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.


1 Erin Gillespie { 10.03.09 at 11:20 pm }

I would like to add that my APA reference formatting did not publish as I intended. I know they should be double spaced with a hanging indent. If anyone knows how to preserve this formatting, please teach me! Erin

2 Drew Ryan { 10.05.09 at 1:28 pm }

Erin, I would agree with your summation in regard to Ong focusing on technological determinism and in doing so ignoring the vast richness of social implications.

The irony of this omission is that oral cultures by their very nature, going to great lengths to preserve their histories/folklore, are social. Is this not tied into what Ong referred to as oral cultures’ ‘lifeworld?’
As I mentioned in my commentary, or at least tried to, I see new aged (Web 2.0) technologies as creating affordances for individuals and communities that is more akin to traditional interactions. In turn, these ‘communities of practice’ are building new literacy and orality skills.

Good post☺

3 Erin Gillespie { 10.06.09 at 5:52 am }

Thanks Drew. I hopefully made it clear that Ong’s secondary orality draws from primary orality. At the same time, some of his arguments concerning literate cultures and ways of thinking certainly do ignore the influence of orality and focus on the influence of the technological. I wanted to continue with Chandler (1994), but I had to edit.

I see your point about Web 2.0 creating knowledge communities that are similar to the oral/aural audience. In fact, Ong (2002) discusses the audience and “group” in terms of primary and secondary orality. You seem to have continued the trajectory path of orality skills concerning Web 2.0 and secondary orality! Erin

4 Drew Ryan { 10.06.09 at 7:16 am }

Erin, you’re right. I do see some applications of new technologies as a continuation or rather a morphed version of an oral culture’s interactions with their ‘lifeworld.’
In terms of the Internet, I view this world in a modern context with a multi-layered communities e.g., personal, social, academic, and work based.

Talk to you soon, Drew

5 Bev { 10.07.09 at 2:03 pm }

Leonard Shlain in his book “The Alphabet Versus the Goddess” holds that as a result of the newer technologies that allow us to see and hear human conscientiousness will change in profound ways. In what ways remains to be seen- perhaps we will take the more positivie aspects of both orality and literacy and become more a more humane world. perhaps.

6 Clare Roche { 11.28.09 at 6:22 pm }

I have seen that the more students use technology the less they express their ideas in a literary form.

7 Stuart Edgar { 11.30.09 at 2:16 pm }

I agree that Ong oversimplifies, although it may be impossible not to do so with the kind of all-embracing theory he is trying to offer.
I think that he admits the possibility of gray areas between primary orality and literacy. I mention some in this post:
It’s interesting that Chandler mentions Ong in the context of phonocentrism. I can see why he would, but Ong mentions in a few places that he thinks writing is necessary for the fuller potential of human consciousness. On page 15 he describes this in terms of dying to continue living.

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