eye: “Great divide” theories, phonocentrism, graphocentrism & logocentrism. Available online 28, September, 2009, from

Chandler, D. (1995). Technological or media determinism. Available online 28, September, 2009, from

Murphie, A., & Potts, J. (2003). Culture and technology. New York, New York: Palgrave-MacMillan

Ong, W. J.  (2002). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. New York, New York: Routledge.

The British Library Board. (n.d.). Scenes from medieval life: A book of hours. Available online 2, October, 2009, from

Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain. New York, New York: Harper Collins.

October 3, 2009   7 Comments