For many people, especially those of younger generations, the concept of an oral society is rarely, if ever, contemplated because the reality is, the further societies around the world moved towards literacy, the more orality faded into the background. As such, scholars like Walter J. Ong attempted to shed light on this much forgotten way of life through his book ‘Orality and Literacy’ (1982) which, in the third chapter, takes a comparative approach in looking at the two societies. Within that, certain characteristics of an oral society that deserve merit are illustrated like a strong sense of community. However, instead of extending his view to be more objective and well rounded, Ong merely described literacy as a means to better promote orality. In doing so, he failed to delve into relevant drawbacks that arise when the ability to store information externally does not exist, such as the potential for information overload, failure in knowledge dissemination and the absence in logical reasoning.
According to Ong, in order for oral societies to work, an organized system of strategies for knowledge recall is required since that is the only way they can retain new concepts learned in their memory. To achieve that, some of the learning strategies used are through mnemonic patterns, epithets and riddles, which to an extent can very well act as appropriate measures to create the schemas needed to move the desired knowledge from short to long term memory (Ong, p. 34). Yet, one thing Ong did not consider is the possibility that using ones own mind as the only filing system to store every piece of information, can yield detrimental effects like information overload, which “represents a state of affairs where an individuals efficiency in using information…is hampered by the amount of relevant, and potentially useful, information available to them” (Bawden et al., 1999). Although in recent times, this concept is generally used in relation to the exponential increase in information technology, its implications are still relevant because in both instances the purpose of retaining information is so that it can be extended and applied in other circumstances. For instance, in characterizing oral societies, it is explained that the memory strategies implemented are used to learn everything from music to chemistry (Ong, p. 33). From an objective standpoint, it seems fair to assume that this approach can successfully work for simpler ideas, yet when applied to learning complex chemistry formulas or specific historical dates and events, it is almost unimaginable how even the brightest of individuals could truly preserve and recall it all when needed. Therefore, it can be seen as cause for concern that despite all efforts to establish those organizational systems, knowledge can become lost simply because of the overwhelming amount of information. Perhaps, if oral societies allowed for another storage system, than older ideas could instead be used as building blocks to learn both simple and complex concepts in a similar fashion.
In addition to the individual, organizational systems for memory recall were also described as imperative for disseminating knowledge and wisdom from one generation to the next (Ong, p. 41). At the same time, oral societies were also classified as being homeostatic wherein they “cut off memories that don’t have any more relevance” (Ong, p. 46). Considering both of these criteria, it is questionable how elders in that type of society can pass on knowledge and information to younger generations in a way that allows them to fully make sense of it, if older ideas that could very well help in understanding new ones or may even become useful again in the future is forgotten. Moreover, it can be argued that erasing passed memories, could also become a hindrance in keeping the history and culture of that particular society alive. In fact, such was the case among the Lokele in eastern Zaire wherein a tradition of the talking drums was in part lost because many of the archaic words that had been used in the drumming were dropped, thereby leaving it meaningless over time (Ong, p. 47). Likewise, on a greater scale, according to Goody and Watt entire divisions within the Gonja in Ghana are now said to have been rubbed out, to the point where current myths and tales of there past make no mention of it. As such, even though these groups, like other oral societies can thrive regardless of their homeostatic nature, a disadvantage is still created when all that was once important disappears.
Another drawback among oral people that Ong failed to explore in depth is the significant lack of logical reasoning, which also negatively impacts the capability for higher order thinking and deeper understanding as a result of the high societal focus on the concrete at the expense of the abstract (p. 49). Although these societies are generally more modest and so can more easily get by with a situational outlook, constantly living with such limitations also hampers ones ability to make sense of indirect complex concepts and weakens essential problem-solving skills. For example, A. R. Luria (1976) conducted studies that demonstrated this type of limitation by interviewing and testing many illiterate individuals in an oral society. In doing so, the subjects were not only unable to group objects in a manner that were not categorical or situational, but they also could not answer what many would consider simple questions merely because there mind was unable to process or make sense of it without having personally experienced that exact situation (Ong, p. 50). To some, this may seem as just a matter of fact and not necessarily a drawback. Still the idea that the subjects did not even see the benefit in developing the skill for logical reasoning so as to be able to think on a higher plane and understand on a deeper level is unfortunate because it closes them off to reaching a higher potential in many respects.
Overall, Ong does open the door to thinking about a society with some qualities that should perhaps be re-integrated into current literate societies. What would have made his perspective more comprehensive though is if he had also included possible influential drawbacks, like information overload, loss of knowledge dissemination and higher order thinking, that come about when the opportunity to store knowledge somewhere other than the mind ceases to exist.
Bawden, D., Holtham, C. & Courtney, N. (1999). Perspectives on information overload. Aslib Proceedings, 51(8), 249-255.
Ong, W. J. (1982) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. New York, NY: Routledge.