The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Postman, print and literary determinism.

technological determinism and writingThere is a global conflict taking place.  That battle occurs not in cities and towns but in the hearts and minds of members of the global community.  If this sounds alarmist and hyperbolic it is and encapsulates the sentiments of Neil Postman in his introductory chapter titled, “The Judgement of Thamus” (Postman, 1992).   Postman (1992) is of the mind that technology in the form of television and computers are influencing society in general and students specifically in profoundly negative ways.  He cautions us that before a technology is readily accepted into a culture the negative aspects of that technology must be considered.  He present a very narrow definition of technology.  Postman fails to recognize that, “Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness.”  (Ong, 1982, p.81).  Postman’s technological deterministic stance is moderated by the work of Ong (1982) and Chandler (1994).  To say that consciousness is being fundamentally altered is a stretch but are we being influenced by the shift from a print based culture to a hypertext media?  Most likely.  What these changes to our consciousness are and to what degree will have academics debating for years.

Although Postman (1993) concedes that there are positive and negative aspects of any technology he does not present this balanced view in his Chapter, “The Judgement of Thalamus”.   Postman recounts a story described by Socrates to his friend Phaedrus detailing the invention of writing by Theuth.   A weakened memory, an over reliance on text to remember and an informed citizenry that appears to be wise but in truth lacks the capacity are but some of the criticisms of writing outlined by King Thamus to Theuth (Postman, 1993, p. 4).  How did orally based cultures remember when in the words of Ong (1982) the spoken word was “ephemeral”?   The answer is quite simple, “By thinking memorable thoughts” (Ong 1982, p. 34).   Pre-literate cultures depended upon mnemonic patterns, that were heavily rhythmic with predictable balanced patterns, repetitious with alliterations or assonance and many other mental cues.  Memories were embedded within standard thematic stories and proverbs with serious thought being mixed in with these memory systems.  Despite these mnemonic aids non-literate cultures were prone to sloughing off old information in favour of “lived experience” (Ong, 1982, p.47).  But to see writing for all of it’s negative qualities without acknowledging that it is in fact “essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials” (Ong, 1982, p. 81) is short sighted.  Postman fails to balance his critique of technology, specifically the computer, by not recognizing that by extension this advancement of “human potential” is further achieved by computers which are the next evolutionary stage of the written word.  Postman believes that the conflict between media and the spoken word leaves students “casualties” of a psychic battle.  “They (students) are failures because there is a media war going on, and they are on the wrong side” (Postman, 1993, p.17).  I would beg to differ that our students are failures in fact graduation rates have never been higher despite the doom and gloom proposed by Postman (Ministry, 2009).   Postman cautions that moving towards a more literate based culture, as exemplified by the computer in the classroom, shifts the balance from group learning, cooperation and a sense of openness to one of introspection and isolation (Postman, 1993, p.17)   With the advent of social networking sites and on-line collaboration as demonstrated in the open source movement I think that Postman has missed the mark.  Collaboration and cooperation have never been so easy as well as applicable on a massive scale.  Cyber symphonies are taking place in real time by musicians who otherwise might not have the opportunity to play with each other.  As the shift continues to a knowledge based economy in the West, those students that balance the necessity to gain computer literate skills with lived experience will have the technological and real life skills to be balanced citizens.

There is something that Ong and Postman agree on and that is that, “more than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness (Ong, 1982, p.77).  However Postman does not elaborate on what these differences are stating that, “This is because the changes wrought by technology are subtle if not downright mysterious. (Postman, 1993, p.12)  Fortunately Ong outlines some of these “mysterious” changes.  One of the critiques of writing is that it is autonomous in that it cannot be debated with (Ong, 1982, p.78).  This critique is not new and Plato had the same misgivings over writing despite putting his concerns down on paper.  In fact when writing was supplanted by print these same critiques were present.  Postman argues against readily accepting technologies into a culture.

In any given social theory Chandler (1994) cautions technological determinists, such as Postman, that linking any technology to societal change is overly reductionist and is “widely criticized”.  Reductionism when applied to social theory simplifies things to a point whereby one can examine aspects of society in detail however it is at the expense of seeing the whole picture.  Thus, where, Postman sees a conflict between technology and society others might see it as simple one piece of the complex puzzle that is societal change.


Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the ear and eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved 28 September, 2009 from:

Grade 12 Graduation Rates (2009) 2003/4 – 2008/9. Ministry of Education downloaded on October 1st, 2009 from

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.

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.28.09 at 7:10 pm }

But is all change good or necessary?

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