In “Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the World,” Walter Ong (1982) explores the differences and similarities between two cultures. Although we “can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like”, since we are all, for the most part, literate,” Ong compares and contrasts the thought processes of oral and literate societies in his investigation (p. 31). I will explore the relationship between the two, which provides a deeper understanding of the complexities of language, how it has evolved and how technology has affected human thought process and communication.
Situational experiences give meaning to the spoken language of a primary oral culture. Knowledge is linked to human activity because without text, words have “no visual presence” (p.31). A dictionary doesn’t exist in a primary oral culture. Its people do not “look up” words or knowledge. They do however consider words to have “magical potency” and this comes from the idea they’ve formed of the word, a sense of it, as opposed to a name or a label, which only written language can provide (p.32). This idea of the word is formed by what they see and experience in the world around them. It is directly tied to their surroundings and understanding of the environment in which they live. In a primary oral culture, “serious thought is intertwined with memory systems” to assist with the recall of information (p.34). Knowledge must be repeated to prevent it from disappearing in an oral culture, which “establishes a highly traditionalist or conservative set of mind,” as those who are knowledgeable are regarded highly by their society (p. 41).
With new tools and technology, thought processes change. Writing, in addition to any other technology, facilitates a different form of thinking. No longer dependent on the memories of our ancestors but “storing knowledge outside the mind” through written languages, frees up space and energy that can then be used to facilitate a new form of thinking, more complex thought processes (p.41). If people are not responsible for the lengthy memorization of facts and information, more members of society have access to knowledge and are able to use it in different ways.
These new thought processes that develop in response to writing could be both beneficial and detrimental for humanity. To start, because of the actual writing process, the writer must force his thinking to slow down, allowing him to write, as this form of expression takes more time than that of a primary oral culture (p. 39). This on it’s own facilitates new thought processes. With more time, the writer is aware of his thinking and can reorganize and make better (or worse) the information in his mind prior to sharing that knowledge. A benefit for humanity can be more accurate knowledge that is easy to read and comprehend. A detriment of this time could be an unnecessary complexity and/or redundancy of knowledge. This metacognitive process increases the writer’s awareness and deepens his/her understanding of knowledge through reflection, questions, and guidance of thoughts.
Another benefit to humanity is the physical nature of literacy, as opposed to the abstract information found in oral cultures (as it is not tangible but in the mind of the speaker). Writing ensures that unlike an “oral utterance (that) has vanished as soon as it is uttered” the information is available to the reader and writer at any time (p. 39). Successfully locating this information in the future, allows for another way of thinking to arise. In a primary oral culture, the importance of the information, as well as the repetition of it, dictates its future existence and recall. In a literate culture, the knowledge seeker must now remember how and where to locate the knowledge.
In Phaedrus, Socrates says, “I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence” (Plato). Here we see another disadvantage to writing. With writing there is no dialogue that happens in the moment, spontaneously as it might during oral expression. Although Socrates is correct in saying the paintings “have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves,” writing can and does inspire conversations. Even though writing is often seen as a solitary act which removes social interactions, it can and does promote discourse when people come together to think critically, share, and question writing in an attempt to gain an understanding of the text or to delve deeper into the topic.
Detrimental to humanity is the idea that technology is making people forgetful and dependent on it. That technology is weakening our memory. Perhaps literacy encourages this, as knowledge is now so accessible and because of that, people no longer use their minds as they once did in oral cultures. Is it the technology that makes one forgetful or the increase in knowledge (as space is cleared with a decrease in rote memorization) and the demands that more complex thought processes inevitable put on us?
Writing “can distance and in a way denature even the human.” For example, the unity a student feels in class disappears when he or she enters the “private lifeworld” of written language (p.67). This may be what draws some individuals to writing. Those who are introverts or feel under pressure when asked to speak and perform on the spot can be creative and comfortable creating knowledge, which they may later share with others through print.
As with all things in life, balance between orality and literacy is key. There are many implications for teachers. To effectively use the technology of writing we must understand how it has evolved and why it continues to change. Although writing seems to be making it difficult for those face-to-face conversations to happen more often, oral language continues to play a large role in society and it will continue to be part of communication between individuals. Technology can benefit or be a detriment to humanity. In order for it to enhance our lives, we must not simply use the tool because it is new and easy. Understanding the language, how humans learn, and each individual will help create a society where people are social beings who are happy and can inquire, problem solve and do great things for humanity.
Plato. (n.d.). Phaedrus. (Jowett, B, Trans.). Retrieved September 21, 2013 from https://connect.ubc.ca/bbcswebdav/pid-1529328-dt-content-rid-5277723_1/courses/CL.UBC.ETEC.540.64A.2013W1.28753/module02/m2-phaedrus.html
Ong, W.J. (2012). Orality and literacy. London and New York: Routledge.