The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

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

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.28.09 at 6:37 pm }

I agree that we cannot divide oral and literate societies so neatly, but do you think it will be the same problem with book literate and digital literate societies?

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