The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

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

Reflection on module 2-Just Thoughts

 Scintillating. This is the word I kept saying to myself especially when I did a rereading of Phaedrus and read some of the commentaries. I must apologise for being so quiet but this my first time doing an online course and this is one of two. I lecture at a teachers’ college, where most persons seem to  feel that an online course does not require any special time table considerations .  Presently, I teach 24 hours per week. I have a  5months old baby girl and a miracle son, who is the main reason why I am studying online. I am extremely grateful to be studying online because it would not have been possible since my son is still recovering from multiple injuries he sustained in terrible car accident last year. My son was hit by a speeding police car. I just included this personal information at this point because I am not sure where my introduction went. I am a Jamaican. Despite being a developing country which is slow in catching up with many types of technological advancement we speed on narrow winding roads.

Where am I heading with this? Well Jamaican society is heavily dependent on orality. Only this week the government decided to increase taxation of the three major telephone companies. People are very angry about this, even my students. When a third company joined Digicel and Cable and Wireless, I was one of those who thought that the new company, Claro could never survive.  We had good reason to believe this.” A small country with only 2.5 million people, with a high percentage of them living below the poverty line.” That’s what we thought. Today all three companies are doing extremely well. As a result of the demand for cell phones and the trappings associated with them, it is cheaper for many to call their relatives abroad rather than have the relative call them as previously maintained. I am also experiencing this as my husband is in Canada presently. The telephone deals are getting better each month. This country really allows talk to be cheap!

Students at all levels face difficulties with writing because their mother tongue is a Creole which exists only in oral form. Attempts that have been made to standardize this language have failed because to write the Creole is problematic. However as result of it existing in the oral form English and slangs from America are being interspersed.The true nature of the languge can never be contained again so I believe linguists should abandon the idea of standardizing. Too many words have been transferred and the original expressions have died with the elders. This is what is so important about writing. Writing is a means of recording culture. The orality practised  has  caused many cultural ideals to be lost. The Anancy stories which Ong refers to have been dying, as many of them were not written down. According to Socrates writing is important for ” memorials to be  treasured against the forgetfulness of old age.” Some of our ways of cooking different dishes have died because of this heavy reliance on orality.

I believe that if some persons were inclined to  write their feelings rather than speak them then there would be less violence. Speaking involves gestures and body langauge which could be irritating to someone who is already very angry.

October 3, 2009   No Comments

Memory Loss and Death


Digital ID: 465215. Work with schools, teachers' reference room : a teacher finds project materials, 1938.. 1938

Digital ID: 465215. Work with schools, teachers' reference room : a teacher finds project materials, 1938.. 1938


As a class, we are all aware that Ong’s chapter 4 is a discussion focused on the effects of writing on consciousness, outlining some characteristics of writing within a brief history.  After I had selected this chapter for the commentary, a second reading redirected my focus from the initial concepts of writing as a form of technology and the concept of writing as “contumacious” (Ong, 2002, pg.78) towards a slightly different focus on two concepts that was dispersed yet combined throughout the chapter.   These topics stirred ample thought and I feel they deserve more critical attention.  These ideas are identified in a continuous intertwined fashion including a passage as Ong states “One of the most startling paradoxes inherent in writing is its close association with death.  This association is suggested in Plato’s charge that writing is inhuman, think-like and that it destroys memory.” (Ong, pg. 80)  This statement provoked two divergent stems of thinking; the first being that ‘memory is destroyed’ and the second being the association of death to writing.  While the history and the effects of writing on a society has not held a prominent point in my academic career until this moment, I would never have believed nor have imagined that writing could be associated with either death or memory loss.   

 Memory loss

 The concept that writing destroys memory appears to be a little presumptuous as the very least.  Memory, much like the scraps of paper we store in our pockets are meant to be discarded when no longer required, resulting in “customary law, trimmed of material no longer of use, which automatically always up to date and thus youthful”. (Ong, pg. 97)  While it is necessary to have an appreciation regarding the lack of research into the effects of writing at the time of Plato’s statement, research today “suggests that people who will develop dementia may be able to delay memory loss by daily activities that stimulate the brain such as reading, writing and card games.” (Dementia Matters)  The human mind was meant to disregard information that was considered not relevant or needed for current existence.  Writing has created not memory loss, but the ability of a culture to preserve what would naturally be lost; resulting in an artificial reversing of the natural memory loss process.  


 The second concept which Ong mentions is that of death.  According to The Oxford University Press death is defined as:

1 [C] the fact of sb dying or being killed:

2 [U] the end of life; the state of being dead:

3 [U] ~ of sth the permanent end or destruction of sth:

4 (also Death) [U] (literary) the power that destroys life, imagined as human in form (Oxford University Press, 2005)

Considering the aforementioned definition, the association of death to writing is a difficult notion to digest.   Writing has the ability to immortalize the writer, to transcend time and culture and to persist even when the culture that created the actual writing no longer exists.  As Ong writes “most books extant today were written by persons now dead.”  (Ong, pg. 101)  Ancient texts such as the rongorongo from Easter Island evidence this statement.  These ancient texts are a writing system in with a combination of ideographic and phonetic.  (The British Museum)  While these texts are not fully deciphered and may never be, the culture that created the text is long gone, but their legacy lives on in their writing and the interest that they generated.

 The intertwined concepts of memory loss and death which are a result of writing create many doubts.  This may be due to the fact that I belong to a culture where writing is integrated in all aspects of daily life.   Just considering that we can store in artificial means, (not the mind) a wide variety of information, ensures that death can not occur.  The life of the information, stories and memories will never die unless our capacity to write and learn to read those writings ceases to exist. 



 Dementia Matters.  (2009).  Daily Activities that stimulate the brain may delay memory loss.   Retrieved online from the World Wide Web:

Ong, W.J., (2002).  Orality and Literacy: The technologizing of the Word.  New York (NY): Routledge.   

Oxford University Press, (2005). Death.  Retrieved online from the World Wide Web:

 The British Museum.  (Unknown).  Wood tablet with rongorongo inscription.  Retrieved online from the World Wide Web:

October 3, 2009   1 Comment

Dichotomies by Dilip Verma

Our society is inextricably interwoven with technology to such an extent that we have become completely dependent upon the tools of our own creation. Technology is such a part of our reality, and has been so internalized that we are no longer always conscious of its influence or presence, but rather take it for granted. There is very little public discourse about the effects that technology has had and is having on our consciousness, so it is enlightening to read works by authors such as Ong and Postman. Postman (1992) analyses the influence that technology has had in shaping our society, while Ong (2002) looks at one technology, literacy, and examines the changes it has caused to our cognitive processes. These authors present technological dichotomies that help us to “become aware of our biases…and to reflect critically on their implications” (Chandler, 1994, Photocentrism, ¶ 1). There are dangers, however, in reducing complex continuous processes into discrete elements.

By simplifying the nature of our interrelation with technology, by taking a dichtomatic approach, it is easy to highlight the important issues in technological discourse. However, there is a risk of exaggerating or over stating the case. Sweeping statements are powerful and eye-catching, but all too often hyperbole. Deterministic discourses are by nature over-analytic and take an idea to extremes. For example, Ong goes so far as to suggest that writing has a “close association with death” (2002, p. 80). And Postman declares that in the United States of America there has occurred “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology” (1992, p. 52). These are interesting and important concepts, but not necessarily realities.

Postman is a valuable addition to the technological debate as he is a lone voice standing against the predominant tecnophilic utopian discourse. Postman’s fear of our belief in “scientism” (1992, Chapter 9) is valid and thought provoking. Nevertheless, Postman notes that “A new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything” (1992, p. 18). This is a very broad statement. Chandler counters that “any medium facilitates, emphasizes, intensifies, amplifies, enhances or extends certain kinds of use or experience whilst inhibiting, restricting or reducing other kinds” (1996, Engagement with Media, ¶ 12). Technologies act on the culture that was already there, which is why countries such as Norway and the United States, both having the same technologies, do not use them in the same way.

Though the distinctions that Ong (2002) makes between orality and literacy are extremely thought provoking, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to physically separate and distinguish oral and literate cultures as two discrete elements. In opposition to the arguments of Ong, Graff (1986, p. 69) notes that “the oral and the literate then, like the human and the printed, need not be opposed as simple choices. Human history did not proceed in that way; rather it, allowed a deep rich process of reciprocal interaction and conditioning to occur as literacy gradually spread and gained in acceptance and influence”.

To define a dichotomy, I have chosen the following, cited by Nubiola (N.D.), from the Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology (1901-1905). A dichotomy is a “form of logical division in which, at each step, the genus is separated into two species, determined by the possession and non possession, the presence and absence, of a mark or attribute. The species so determined satisfy the rules of division: they exclude one another, and they exhaust the extent of the genus divided.”

         The idea of exclusion is important here; If Ong sees literacy and orality as a dichotomy, then he is suggesting in some way that they are mutually exclusive mediums that “give shape to experience” Chandler (1996, Engagement with Media, ¶ 11). Both orality and literacy have always been interwoven in all literate cultures. For example Graff (1986, p. 70) notes that “for many centuries, reading itself was an oral, often collective, activity, and not the private, silent one we now consider it to be.” What is more, the influence of orality and literacy varies greatly between societies. For example, the percentage of the Mexican population that are regular readers is low whilst in Japan it is very high. Television, the linguistic staple of Mexican culture, is both aural and visual but not textual as is the written word. Doesn’t it over simplify the subject to neatly categorize Japan and Mexico in the same group?

         If we are going to make a distinction between modes of communication, then surely linguistic and non-linguistic are more natural choices. Ong (2002) argues that spoken language is natural whereas written language is artificial, but all language is artificial as it is language that mediates experience. Chandler (1994) notes that language allows for the construction of reality. Because we have so completely internalized language, we are no longer aware of its mediating effects. It is language and not the written word, as Ong contends, that separates the world into discrete things. Chandler (1994, Logocentrism, ¶ 6) cites Arieti (1976) as arguing that  “we tend to perceive what we can subsequently understand or place in some category, and we tend to overlook the rest.” Our senses receive an infinite amount of information that we organize or filter by categorizing through the naming of objects. Even here though, the dichotomy simplifies reality. Surely, at the most basic level, organisms can distinguish between what is edible and what is not as a basic form categorization without words. Categorizing in fact is not something that started with language, but was enhanced by it.

         In general great divides succeed as discourse but fail as realistic approaches. Society is not cut and dry, but made up of continuous variables. To divide societies into literate or oral, or into technopolies or technocracies is not practical. Chandler (1994, Great Divide Theories, ¶ 6) quotes Finnegan (1988) as stating that ·”’continuity theories’…. stress a ‘continuum’ rather than a radical discontinuity between oral and literate modes, and an on-going dynamic interaction between various media”. This is much closer to our techno-shaped reality, a shade of grey rather than black or white.

Baldwin, J.M., ed. (1901-1905). Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology. 3 vols. New York. Macmillan.

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Photocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism. Retrieved September 27, 2009, from litorial/litorial.html

Chandler, D. (1996, February). Engagement with media: Shaping and being shaped. Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine. Retrieved September 27, 2009, from media/Documents/litorial/litorial.html

Graff, H. J. (1986). The legacies of literacy: continuities and contradictions in western society and culture. In S. De Castell, A. Luke & K. Egan (Eds.), Society and Schooling: a reader. Cambridge University Press.

Nubiola, J. (N.D.). Dichotomies and Artifacts: A reply to Profesor Hookway. Retrieved September 30, 2009, from

Ong, W. (2002). Orality and Literacy. New York, Routledge

Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York. Vintage

October 3, 2009   1 Comment

The White Flag of Surrender

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

By Neil Postman


            How has our culture changed because of technology? Are the effects of technology positive or negative? Do we get to decide which technology society keeps and what we disregard? Are we just ‘tools of our tools’ (Postman, 1992)?

            As technology’s pace continues to hit warp speed, we see an ever changing, increasingly new list of benefits and burdens; and changes to our culture, which had not been anticipated. We may learn from this that it is a mistake to suppose that any technological innovation has a one-sided, limited effect (Postman, 1992).

Blessing and Burden

            Technology is a myriad of discoveries that can be akin to Pandora’s box; both good and evil emerge. Society is unable to stop the advancement or progress of either. Postman (1992) states that once the hand of technology is played in society, it does what it was designed to do. A good example of this is the Internet. The Internet was originally designed by the US military as a tool for communication. The original creators could not have foreseen the magnitude and impact that the Internet would have on society. It allows society to build and create new forms of communication and business that is constantly being rediscovered; it also advances social ills like child pornography and gambling. It can create chaos and change culture at the same time. Unforeseen consequences do arrive, and therefore the discoverer is not always the best judge of the good or harm that is a result of an introduction of a new invention in society (Postman, 1992).

Technology Changes our Culture

     Changes the power structure.

Technology produces an elite group that has been given undeserved authority, prestige and power (Postman, 1992). Unfortunately, this power structure is not distributed equally (Postman, 1992). Countries that do not have the capability of developing or using technology fall quickly behind the rest of the world.

Power changes hands without warning and is unpredictable, creating power struggles and shifts. Technology provides the elitists with weapons that only encourage this unbalance of power.

     Influences the masses.

Postman (1992) states the obligatory truth that the medium is the message. The medium and the message are influenced by each other due to the fact that “…embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another” (Postman, 1992, p, 13). This has the ability to influence the individuals who are receiving the message via the innovative modern medium.

     Changes our lexicon.

Our very language and definitions have been altered by technology. New words have been added to accommodate our new possessions, like ipod, RAM, memory stick, etc. Words are now redefined by the new paradigm in which technology creates.

     Redefines our values.

Technology changes our ideologies, theories, context, ideas of freedom, truth, fact, wisdom, and history (Postman, 1992). It changes our context in that it influences our reference point in society and history. It changes what we think about and how we think about it (Postman, 1992).

Technology challenges our understanding of what is real. “…New technologies change what we meant by ‘knowing’ and ‘truth’; they alter those deeply embedded habits of thought which give to a culture its sense of what the world is like; a sense of what is the natural order of things, of what is reasonable, of what is necessary, of what is inevitable, of what is real” (Postman, 1992, p. 12). When a culture changes the context in which they live, a paradigm shift occurs, influencing the very structure and foundation on which society rests.

     Changes our community.

            Our community is no longer the people who live next door. Our community is the entire world. The very arena in which thought and ideas are developed (Postman, 1992) is impacted by technology. Society is constantly ‘wired’ via e-mail, voicemail, fax, Blackberry, texting, cell phones; keeping us connected to everyone at all the times. It changes our environment, and how we use the tools determines our work places and private spaces.

     Changes our worldview.

Technology promotes a certain worldview; when this view is challenged, an institution feels threatened. When this occurs, a culture feels threatened (Postman, 1992). “…New technologies compete with old ones- for time, for attention, for money, for prestige, but mostly for dominance of their world-view” (Postman, 1992, p.16). Society’s worldview changes according to what we have been exposed to. Therefore, those who control our exposure, also control our views of family, society, ethics, etc.

     Changes us.

How do we process the many megabytes of information that is thrown at us everyday? Information overload, techno-stress, carpal tunnel syndrome, user frustration and technosis are symptoms of our constant changing technological environment. The quantity and quality of information is uncontrolled. Authority of authors and creators are not questioned, challenging us to give authority to those individuals who did not earn it and do not deserve it.


There are many benefits and burdens to technology. It does not add or subtract to our culture, it indeed changes everything (Postman, 1992). Technology has far reaching affects that impacts our culture in varied ways- both positively and negatively. Society can change, adapt and metamorph to accommodate and live with new technology and the innovations and creations that it produces. Or it can allow the degradation of our culture to remnants of a civilized and orderly existence.

Do we have any choice but to surrender to the technology age? Yes, but only if you want to be left behind. 


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.

October 3, 2009   1 Comment

Refuting the theory of the Great Divide

The theory of the Great Divide advanced by many cultural evolutionists would have us view world history as being the evolution of a primitive society to one where literacy is its hallmark.  Primitive societies, with their rich oral traditions, their prodigious memorization skills, their ability to keep large audiences rapt during discourses and storytelling are contrasted with literate societies whose characteristics include the ability to free up the mind spaces for exploratory thinking, the necessity of record-keeping to preserve details of times gone by and the ‘decontextualizing’ ( Peter Denny, 1991) of words to the extent that reference books are required to interpret the author’s meaning.

Oral societies are deemed to be pre-literate, lacking the ability for logical or rational thinking, humanized and immediate. (Ong, chapter 3)  In contrast, literates are isolated, often abstract, can manipulate data beyond the boundaries of context and are finally freed of the need to store historical or practical knowledge.  In so many of the descriptions, oral societies are thought to be less capable, perhaps even less able than literate societies who are seen to be generally superior.

Ong advances that both societies are not only different in their presentation of world knowledge but that the thinking process is actually altered as one moves away from Orality. “Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but normally even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form.” (Ong, p. 78)

This polarized view of  cultural evolution is flawed for many reasons. Chandler remarks that a more moderate view of the world is more accurate. (Chandler, p. 5) There is no evidence to suggest that primitives are less capable of logical or rational thought.  “Those in non-literate societies do not necessarily think in fundamentally different ways from those in literate societies… Although one commentator, Peter Denny, argues that ‘decontextualization’ seems to be a distinctive feature of thinking in Western literate societies, he nevertheless insists that all human beings are capable of rationality, logic, generalization, abstraction, theorizing, intentionality, causal thinking, classification, explanation and originality (Olson & Torrence 1991, p.81) All of these qualities can be found in oral as well as literate cultures.” (Chandler, p. 4)

A more precise view would be to admit that most societies are operating in a mixed mode.  Michael Clanchy uses the term “the growth of a literate mentality.  “He…argues that the shift [from memory to written record] was facilitated by the continuing ‘mix’ of oral and literate modes and that written forms were adapted to oral practice rather than radically changing it.” (Clanchy, 1979)

“The reality of social uses of varying modes of communication is that oral and literate modes are ‘mixed’ in each society. There is nothing absolute about a shift to a greater use of literate modes, which is better described as a change in the ‘mix’.  Oral conventions often continue to apply to literate forms and literate conventions may be applied to oral forms.” (Olson & Hildyard 1978 cited in Street 1984, p. 19)

Furthermore, it is difficult to reconcile Ong’s view of primitive societies when approached from a practical sense.  All societies, no matter how self-sufficient, must have the ability to register trade, administrative functions and perhaps legal data.  This quantitative data requires some recording process that is more permanent than an accounting of family histories or heroic exploits; a method that is not be dictated by the need to please the audience. (Ong p. 67)  It requires a practice that has more permanence than the spoken word, than sound itself. (Ong, p. 32)

Brian Street writes that even in oral societies, there is a component of literacy that is present.  He describes two kinds of literacies.  The use of record keeping for  commercial events, such as transactions, and all sort of bureaucratic events is called ‘Commercial literacy’. (Street, p. 157)  The ‘maktab’ literacy, the one taught in schools, is more representative of the arts, humanities and literature we would expect.  The first literacy is meant to support the social structure, the other as a way of distinguishing social classes. (Street p. 13)

So why then does the use of text seem the indicator of a higher civilization?  First, let us define text.  “Texts are material artifacts that take many different forms: cave paintings, tattoos, stone tablets, clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, manuscript books, musical scores, maps, printed books, engravings, newspapers, photographs, films, DVDs, computers. Every kind of text is produced by a special technology, but all those technologies share a simple purpose: they were designed to supplement the fragile human mind by providing a more durable artificial memory system. Those technologically preserved and transmitted memories are the foundation of all human culture.” (Pathways)

Ong uses Homer’s writings as evidence of a clear distinction between oral and literate thinking.  And indeed, Greek civilization is thought to have been one of the most advanced of its time.  But it is not the ability to suddenly free up their cluttered memory and launch into unprecedented creative and rhetorical thought that makes their society so exceptional.  Nor does it make them the prime example of shifting from oral to literate thinking.  The basis of their sudden evolution from Orality to Literacy lies in their reinterpretation of the Phoenician writing.

“The changes introduced into the Phoenician script by the ancient Greeks should not be regarded as ‘improvements’, but as a revolution that forever altered the Greek society and the human history by creating a new state of mind, the ‘alphabetic mind’.” (Havelock, 1982a, p.7 cited in  Jahandaríe, p. 12)

The Greeks created  syllabries, comprised of the actual sounds of human speech. (Jahandaríe, p. 12) “The new script also democratized literacy.” (Jahandaríe, p. 12) The simplicity and ease of use of this new alphabet meant that priests and scribes were no longer the only ones able to utilize this technology. And thus, Greek and Roman civilizations became the first on earth “to be equipped with the means of adequate expression in the inscribed word; the first to be able to place the inscribed word in general circulation; the first, in short, to become literate in the full meaning of that term, and to transmit its literacy to us.” (Havelock, 1976, p. 2)

This does not mean that the characteristics of their mind were altered but that they finally had a method to record, in a permanent and accurate fashion, the intricacies of human thought and the nuances that make up all cultures.  And so, the newly literate were to become a society of  “Conservators of knowledge”. (Jahandaríe, p. 13) Their alphabet, which allowed a faithful reproduction of the range of sounds and “the preservation of the subtlest of linguistic nuances” (Jahandaríe, p.14) provided the means of converting heretofore oral poetry into historical records.  It is interesting to note that other societies may have had as sophisticated and advanced a culture as the Greeks and Romans, but their permanent records, by virtue of the shortcomings of their own alphabets, lacked the sufficient details to document its glory.

As an illustration, Havelock argues that “the Old Testament, the Vedas, the Koran, and the Epic of Gilgamesh are less sophisticated in both language and content than the Homeric texts not because they are the products of simpler minds, but because they were inscribed in scripts that…[could not convey] the full richness of the original oral tradition.” (Jahandaríe, p. 15)

Ong’s illustration of the Oral mind as contrasted to the Literate mind is enlightening as an illustration of how cultural evolution is affected by technology.  And indeed, the invention of the Greek alphabet may have been one of man’s most significant innovations.  But it seems unlikely that any civilization could be so primitive as to not require some form of recording device beyond oral tradition.    I cannot conceive of a time when there is a clear line between Orality and Literacy.


Chandler, Daniel (1994): ‘Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism’ [WWW document] URL [28 Sep. 2009]

Goody, Jack (Ed.) (1968): Literacy in Traditional Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Jahandaríe, Khosrow. “Spoken and written discourse: a Multi-Disciplinary Perspective – Google Books.” Google Books. 3 Oct. 2009 <>.

Olson, David R & Nancy Torrance (Eds.) (1991): Literacy and Orality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Ong, Walter (1982): Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen

“Pathways of Excellence.” Pathways of Excellence. 1 Oct. 2009 <>.

Street, Brian. Literacy in theory and practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press , 1984.

October 3, 2009   1 Comment

Immortal stories: from orality to literacy

Commentary #1 – In response to: Ong-Orality and Literacy Chapter 3 “Some Psychodynamics of Orality”

Chapter 3 of Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy addresses the characteristics of primary oral cultures in relation to residual oral, chirographic and typographic cultures. The crux of Ong’s argument in this chapter is that it is extremely difficult for literate people to truly understand the nature of a primary oral culture because understanding demands the complete suspension of knowledge regarding literacy. One of the most profound explorations within the chapter is the nature of traditional stories and characters and their relevance today, not only as immortal components of the storytelling culture but also as historical landmarks indicative of the orality or literacy of a time.  Many of the classic stories modern literate cultures grew up with could be seen as lasting because of their abundance in print, but in actuality it is their ability to survive the test of orality that has solidified their place in history.

Ong explains that memory and the ability to repeat information without visual aids was crucial in primary oral cultures.  Since “colorless personalities cannot survive oral mnemonics”, the description of people and events must contain bizarre figures, formulary number groupings and/or epithets in order to be memorable (p.69).  These colorful elements that served as memory tools in oral cultures act as devices of fantasy for literate cultures; the same words play out differently as a result of levels of orality and literacy within a culture. Whereas such colorful descriptions would be part of oral rhetoric, they invoke the spirit of fantastical fiction, of fairy tales, myths and legends in modern literate cultures. Ong describes the nature of oral world as “highly polarized, agonistic… [defined by] good and evil, virtue and vice, villains and heroes” which supports the notion that these characteristics serve as mnemonic aids first and story elements only as residual effect (p.45). By invoking the likes of Mark Antony, Odysseus, Cyclops, Little Red Riding Hood and more, Ong draws upon characters that have withstood the test of time and forces the reader to examine them within the oral context.

If the opposite of agonistic name-calling in oral cultures is praise, then Mark Antony’s funerary oration confirms Ong’s assertions about the use of polarities as mnemonic devices. The lines directly following “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” are “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones” (III,ii). To a listener in oral cultures, these polarities have a sort of musical quality that commits the tune to memory, while to the reader, these lines are simply Shakespeare. Within the same short passage of Shakespeare comes multiple references to “honourable Brutus” and “ambitious Caesar”.  In the true spirit of the oral world of both ancient Rome and 16th century Shakespeare, these mnemonic aids are indicative of the true content of an oration. In pointing out the origin of these subtle stylings, Ong lays the framework for a cognizant analysis of texts born from primary oral or residual oral cultures.

The importance of epithets is evident in the polarized oral world of heroes and villains. Ong refers to the presence of epithets as “formularly baggage which high literacy rejects as cumbersome and tiresomely redundant because of its aggregative weight”(Ong, 1977 as found in Ong, p.38).  Modern conventions of English are weary of the kind of repetition that would suite an oral culture. However, it is an interesting feature of oral cultures that epithets were required in order to establish the foremost characteristic of an individual in order to make them memorable. Ong asserts that “once a formulary expression has crystallized, it had best be kept intact” although today, we might refer to this as oral typecasting (p.39). It is interesting that once an epithet or memorable expression is built up in an oral culture, it is almost impossible to escape. The nature of how oral communication dispenses means that it would be impossible to track everyone down who had heard something and correct their memory. However, literacy allows for the spread of the written word and while information is not erased in literate cultures, the dissemination of current information is much easier. A newspaper could proclaim a man guilty one day and then retract the next day and while a record would exist of both occurrences, the existence of a paper trail is the authority in changing appearances and opinion. Ong suggests that oral cultures kept oral epithets and formulary expressions intact because it would be very difficult to undo them under the authority of orality.

In literate cultures, Ong muses “you do not need a hero in the old sense to mobilize knowledge in story form” which is likely why stories that originated in a primary oral or residual oral cultures have a magical and fantastical quality about them (p.68).  On the surface, texts and transcripts of facts and stories that emerged from oral cultures appear to have their own style, but Ong points out that the conventions of writing we abide by today were not in existence in oral cultures. Polarities provided structure in the oral world and Ong does an excellent job of unpacking the nature of communication in the absence of literacy.


Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and Literacy. London: Routledge.

October 3, 2009   1 Comment

Thinking, writing and everything in between…

“Without writing, words as such have no visual presence (…). They are sounds” (Ong, 2008, pg. 31).

       Humans have forever experimented with and longed for different ways and methods to simplify life and daily processes; whether it is cleaning clothes, cooking, bathing, transporting items from one place to another, etc. Many of these efforts have accidentally or unintentionally resulted in impressive technological devices and processes. In my opinion, the (now) necessary technology we call writing, was created this way.

       Ong (2008) believes the first writing efforts began as a way to aid memory through the elaboration of lists or tallies; I believe writing began as a transmission of needs, thoughts and ideas which later became more structured and organized, giving way to general rules (grammar) and guidelines of how things should be written (spelling) and organized (syntax). The introduction and implementation of writing has had different effects on human thought processes. Ong (2008) affirms writing structures the literate mind, its oral processes and human consciousness.

       Writing is a complex dynamic mental and physical procedure which allows humans to develop more complex thought processes and it involves thinking, feeling and sometimes talking (Beck, & Fetherston, 2003). With writing, humans are allowed (and somewhat forced) to discover new and alternative vocabulary or ways of transmitting a message effectively. The writing process allows the writer to become separated from whatever he is writing about (Havelick, 1963 as referenced by Ong 2008); it truly allows the author to experience a deep reflection process as a result of reviewing what he wrote and how he wrote the message. This process allows thoughts to become “timeless”, context-free symbols that portray a message; there is no need for body language or contextual cues. Writing allows the author to “develop codes in a language different from oral codes used in the same language” (Ong, pg. 104).

       Although there are many advantages and positive aspects to the writing process, there are also “downsides” or strains that writing causes, especially on the authors. Writing sometimes brings our train of thought to a halt (writer’s block) because of the rules and guidelines we must follow to successfully and effectively deliver the message. We become so worried about the correct wording, grammatical structure and syntax; we sometimes forget to re-focus on the main topic or message to convey. On the other hand, this technology has allowed writers to “transport” readers to unknown places by using rich, descriptive text similar to the language used in oral cultures to tell stories and share reflective messages.

       Plato suggested writing destroys memory (Ong, 2008, pg. 78) and viewed the process as inhuman, yet paradoxically wrote his ideas to object on the process. In support to Plato’s idea and expanding a bit on the concept of memory, I do consider writing destroys memory; if we consider memory as the capacity to store short-term information only. Writing has facilitated the use of lists or tallies; our brain does not store “irrelevant” information when we can download it unto a piece of paper for later consultation. With the inclusion of writing to our lives, our brain is allowed to work on other more elaborate and complex processes, such as deeper analysis and comprehension of a specific topic; modification or composition of theories or statements. According to Benjamin Bloom (1956), the previous require higher order thinking skills, or the integration of various “simple” skills to develop the more complex abilities.

       Writing as a technology has changed the way humans think, express feelings and learn. The educational process has, as a result, changed dramatically, giving room for diverse activities in which the teacher isn’t always the one with all of the information; students are allowed and encouraged to look for information, question the validity and reliability of the sources and discuss their opinions on a specific topic.

       Along with great technology and resources, comes a greater responsibility of humankind to use these resources responsibly; we are now seeing a greater gap among literate and non-literate (oral) people. Nowadays, access to information in certain communities is practically impossible, impeding the democratization of technology, writing and information; while on other parts of the globe, new technological media (Wikis Blogs, etc.) facilitates and encourages the distribution and contribution of information. As always, humans have found alternative ways to distribute information and encourage writing as a skill and as a technology. A clear example is this class and this media chosen to deliver course content.

       As part of a literate culture, we must consider the implications of the differences between oral and literate cultures in the educational process and the integration of technological media to this very important mix. The writing process, as we now know it, must be an integrative, flexible process that adapts to the needs and context of the reader and writer.



Beck, N., & Fetherston, T, (2003). The effects of incorporating a word processor into a year three writing program. Information Technology in Childhood Education Annual, 139-161.  

Bloom, B.S. (Ed.), Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., & Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay.

Ong, W. (2008) Orality and Literacy. The technologizing of the word. Routledge, USA-Canada

October 3, 2009   1 Comment

Text Endangered


The dictionary defines “text” as the original words of something written or printed as opposed to a translation, paraphrase or revision. According to this definition primary documents would constitute as text whereas the translation of a novel into Korean or Swedish would not. In that case, O’Donnell argues text today is highly unstable due to the changes in technology.

Text is endangered due to the way it is digitalized and organized. Rules of writing such as grammar and punctuation did not govern writing systems of the past. Instead “the ancients made do in a wilderness of irregular scratches on a page, and made do quite well.” (O’Donnell, 1998) Writing in the past was less formalized and structured which indicates that the purpose of writing was not for wide distribution but for personal use. This belief created a casual and utilitarian culture for writing.

People today may view such text as chaotic due to the absence of paragraphs and punctuations. But instead of appreciating the distinctiveness of the original text, people today impose their own system of writing by adding punctuations and revising the grammar to make the text fit into the current period. O’Donnell illustrates text found during the 20th century was very stable with appropriate formatting and editing, the attention to appearance was present as well. However, it was during the late 1900’s that “we have now returned to a time of instability marked by debate over means of presentation.” (O’Donnell, 1998) The vast options of representing and storing text are diluting the original work.

O’Donnell illustrates that “[t]o enter a text in a computer means to make choices. It is possible to make the simplest possible set of choices and to allow the text to take the form of a series of Roman alphabet characters, upper and lower case, delimited by carriage returns, tabs, and a handful of standard punctuation marks.” (O’Donnell, 1998) Such choices made by people today assigned to transfer information and ideas of the past will have a significant impact on how newly presented text will be understood. Before virtual libraries replace libraries it is important to consider just how fragile text is. Even the simple process of changing the font of the text can take the life and time out of the text.

Despite the implications associated with the digitalization of text, the concept of the virtual library is a step many libraries especially in the post secondary level are taking and planning towards. O’Donnell describes the “ ‘virtual library’ as a dream that many share” (O’Donnell, 1994) The public’s confidence in virtual libraries can be observed “in 1992, [when] public libraries throughout California suffered major budget cuts up to 65% forcing branches to layoff staff, reduce hours of operation, and eliminate new purchases. In some counties libraries closed down altogether when voters failed to approve taxes that would have supported them. In the same year, according to The Washington Post, the state suspended all construction plans for new university libraries in order to focus its attention and budget on ‘virtual libraries.’” (Roy, 1997) With this much focus and government support, soon print-based libraries will become museums or historical sites where tour guides announce through their loud speakers that people used to read, research and relax in such an institution.

One of the main benefits of virtual libraries is that it does increase access and availability because resources will be made available online anywhere. However, switching from print-based libraries to virtual libraries only replaces previous limitations with new restrictions. O’Donnell explains the problems surrounding accessibility in the representation of text by various word processing formats in that “[a]n abundance of word processing formats has generated another abundance of would-be standard formats. Recognition of these formats depends on users’ choices of hardware and software. If, for example, I need to get tax forms from the U.S. Treasury, I can find them on the World Wide Web and print them at home in minutes. But I must have previously acquired one of (at last count) four different ways to manage text (PDF, PCL, PostScript, or SGML) in order to get those forms at all.” (O’Donnell, 1998) Therefore, users with computers or software that is not compatible or up to date will be denied access. Thus, what seems to be progression is actually regression.

In addition to computer incompatibility, technologies are changing rapidly thus information is constantly being formatted and reformatted into the technology of the time. The transfer of text from one entity to another is a dangerous risk because the process threatens the survival of the original text. Similar to oral cultures as information is passed down from generation to generation details and meanings are altered and in today’s society each generation of technology is replacing the next generation at a much faster rate. Perhaps “our present plans to convert as much as possible of our print heritage to digits might, for the most part, be a waste of money…since, as reading loses favor… in one hundred years almost no one will read the literature–books and journals–from the past because it will be obsolete in the electronic medium. As a consequence.”(Seiler and Surprenant, 1991)

It is important to re-evaluate the process of managing and presenting text. In order to strengthen the quality of electronic resources and virtual libraries relationships between libraries, creators, publishers and aggregators of electronic resources need to be well established to reduce the loss of text in the process.


O’Donnell, J. (1998). Hyperlink: The instability of the text. Avatars of the word: Papyrus to cyberspace, Retrieved September 20, 2009, from

O’Donnell, James J. (1994) “The Virtual Library; An Idea Whose Time Has Passed.” Gateways, Gatekeepers, and Roles in the Information Omniverse: Proceedings of the Third Symposium. Eds. Ann Okerson and Dru Mogge. Washington, DC: Association of Research Libraries Office of Scientific and Academic Publishing. 19-32.

Roy, Michael V. (1997) “The Virtual Library: Rhetoric and Reality” © IT Journal On-Line: Spring 1997. Retrieved October 1, 2009, from

Seiler, Lauren, and Thomas Surprenant. (1991) “When We Get the Libraries We Want, Will We Want the Libraries We Get?” Wilson Library Bulletin. 29..157.

October 3, 2009   1 Comment