Thamus and Harold Innis both spoke of what Innus called ‘knowledge monopolies’ (Postman, 1992, p.9). They addressed their skepticism for new technologies and the impact that it would have on society, specifically the separation it would create between those who understood the new technology and those who were unable to cultivate the necessary expertise (Postman, 1992). Another way to look at Thamus and Innis’ skepticism is that it’s not necessarily the new technology that created the divide in power but instead that the divide always existed and the new technology highlighted the distinction between those with the knowledge and those without. Throughout history, societies stored information that is essential to their survival, whether it was through orality, writing, or some form of new technology (Gaur, 1992). This commentary will examine the past, present and future of orality and the development of writing. It will also demonstrate the impact information storage has had on their evolution, and it will show how there is always an elitist group that is a part of any society.
In an oral community, knowledge is not written down or kept outside of the mind. Instead, knowledge is conceptualized and must be repeated and memorized. It is for this reason that sound, in particular oral utterances or words, have great power (Ong, 1982). This is because “sound exists only when it is going out of existence” (Ong, 1982, p.32). It is impossible to have sound and no sound at the same time, as there is nothing left but silence when sound is disrupted (Ong, 1982). In this sense, sound is momentary, with the sounds of the beginning of a word being gone as you get to the sounds at the end of the word.
With this in mind, it is easy to see the similarities between the ‘wise old men and women’ who have developed verbal memory skills and mastered how to conserve the knowledge of their society and those individuals who develop the skills to use new technology (Ong, 1982). In both instances these individuals would be considered the elite members of their society.
Unlike oral communities where knowledge had to be kept inside someone’s mind, writing societies were able to store knowledge somewhere else. The sounds no longer needed to be associated with a source, they were transformed into paintings on walls, pictographs like hieroglyphs or winter counts, scripts, and eventually alphabets (Gaur, 1992).
Thamus and Innus’ concerns about people becoming competent in new technologies, while others did not, were indeed valid. The males, who became fluent in Learned Latin for instance, could be considered an elite group over those who were unable to learn. This was because it was based on academia and that for over a thousand years it was sex-linked; a language written and spoken only by males, learned outside the home in a tribal setting (Ong, 1982). And those individuals who spoke Learned Latin were also able to write it fluently (Ong, 1982).
In the last few decades, new technology has constantly been developing. In addition to books, writing has become digitized, and it can be stored on our computers, ereaders or cyberspace. In the 18th and 19th centuries, libraries were primarily the property of the wealthy elite (Kevin Kelly, pg.7). For those people who reside in North America and other wealthier countries, libraries have become common and have, for the most part, bridged the divide for access to knowledge in the form of books. This cultural and social divide has been replaced by a global divide, with wealthy countries having access to current and emerging technologies and impoverished countries having little or no access to standard books (Kelly, 2006; Postman, 1992).
The dream that someday there will be a place that knowledge is kept and accessed by all has already been achieved by some societies (Kelly, 2006). The Library of Alexandria for example, contained an estimated 30 to 70 percent of the world’s books (Kelly, 2006; Grafton, 2007). The ideal scenario would be for knowledge, past, present and future, to be kept in a single database library on the Internet where it could be accessed by anyone, anywhere in the world (Kelly, 2006).
This would alleviate Thamus and Innis’ concerns about the balance, or lack thereof, of knowledge of new technology in society. The Internet has already done much to redress this imbalance by providing Western books for non-Western readers (Grafton, 2007). It has also helped bridge the divide between the elite who once controlled access to knowledge; and those who had limited or no access, by making a wealth of information readily available in cyberspace. The power that comes with knowledge has shifted, from the minority to the majority, with access to information being available at the touch of a button.
Gaur, Albertine. (1992). A history of writing [revised edition]. London.
Grafton, A. (2007, November 5). Future Reading: Digitization and its discontents. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/11/05/071105fa_fact_grafton?currentPage=all.
Kelly, K. (2006, May 26). Scan This Book!. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.journalism.wisc.edu/~gdowney/courses/j201/pdf/readings/Kelly%20K%202006%20NYT%20-%20Google%20Print.pdf.
Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen.
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New york: Vintage books.