The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

A Symbiotic Relationship: The Written and Spoken Word

A Symbiotic Relationship: The Written and Spoken Word

by  Delphine Williams Young

ETEC 540       University of British Columbia    October 4, 2009

Plato, through Phaedrus, as alluded to in Ong reveals that the controversy about new forms of technology overtaking and even destroying the older forms is not a new phenomenon.  Plato’s argument continues as Postman (1992) states that “a new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything.” Ong further argues that it is impossible for literate cultures to operate in like manner as pre-literate ones. Therefore, he is in a sense agreeing with Postman that since the technology of writing came into being, our society has changed considerably.

 Ong has in fact embraced the Great Divide theory by indicating pre- literate cultures do not possess similar thought processes as literate society. Do Homo sapiens differ simply because they are not manipulators of new technology? Are human beings evolving into higher creatures as time passes?  Ong seems to categorize human beings as being fundamentally different because of the dispensation in which they exist. He is somewhat like the techno-evolutionists which classify the time span in which new technological developments take place as “progress” and give these periods labels such as: the space age, industrial age, electronic age, the age of autonomy …The term ascribed to those who seek to elevate speech as being primary or foundational and writing as secondary to it is phonocentrism according to Chandler (1994). Chandler criticizes those who seek to suggest that there are “radical, deep and basic differences between modes of thinking in non-literate and literate societies.”

 Marie Clay (1994) in her many studies done with children, who led to the concept of emergent literacy, can offer insights into the positions held by these two theorists. Clay found out that reading and writing can develop simultaneously in young children. In other words some children do not learn how to read first and then write after. Writing is often easier for some children to begin with than reading. Orality and writing can function as partners as proven by these clinical examples. I am also an example of  a child who would write beautifully and not understand a single word.  Britton (1993) corroborates with his findings that has led him to posit that children naturally begin to write from the self, move on to write to get things done and finally begin to write creatively when they realize that writing is something that they can manipulate to unearth their individual creative instincts.

How then can writing which most phonocentrists agree that is really speech written down be something vastly different from writing? New technologies do add a new dimension to other technologies as writing has. I believe that new technology emerges from each society depending on how the society perceives itself. Upon close scrutiny of the dialogue between Phaedrus and Socrates, one realizes that the conversation ends with Socrates offering the suggestion that writing is important in assuaging the transient nature of short term memory. This dialogue exemplifies that society will always resist change but once there is human desire for the change to occur, it most certainly will. Writing is a technology which converged with orality and this relationship will only expand as humanity creates even more diverse spaces for self expression. Therefore, the peoples who existed in pre-literate cultures are no different in their need and desire to  find a way to preserve their heritage than those who are from literate societies that are still finding alternate ways  to share ideas. This class is a prime example.

However, one can agree with Postman that all new technologies should be carefully scrutinized for adaptation  so that we can appreciate the source from which they emerged. According to Ong , “ to try to construct writing without investigation  in depth of orality out of which writing is permanently grounded is to limit one’s understanding” (Ong, p.77)


Britton, James. (1988) Teaching Secondary School English: Readings and Application ed.D Sheridan New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Chandler,D. (1994) Bias of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories. Phonocentrism.(online) retrieved October 3, 2009  http://www.aber.acuk/medis/documents/litoral.htm

Clay, Marie (1994) Writing Begins at Home : Preparing Children for Writing Before They Go to School.  Auckland: Heinemann.

Ong, Walter (1982) Orality and Literacy: Technolizing of the Word. London and New York: Metheuen.

Postman, N. (1992) Technology: The Surrender of  Culture. New York:Vintage Books.

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

Orality, Literacy, Multiliteracy and K-12 Education in B.C.

Try to imagine a culture where no one has ever ‘looked up’ anything.  In a primary oral culture, the expression ‘to look up something’ is an empty phrase: it would have no conceivable meaning.  Without writing, words as such have no visual presence, even when the objects they represent are visual.  They are sounds…they are occurrences, events (Ong, 1982, p.31).

In inviting us to imagine one of the characteristics of a primary oral culture, Ong introduces his chapter on the psychodynamics of orality, describing the characteristics of thought and expression in oral culture.  For members of fully-literate cultures, it is difficult to imagine a context in which people have not had access to the written word whether for purposes of personal organization, expression or enlightenment.  Similarly, it would be difficult, I suspect, for a member of a fully digitally-literate culture to imagine a culture where no one has ever “Googled” something.

Ong’s presentation of the characteristics of orally based thought indeed draws attention to the patterns and generalities which differ from the characteristics of literate thought.  For example, Ong (p.45) suggests that Oral culture is “empathetic and participatory” in the case of learning information; to acquire knowledge in oral culture is to become empathetic and close to it, while in so-called literate culture, the act of writing causes a separation, a distancing between the knower and the known.  Moving further still, in the case of digital literacy, I wonder whether or not a written word transmitted via the Internet might be yet another degree of separation between the knower and the known.

Yet, what does it mean to be ‘literate’? Ong discusses orality in detail, frequently contrasting it to literacy by means of discussing the features of oral-based thought.  Although he does not provide us with a single, salient definition of literacy, in his distinction between the characteristics of oral and literate culture, Ong provides details that suggest that the meaningful use of reading and writing indicates literacy.  This can be illustrated by the above epigraph.  When Ong poses the contrast of ‘looking up’ information, he is specifically alluding to the ability to read and write information for the purpose of preserving and transmitting said information; a categorical feature of literacy.  At the time that Ong’s work was first published, I would argue that the definition of literacy would not have been disputed a great deal, and that when one talked about literate people, one meant people who could read and write.  In fact, Merriam-Webster (2009) simply characterizes literacy as having the ability to read and write.  It becomes clear through Ong’s analysis that without this ability, oral cultures are unable to produce a language that is as grammatically complex, analytic, or novel as that of literate cultures.

Are oral cultures at a disadvantage in a world driven by digital (and literate) technologies? British Columbia is a cultural milieu; our schools have any number of cultures represented in them—both from oral and literate traditions.  By Canadian common definition, literacy is “the ability to understand and employ printed information in daily activities at home, at work and in the community – to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential” (Canadian Education Association, 2009).  This definition goes beyond the simplicity of the previous, but still leaves the question: What is ‘printed information’ and does an ‘illiterate’ (or oral) person require this information in order to acquire knowledge and realize potential? UNESCO (2003) proposes that literacy is:

[T]he ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.

This definition, in contrast to the others presented previously, acknowledges a plurality in the concept of literacy; it allows for various forms of viewing and representing of written materials to be incorporated into literate society, allowing for the proposition of multiple literacies.

Cazden, Cope, Fairclough, Gee, et al (1996) argue that the diversity and multiplicity of communication and culture in today’s world calls for a much more extensive view of literacy than past classifications based solely on familiarity of the written word.  They propose that today’s globalized society does not fit the traditional view of literacy, and that technology-based and multimedia texts must also be accounted for as a part of literacy, or multiliteracy.  Eshet-Alkalai (2004) broadens the idea of multiliteracy and extends it to digital literacy by naming five distinct literacies present among digital literates, including photo-visual literacy.

The concept of literacy has changed since Ong first presented the characteristics of oral culture. In keeping with UNSECO and the Canadian Education Association, for students in B.C., literacy education now includes four categories, rather than the traditional two: reading, writing, viewing and representing (B.C. Ministry of Education, 2006, 2007), including specific learning outcomes for oral literacy, and allowing for greater participation from students of many cultural backgrounds, not just Ong’s ‘literates’.  Are oral cultures at disadvantage when it comes to literacy education?  Since Canadian society relies so heavily on the written word—be it by hand or machine—I would argue that yes, oral cultures are still at a disadvantage.  This is especially pertinent as scholars such as Ong have historically devalued and dismissed oral culture as primitive or homeostatic (p. 46).  Times are changing, however, and with the proliferation of digital communication and multimedia in the 21st century, multiliteracy, rather than monoliteracy appears to fit best.


B.C. Ministry of Education. (2007). English language arts 8-12. Integrated Resource Packages. Retrieved October 1 2009 from

B.C. Ministry of Education. (2006). English language arts K-7. Integrated Resource Packages. Retrieved October 1 2009 from

Cazden, C., Cope, B., Fairclough, N., Gee, J., et al. (1996). A pedagogy of mulitiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review 66(1).

Canadian Education Association. (2009). Some international and national definitions of literacy. Retrieved October 1 2009 from

Eshet-Alkalai, Y. (2004). Digital literacy: A conceptual framework for survival skills in the digital era. Journal of Educational Media and Hypermedia 13(1) p. 93-106.

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. (2009). Literate. Merriam-Webster Online. Retrieved October 1 2009 from

Ong, W.J. (1982). Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge.

UNESCO. (2003). The plurality of literacy and its implications for policies and programmes. UNESCO Education Sector. Retrieved October 1 2009 from

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

Commentary 1: An Analogy

Chapter 1: The Orality of Language

This chapter is divided into two sections.  In the first section, “The literate mind and the oral past”, Ong introduces the reader to the concept of a division between orality and writing by quoting many linguists and other scholars throughout history.  He is painting us a picture of what human communication looked like before writing.  He first quotes Ferdinand de Saussure noting, “Writing has simultaneously usefulness, shortcomings and dangers”, and that, “Still he thought of writing as a kind of complement to oral speech, not as a transformer of verbalization” (2002, p.5).  This made me realize that is strikingly similar to how many people feel about information and communication technology (ICT).

Throughout the chapter, I was constantly thinking about the analogy between the introduction and influence of writing and that of computers knowing that the latter is one of the main themes in this course.  In this analogy, ‘orality’ (as pre-writing communication) represents ‘literacy’ (as pre-computer communication).  Therefore, Saussure’s second idea above would be translated into, “…computers are a kind of complement to written communication, and are not a transformer of verbalization”.  This is clearly not a perfect analogy, however it has given me an interesting and enlightening perspective on the influence of ICT.  For example, Ong points out that out of 3000 spoken languages presently, only 78 have a literature (2002, p. 7).  That is nearly 40% whereas the percentage of the world’s population using the Internet is less than 25% (2009).

Ong goes on to explain how, despite much resistance and criticism early on, writing gradually and eventually gained more credibility than oral communication of matters such as law, science, business, etc.  Part of that most likely had to do with how readily available the information was made as well as how objective it was.  If it were only available orally, than whoever was looking for specific information would have had to locate the person who actually knew the particular information.  Then when they found that person, the information might not be the same as the last time he or she said it.  Whereas, if it were written in a wall, scroll, book, etc, the information would be much easier to access and would be the same every time it was accessed.  This fits with the analogy where the Internet makes information much more accessible than traditionally having to go to a library to find written information that had a good possibility of being inaccurate because it was out of date.

The example Ong gives from “Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric” also fits nicely into the analogy; “rhetoric was and had to be a product of writing” (2002, p. 9).  Most students that have access to a computer would not even consider composing a weblog entry, much less an essay, on pen and paper.  If Aristotle were alive today, he might say that writing is and has to be a product of computers.  That might be stretching it somewhat; however the point is that the vast majority of all writing today is composed on computer.  Ong goes on to say, “Thus writing from the beginning did not reduce orality but enhanced it…” (2002, p. 9).  Many educators today argue that students consistently produce more and better written work when they are given the opportunity to compose their thoughts on a word processor.  The ability to easily correct mistakes, rearrange text, change words, etc helps students to relax and just let the thoughts flow.  Does writing have to be a product of a computer?  Probably not; but how often do you draft an important document with a hand held writing implement?

The second section of this chapter is, “Did you say ‘oral literature’?”.  This section brings us much closer to the present day thinking about the differences between orality and writing.  Eventually scholars accepted writing so much that, “oral art forms were essentially unskillful and not worth serious study” (2002, p.10).  Taking the analogy further, we can say that academic textbooks and journals are not (or will not be) trusted and used for research as much as electronic information found online.  This again comes down to availability, convenience and the ability to maintain the most current information.  In an online program such as MET, it is possible to complete all the coursework without ever setting foot in a conventional library.

One of the most interesting and perhaps difficult ideas to envision in this first chapter is what it was really like to live without any writing (2002, p. 11).  It is essentially impossible for literate people to grasp the idea.  Concluding the analogy, sometimes I find it very difficult to remember what life was like before computers.  Younger generations, of course, will not have the option of recalling that memory.  Of the few (predominately) oral cultures left, hardly any are unaware of writing and its many benefits.  They also know that by becoming literate, they will inherently give up many benefits of their primary orality.  Knowing this is very difficult, but “we have to die to continue living” (2002, p. 15).


Internet World Stats: Usage and Population Statistics. (2009). Internet Usage and World Population Statistics. Retrieved October 3, 2009 from Miniwatts Marketing Group. Web site:

Ong, W.J. (2002). Chapter 1: The Orality of Language. In Orality and Literacy. (pp. 5-15). London: Routledge.

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

What’s Wrong with Ong?

Determinism and Great Divide theory

In Orality and Literacy, Ong sets out some useful comparisons, but falls into the trap of implying that the categories he uses to describe and enumerate the differences between oral and literate cultures are sufficient to describe them.  Further, in an attempt to support the Great Divide theory he elaborates, he ventures into technological determinism with the claim that technology shapes man—particularly, the way people think.

Ong (1982) writes: “Technologies are not mere exterior aids, but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word” (p. 81).  This introduces a kind of chicken and egg argument since man has first to find a reason and the means to invent a technology in order for it to have its purported transformational effect on consciousness.  In Ong’s view, writing is the technology that not only distinguishes oral from literate cultures, but also creates a schism between because it changes the very way they think: “More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness” (Ong, 1992, p. 77).

A more recent advocate of a similar view concerning the effects of technology on the minds of students is technophile Marc Prensky.  He has famously argued that current students, whom he terms Digital Natives, have been mentally transformed by the various technologies to which they have been exposed to the point that the methods used by their Digital Immigrant teachers are no longer effective: “…it is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed—and are different from ours—as a result of how they grew up” (Prensky, 2001).  Prensky has been justly critiqued by numerous writers, including McKenzie (2007), who dismisses Prensky’s brand of determinism in Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants as “…a rather shallow piece lacking in evidence or data, Prensky offers the terms ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ to set up a generational divide. His proposition is simple-minded. He paints digital experience as wonderful and old ways as worthless.”

It should be noted, however, that notwithstanding his journey down the slippery path of technological determinism, Ong has done useful work in elaborating the distinctions between oral and literate cultures.  If, in fact, his categorizations were a rhetorical device of the sort he discusses (Ong, 1982, p. 108), an agonistic means of illuminating the differences between literate and oral cultures, it would be more effective.  Instead, as Chandler (1994) points out, such binaries lead to a “… sharp division of historical continuity into periods ‘before’ and ‘after’ a technological innovation such as writing assumes the determinist notion of the primacy of ‘revolutions’ in communication technology. And differences tend to be exaggerated.”  There is also the danger of generalizing too widely and overlooking potential overlap.

Ardi with cell phone

Technological determinism? It didn't take long for someone to imagine what impact 21st century technology might have had on Ardi.

It is an interesting coincidence that in the same week the class is studying Ong’s Great Divide approach to orality and literacy, another classic Great Divide is being seriously challenged.  News of ‘Ardi’ (short for Ardipithecus ramidus) a specimen of a female human precursor who predates the famous 3.2 million-year-old Lucy by a million years, appears to throw into question the missing link theory of human evolution (Shreeve, 2009).  Paleontologists have long studied chimpanzees, assuming a human evolutionary path from apes to Lucy.  Ardi now makes it appear that any common ancestor might have been much further in the past and unlike modern apes.  Here again, the understandable, logical tendency to categorize, compare and contrast—strategies we teach students in English class to prepare their compositions—sets up overly simplistic false dichotomies which do not, ultimately, provide a complete picture.

As Chandler (1994) observes, dichotomy is sometimes an attempt to simplify complexity—in the case of orality and literacy, cultural complexity.  Such complication is far more likely to result not in a clean break between orality and literacy, but in an overlapping of the various systems based on more mundane and practical considerations such as trade and commerce.  This, in turn, challenges the elitism in the deterministic view such that, as Gaur (1992, p. 14) argues, there are no primitive scripts “…only societies at a particular level of economic and social development using certain forms of information storage” appropriate to their circumstances.  Thus, continuity theories (Chandler, 1994), offer a more complete view incorporating the notion of interaction between overlapping modes and media which, in turn, allows for a more evolutionary and less deterministic understanding which eliminates the need for a missing link to explain historical discontinuities.

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Available:
Gaur, A. (1992). A history of writing [revised edition]. London: British Library.
McKenzie, J. (2007). Digital Nativism, Digital Delusions, and Digital Deprivation [Online]. From Now On, 17(2). Available:
Ong, W.J. (1982). Orality and Literacy. New York: Routlege.
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon. NCB University Press, 9(5) [Online]. Available:
Shreeve, J. (1 October 2009). Oldest “Human” Skeleton Found—Disproves “Missing Link.”  National Geographic Magazine [Online]. Available:

October 4, 2009   2 Comments

The Impact of Literacy on First Nations Oral Cultures

The question of societal transitioning from orality to literacy and the subsequent affects upon the societies in question has been central to the readings thus far in the course.  In our Western society, we have seen a gradual change from orality to literacy from the time of the Greeks to present day. (Havelock, 1991)  While the change towards literacy has happened quite recently in comparison to the life of languages as a whole, literacy has nonetheless become inextricably linked to Western society:

            “The two, orality and literacy, are sharpened and focused against each other, yet can be seen as still interwoven in our own society.  It is a mistake to polarize these as mutually exclusive.  Their relationship is one of mutual, creative tension, one that has both a historical dimension as literate societies have emerged out of oralist ones-and a contemporary one as we seek a deeper understanding of what literacy may mean to us as it is superimposed on an orality into which we were born and which governs so much of the normal give and take of society.”  (Havelock, 1991)

First Nations’ Literary Transitioning           

 It would be erroneous to assume that literacy is as inextricably linked to all other cultures as it is ours.  Ong suggests that “of all the many thousands of languages-possibly tens of thousands-spoken in the course of human history, only around 106 have ever been committed to writing to a degree sufficient to have produced literature, and most have never been written at all.  Of the some 3000 languages spoken that exist today only some 78 have a literature.”  (Ong, 2000,  p. 7)  Many newly or semi-literate cultures exist close to or alongside literate ones, such as the First Nations groups which span North America, and more specifically, the First Nations groups of the Gitxan, Nisga’a and Shim Sham, upon whose territories I live in Northern British Columbia. 

            These groups have been thrown violently into the grasp of literacy, much unlike the European culture which “slowly moved over into the ambiance of analytic, interpretive, conceptual prose discourse.”  The First Nations groups of Northern British Columbia were introduced to literacy approximately one hundred years ago, long after writing had been well established as a Western way of life.  These peoples were forced to accept literacy and everything that went with it, such as formal schooling, as a predominant means of survival.  The youth were forced into residential schools as a means of training them to become both literate participants in society, and “westernized”, in terms of behaviours and thinking.  Whether this was based on a pre-planned conspiracy or simply misguided good intentions is not the focus here.  Rather, the question that has arisen for me repeatedly since the onset of the course is “What has been the ultimate affect on the First Nations cultures in Northern British Columbia in particular, from having been forced into the literacy agenda long after the agenda was deeply entrenched in the Western society imposing it?”

A Fundamentally Oral Culture        

    The First Nations were historically an oral culture, with oral histories and oral documentation.  As a result of the domination of the Western culture, they have been forced to incorporate the literary means of life with no historical markers to guide them on how to do so. 

Western society has embraced literacy so much that the “rhythmic word as a storage well for information slowly became obsolete.  It lost its functional relationship to society.”  (Havelock, 1991, p. 25)  The First Nations were simply thrown into this unfamiliar system which was dissimilar to their culture, which both embraces and credits the spoken word.  Eigenbrod states that for the First Nations cultures “the truth and accuracy of the spoken words is guaranteed by the personal experience of the speaker: ‘What I do not remember, I will not say.’” (Eigenbrod, p. 90) 

Despite these beliefs of their own culture, the First Nations groups find themselves having to defend their culture and territory, doing so by playing by the rules of the dominant literacy based society to the point where often from the Native perspective “literacy is associated with political power, dishonesty, and injustice.” (Eigenbrod, 90)


In the Delgamuuk trial, involving the Gitxan people of the Upper Skeen region, the Gitxan fought to have their oral histories recognized as viable proof of traditional land rights based on historical evidence of occupation of the territories in question.  After a long and complicated court process, the Canadian Government agreed to recognize oral histories, ruling that “oral histories can be used to prove occupancy of the land and they will be given as much weight as written records” (Where are the Children website) with a stipulation attached designating control over the decision as to whether or not the oral histories are adequate proof resting on the Government’s shoulders.  Again, despite recognizing the power and influence of oral history in the First Nations culture, the power of the literate society was ultimately imposed on the land title recognition process further solidifying the idea that “those who know how to write are in control and use their power to appropriate land that is not theirs.” (Eigenbord, p. 90)

The Struggles for First Nations Youth

While this example shows some of the struggles on a large scale, there are an abundance of smaller scale examples as well.  First Nations youth struggle in the school system where they show “over-inclusion in various special needs categories and [have] literacy rates well below provincial averages.”  (Fettes, p. 2)  They are coming to literacy based schools from a home life and culture still linked in value systems and thought patterns of an oral society.  One hundred years is simply not enough time to change over a pattern of thinking that has existed for more than 10 000 years.  (Dickason, 1992) 

First Nations cultures were those of hunter gatherer until the change of lifestyle brought on by the Europeans forced them away from their oral language patterns which were largely based on storytelling as a means of conveying history, record keeping and teaching through apprenticeship based learning.  

What happens to these students who follow a social discourse of learning as “use of silence, listening and observing versus speaking, answering questions [and] demonstrating knowledge” (Peltier, 2009, p. 3) when they are introduced to a schooling model that values and rewards the very characteristics which oppose their oral apprenticeship style of learning?  

The result is a gap between two cultures in terms of approaches to language, value of oral tradition, and ways of thinking which have been developed as a result of approaches to language.  (Ong, 2000)  Thought patterns that have been developed through the home culture oral developmental influences are suddenly put into question in the school system and seemingly need to be overwritten for academic success to occur.     

Embracing Oral Teaching Techniques to Reach First Nations Learners

Research suggests that the techniques used to engage learning in pre-literate children are similar to those used in oral based cultures and thus may be transferable to newly-literate cultures such as the First Nations of British Columbia.  Mark Fettes outlines in his paper,  Imaginative Engagement in Culturally Diverse Classrooms:  Changing Teacher Thinking and Practice within a Community-University Research Alliance, examples of the successful utilization of  an imaginative educational approach in classrooms across British Columbia noting that “students from predominantly oral cultures…may have abilities of understanding and language use that are barely tapped in pedagogies oriented to text-based literacy….Imaginative education seeks to keep children’s oral abilities, and the kinds of understanding that accompany them, alive and developing throughout the school-age years.”  (Fettes, 2005, p. 6)

Learning as a Culturally Mediated Activity

If learning is, as Vygotsky purports, a culturally mediated activity, (Lantolf, 1994) and the context of learning, oral or literary, shapes cultures as a whole, (Ong, 2000) how can we expect First Nations students to process information in the same way as students born into literacy cultures. 

The question of First Nations students’ academic success seems to be a complex issue of colliding cultures, ways of thinking, and differences in approaches and goals of learning.  Perhaps Ong is correct in asserting that literate cultures can never truly “conceive of an oral universe of communication or thought except as a variant of a literate universe”, (2000, p. 2)

However, in looking closely at the populations’ First Nations students that are not able to be successful in the literary based school system it seems necessary and timely to work within our limited frameworks of oral cultural understanding to attempt to create changes that could benefit these First Nations youth in our school systems. 

In attempting to create a link that will enable success between the two, perhaps it is true that “no bridge built out of the certainties inherent in the literate mind can lead back into the oral magma” (Illich, 199, p. 34) but the need for at minimal a basic level of understanding is becoming apparent in order to provide students coming from cross-literal-oral backgrounds the support they require.


 Dickason, Olive P.  (1992).  Canada’s First Nations:  A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times.  Retrieved from,M1

 Eigenbrod, R.  The Oral in the Written:  A Literature Between Two Cultures.  Accessed at

Fettes, M.  (2005)  Imaginative Engagement in Culturally Diverse Classrooms:  Changing Teacher Thinking and Practice within a Communitiy-University Research Alliance.  Accesses at:

Havelock, Eric.  (1991)  The Oral-Literate Equation:  A Formula for the Modern mind.  Literacy and Orality.  Cambridge University Press, New York.  Accessed at

 History or Indian Residential Schools.  Assembly of First Nations.  Accessed at

 Illich, I.  (1991) Oral Metalanguage.  Literacy and Orality.  Cambridge University Press, New York.  Accessed at

 Judgements of the Supreme Court of Canada.  (2007).  Retrieved from

 Lantolf, J.  (1994)  Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning.  The Modern Language Journal.  78, iv.  Accessed at

 Ong, W.  (2000)  Orality and Literacy.  Routledge, New York.

 Peltier, S.  (2009)  First Nations English Dialects in Young Children:  Assessment Issues and Supportive Interventions.  Encyclopedia of Language and Development.  Accessed at:

 Where are the Children:  Healing the Legacy of the Residential Schools.   Accessed at

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

Commentary #1 ~ The use of symbols for early language acquisition

Commentary #1

Kelly Kerrigan  ETEC 540- Section 65A

The use of pictures to convey meaning or as tool to aide memory has been used both in traditional oral cultures and literate cultures. Ong, in his book Orality and Literacy (1982), discusses the ideas of rebus writing, ideographs, and pictographs in both cultures, including specific cultural examples. I will first summarize these ideas and examples and then will further the argument that pictures are a necessary part of language acquisition in a literate culture. Specific focus will be on younger learners, those who are learning disabled, and secondary language learners.

Ong (1982), discusses the use of symbols and pictures as the beginnings of the modern alphabet. “Most if not all scripts trace back directly or indirectly to some sort of picture writing…”(p.85). One example that is still used today is the Chinese writing system, a complex array of characters which takes, on average, twenty years to master. This writing system enables a level of understanding that would not happen orally, due to the diverse collection of dialects within the Chinese culture. The use of pictographs, symbols that convey meaning to a physical object, allows for scripts to emerge, however  with each culture each will use a different meaning associated with the symbol. For example, an image of a book could mean simply a book, or it could mean a building, such as a library, depending on the cultural use.  Similarly, an ideograph, according to Ong, is where the “…meaning is a concept not directly represented by the picture but established by a code” (p. 86). Egyptian hieroglyphs contain examples of pictographs, ideographs, and rebus writing. Rebus writing, another type of pictograph is a sound/symbol, with the symbol representing what the sound signifies. Since the English language has many homonyms, the meaning of the word might not be immediately clear. An example that Ong points out is the picture of a foot, with an arrow pointing to the sole. In rebus writing, the image could mean the sole of the foot, the spiritual soul, or a type of fish. Rebus puzzles are now commonly used in educational settings.


Example: Rebus Puzzle
Image source:

Ong discusses pictographs with specific attention to their use in oral cultures. I must expand on his explanations in saying that the use of pictographs is also incredibly important in the language acquisition of young learners, those who are learning disabled, and secondary language learners. When young children begin to acquire language, it is done so aurally, with children picking up phonemes and basic word commands from a very young age. Their baby babble then moves into more audible reflection of everyday speech. When children enter school, their vocabulary increases, however it is when a child sets down to write in a literate culture, that symbols and pictures begin to aid in their learning. Much like young learners, older learners will use pictures as a way to aid their memory for specific tasks (aides memoire). Their aides memoire, however are not as rudimentary as those who are in the early stages of language acquisition. “In the semi-phonetic stage, we’ve found children use one, two or three letters to represent words [in their writing]…represent[ing] some speech sounds heard in the words” (Cook.1995, p.66). Most children will soon move from this stage and introduce vowels and form more coherent written word, however for learning disabled students, this is not always the case. “… The ability to make paradigmatic responses in oral language tasks does not ensure that a child will automatically transfer and apply this ability to written language tasks…” (Cartelli, 1978, p. 314).

Learning disabled students, in Cartelli’s (1978) study “…appeared to experience major difficulty in organizing key verbal elements and in understanding the use of language in unlocking the written symbolic code” (p.318) This has major implications for those teachers who work with learning disabled students, for more emphasis must be placed on the use of symbols to represent verbal and written language. Some learning disabled students only use pictures as a form of language communication. The use of pictographs to create sentences and to respond to commands (either by pointing to a fixed board, or using specialized technology to type out answers) are the only way for non-verbal children to communicate in the literate world. The same can be said for secondary language learners. In the early stages of language acquisition, many learners are parroting or mimicking other native speakers. They will respond well to visuals from the start, and will then use these same pictures as support for questions and small assignments later on (Haynes, 2005, n.p.).

To conclude, the use of pictographs have their place in both oral and literate cultures. The necessity of using pictographs, including rebus writing and ideographs within the classroom, have shown to have merit for early language acquisition. Learners rely on the use of symbols to communicate from a basic rudimentary level as well as at a cognitive level for those who are non-verbal and learning disabled.


Cartelli, L. (1978). Paradigmatic Language Training for Learning Disabled Children. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 11(5).

Haynes, J. (2005) Stages of Second Language Acquisition.
Retrieved October 1, 2009 from

Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London and New York: Methuen.

Robertson, K., & Randolph, L. (1995). First steps for early writers. Teaching Pre K-8, 25(6), 66.

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

New literacy and the library debate

Last year during a particularly severe round of budget cuts a parent at a School District meeting asked why we spend money on books.  She wanted to know if libraries were a thing of the past and should we be wasting money on print literature.  Having a position as a teacher-librarian and being an avid lover of literature I found myself appalled at this statement.  I was not alone.   How could someone suggest that the book was a device that would sink into obsolescence?  After all, I could never picture myself curling up with a laptop and reading The Life of Pi.  But perhaps I am in the minority.


If the reading of books is on the decline as Caleb Crain (2007) suggests then it may be so that in the near future libraries will be converted to other uses in our schools.  As a librarian I am particularly interested in how the notion of text is changing for my students and it was for this reason that rather than doing a degree in Library and Information Studies I chose to enrol in the Masters of Educational Technology program.  As text changes so too does the job of the librarian in today’s schools.  This position is increasingly becoming a technology position as more and more information is accumulated, stored and even created initially in a digital format (Grafton, 2007).  Teacher-librarians must now become experts in multiple literacies as they help to guide their students through these varied information sources.


In his article, Future reading: digitization and its discontents, Grafton (2007) addresses the rise and potential fall of the library and while the change that the modern library may not be matched in scale to the changes it has encountered before there is a great deal to be gained from examining its past in order to predict its future.  In fact the impact of the rise of the printing press on the library was so profound that an entire system of cataloguing and managing the flow of information became necessary.  As a librarian I am constantly discussing this issue with colleagues.  Will librarians be tasked out to catalogue web-based information or is its status too potentially fleeting to make it worthwhile?


            Perhaps the most intriguing idea here is that even the staunch world of academia now turns to a search engine before it enters the library’s stacks when it begins research (Grafton, 2007).  Grafton points out that journal subscriptions are on the rise and the sale of university-press books are dwindling and one only has to look at our own work in the MET program to see evidence of this.  In fact, as UBC holds subscriptions for to electronic journals for student and faculty access it is becoming rarer that students are required to purchase custom course materials in print form for their courses.


            Grafton (2007) exposits that we will still need our libraries because the physical form of the text or book impacts how it is used and this cannot be duplicated in digital form.  He speaks of historians gleaning information from notations made in family bibles and binding methods that speak to elements of social history.  Concern here though is that he is addressing the book in historical context.  It seems already relegated to a thing of the past.


            Where I think that the demarcation line may lie is between text in the form of information and that in the form of literature.  While research and information gathering is increasingly dominated by the web the digital book has met with some resistance from those of us who love the feel and portability of a good book.  Where the library must refocus itself is in dealing with text as it evolves into a digitally dominated format.  It must refocus, as it has always done, to meet the needs of a changing text-space but its role as a place where literature lives will be slower to change.





Crane, Caleb (2007).  Twilight of the books: What will life be like if people stop reading?  New York: The New Yorker.


Grafton, Anthony (2007).  Future reading: Digitization and its discontents.  New York: The New Yorker.

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.

Ong, Walter, J. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London and New York: Methuen.

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

Knowledge-Power Literacy-Orality

The Secret and Magic Power: Orality and Literacy

Power-Knowledge Literacy-Orality

Noah Burdett

U.B.C. Master of Educational Technology Candidate

Knowledge is a difficult concept to define.  One point that has been made clear by Michel Foucault and others is knowledge is fundamentally connected to power.  Many have heard the cliché that  “knowledge is power.”  If power relations are viewed in terms of access to knowledge than how is access changed in oral and literate cultures?  The questions itself is of a great divide nature and will help to demonstrate the fallibility of setting oral and literate cultures as binaries.

By comparing characteristics of literate and oral societies one is able to demonstrate that the control of information in any form of society is an important factor in the creation of inequality, regardless of how that information is transferred.

Culture and Language

Culture will be examined in a broad context and will provide a platform for comparison, but it should be understood that “culture” is not meant to illustrate that difference do not exist, not all oral or literate cultures share the exact same attributes.  However, members of a specific community do share culture. To suggest that culture is shared also suggests that it is learned from others and that it is transmitted. If culture is shared than it is also not a private entity thus one cannot have a private culture and must be a participant.

The method of transmission is the medium of language.  Language is thus the key to membership within a culture and to learn a language is to become a cultural member; to become a cultural member is to learn a language (Parkingson and Drislane 1996).  As language is key factor in the creation of culture, does ones participation in relation to other depend on how that language is transmitted either orally or through a written system?

Oral Cultures

In a primary oral culture knowledge is embed within the knower.  To find knowledge one has to seek out a member of the culture that knows.  Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy attributes the need to be intimately connected to the knower because of the property of sound, “sound exists only when it is going out of existence,” (Ong 2008, p. 70). The time space relationship of sound prior to recording technologies creates a circumstance where members of a primary oral culture relate “intimately to the unifying, centralizing, interiorizing economy of sound as perceived by human beings” (Ong 2008, p.73).

When knowledge is embedded in the knower and the knower possess the power to chose and distribute the knowledge as he/she sees fit, a power structure is created. Thus in an oral society knowledge is power as it is embedded.  A member of an oral culture is positioned within their culture is determined by your situation within the collective and how others view your knowledge base.  The act of embedding knowledge within individuals creates a power structure of the knower and the seeker.  The structure is evident in Plato’s Phaedrus[i] where Socrates acts as the knower and Phaedrus as the seeker, the irony being that this is a written work. It can be said that knowledge as power works within oral societies to create inequality.

Literate Cultures

Written forms of language change the embodiment of knowledge, but not the power structure.  Writing provides a way to detach the knowledge from its author and audience, giving knowledge a form permanence, rigor, and objectivity. As Ong describes, with the written word “each reader enters into his or her own private reading world,” (Ong 1982, p. 73).  The act of separation would seem to create a power dynamic between those that can access the information in a written form and those that cannot.  Examining the history of education using Learned Latin and other chirographically controlled languages demonstrates how power and knowledge are still controlled within written systems even though the knowledge can be separated from the knower.

Learned Latin became the written language of scholastics for some 1400 years. Ong describes learned Latin as “a language written spoken only by males, learned outside the home in a tribal setting, (Ong 1982, p. 111).  Learned Latin became a chirographical language spoken and written by its users and separate from their mother tongue.  Learned Latin served as a way to isolate a community of male literate that wanted to share a common intellectual heritage. Creating a group that was in control of it of a form of language transmission further enhanced the isolating aspect of the written word and creates a scenario where knowledge and power create inequality.

Knowledge as power will be controlled and transferred within a culture regardless of how individuals are connected with that knowledge either through orality or literacy or both.  The similarity of the power-knowledge relationship exemplifies that within oral and literate society “differences of behaviour and modes of expression clearly exist, but psychological differences are often exaggerated,” (Chandler 1994).  The human ability to isolated and alienated is not text or orally based.  Demonstrating the connection between power-knowledge relationship in both oral and literate cultures also demonstrates that the binary opposition of the two misses the human component of both.

If the move from orality to literacy continued existing forms of power than using technology of writing as causal mover of change may also be overstated.   For example, Ong attributes the isolating aspect of Learned Latin with making possible “the exquisitely abstract world of medieval scholasticism and of the new mathematical modern science which followed on the scholastic experience, (Ong 1982, 112).  Attributing these scientific and mathematic developments to the language in which they are expressed does not determine that it was because of the language that they were made possible.  Ong’s claim reduces a complex time and process to single phenomenon and does not incorporate a perspective that views the larger cultural and social context.  The above has shown that literacy and orality are components of the human experience but should never be seen as single driving forces for our behaviours.


Excerpt from Plato’s Phaedrus (Retriever, 29 September 2009 from:

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved, 29 September, 2009 from:

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Parkinson, G. & Drislane, R. (1996). Exploring Society: Pathways in sociology. Toronto: Harcourt Canada.

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

New Aged (Transformative) Literacy

New Aged (transformative) Literacy

Image uploaded from: Blog-Code-of-Conduct.aspx

Image uploaded from: Blog-Code-of-Conduct.aspx

The following commentary will provide a brief synopsis of the foundational arguments of Walter J. Ong in Orality and Literacy. Ong’s viewpoints will then be juxtaposed against ideas brought forth by John Seely Brown in GROWING UP DIGITAL: How the Web Changes Work, Education, and the Ways People Learn.

In Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong demonstrates the distinct differences between primary oral cultures and literate cultures. He stipulates that primary oral cultures have “no knowledge whatsoever of writing or even the possibility of writing” (Ong, 2002, p. 31). Without this technology, Ong believes that oral cultures cannot retain and/or reproduce anything outside of themself once the act (i.e., the speaking and doing of things) has been completed.

In turn, oral societies have gone to great lengths to work on mnemonic devices that Ong suggests are “shaped for ready oral recurrence” (Ong, 2002, p. 34). This difference then leads to oral and literate cultures having divergent thought processes. Through repetition and redundancy oral cultures are able to preserve the core of their stories and traditions. Literate cultures not only have the ability to preserve their stories and traditions but also creative flexibility with grammatical nuances.

Once again, Ong suggests that this establishes differing worldviews where in fact “writing separates the knower from the known and thus sets up conditions for ‘objectivity’, in the sense of personal disengagement or distancing” (Ong, 2002, p. 45). As well, objectivity and the ability to think in abstract terms Ong (2002) suggests moves individuals and cultures away from the ‘here and now’ of the human lifeworld. He expands on this point of disengagement when he looks at community.

Ong posits that “writing and print isolate” (Ong, 2002, p. 73). In contrast, oratory or speech-making connects audience members with the speaker and others within a room unlike when a “reader enters into his or her own private reading world, the unity of the audience is shattered” (Ong, 2002, p. 73). In chapter four of Orality and Literacy entitled, Writing Restructures Consciousness, Ong continues to build upon his premise that oral and literate thought is distinctly different and that even the smallest amount of exposure to the literate world affects how one views and interacts within that world. For the purposes of this review, we will now turn our attention to GROWING UP DIGITAL: How the Web Changes Work, Education, and the Ways People Learn by John Seely Brown.

It has been shown that Ong viewed writing as a technology that transformed oral cultures to the point where their actual thought processes were irrevocably altered. Brown begins his article along a similar vein of thought in that “the World Wide Web will be a transformative medium” (Brown, 2002). Brown puts forward that the World Wide Web (i.e., Internet) will impact individuals and society, as did the universal adoption of electricity. “When that infrastructure finally took hold, everything changed-homes, work places, transportation, entertainment, architecture, what we ate, even when we went to bed. Worldwide, electricity became a transformative medium for social practices” (Brown, 2002). Ong portrays the transformation from orality to literacy as one of loss and permanence. In contrast, Brown envisions the Internet as an enabling medium:

The first thing to notice is that the media we’re all familiar with-from books to television-are one-way propositions: they push their content at us. The Web is two-way, push and pull. In finer point, it combines the one-way reach of broadcast with the two-way reciprocity of a mid-cast. Indeed, its user can at once be a receiver and sender of “broadcast”-a confusing property, but mind-stretching! (Brown, 2002)

In supporting this ‘push and pull’ belief, Brown (2002) also suggests that the Internet is the first technology that recognizes and supports multiple intelligences. Practioners of these new literacy skills must be able to process volumes of material in a wide variety of mediums while employing both discerning and proficient navigational skills. Brown envisions these new skill-sets as Bricolage “ a concept studied by Claude Levi-Strauss, “ that “has to do with abilities to find something-an object, tool, document, a piece of code-and to use it to build something you deem important” (Brown, 2002). In connection with the above notion of new literates being bricoleurs is community.

Within any community, from your own family to your school or workplace, individuals are both consumers and producers of information. Brown suggests that “[m]uch of knowing is brought forth in action, through participation-in the world, with other people, around real problems. A lot of our know-how or knowing comes into being through participating in our community(ies) of practice” (Brown, 2002). Brown’s article demonstrates that literacy has evolved or transformed to offer individuals and groups both access to information (e.g., utilizing multiple learning styles) and inclusion in new communities of practice e.g., social networking sites, gaming sites, reading groups, etc. Simultaneously, Internet literates are involved in an exchange of information in a more reciprocal ‘push and pull’ process than has ever been possible with traditional forms of literacy.

It would seem that Ong’s sense of loss and permanence with regard to orality is (in a multi-disciplinary manner) finding its way onto the Internet and therefore into the thought process of individuals and communities. In fact, it is not unreasonable to suggest with the continued proliferation of Web 2.0 technologies that hybridized oral tradition will re-manifest itself on the Internet.


Armstrong, T. (2009) Multiple Intelligence: Retrieved, October 2, 2009 from:

Brown, J. S. (2002) GROWING UP DIGITAL: How the Web Changes Work, Education, and the Ways People Learn. USDLA Journal: ISSN 1537-5080 Vol. 16 : No. 2

Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. New York, New York: Routledge.

October 4, 2009   No Comments

Teaching Elementary Text and Technology, are we Caught in a Power Struggle? A Commentary on Modern Text Teaching Practices.

An issue that has become more apparent to me during my revision of the course readings is that text is a constantly changing technology that is difficult to define. If the nature of text is that it is constantly being redefined than why have we not completely adjusted our teaching practices accordingly? If the current generation understands text as something that is viewed on a screen then their rules and definitions are different that the traditional views of text.  Why do (primarily, elementary) educators concentrate on the current ‘archaic’ ways of teaching writing with a pen and paper if this is the case? I propose that this phenomenon is based on power struggles between educators and the public and a lack of technological assimilation in the school system.

Ong states that “There is no way to write ‘naturally’ (Ong, p.81).” This statement can viewed in a negative perspective. Should educators be teaching students in this day and age to write with a pen on paper and to practice their handwriting? The reality is that they will be using computers for the rest of their lives. Educators see this as an unnatural way to write.  We are clinging to past views and perspectives by teaching writing and text in its current pedagogical form. Educators need to realize that it is alright to learn about and to use new technologies. It is actually natural to accept these new ways of learning and realize that this is the way of the future. “Technologies are artificial, but – paradox again – artificiality is natural to human beings. Technology, properly interiorized, does not degrade human life but on the contrary enhances it. (Ong, p.82)”

Despite what many educators may think, there is a benefit in teaching these modern technologies. Bowers states this idea clearly in the following quotation: “Computers continue the tradition of representing print as a form of cultural storage… (Bowers et al, p.188).”  If we think about text in this context there is much that can be learned about our teaching practices. Some modern internet writing technologies are frowned upon. We tell our students that facebook is a waste of time, and we do not encourage use of online forums, but why? Could it be that educators are worried about losing their grip on the power of text technology? “Some societies of limited literacy have regarded writing as dangerous to the unwary reader, demanding a guru-like figure to mediate between reader and text (Goody and Watt taken from Ong, p..92).” It seems that educators are engaged in a power struggle to maintain their control over the education system.

Are we simply selling technology monopolies to the public in teaching reading and writing in its current form? In the 21st century there is a unique digression that is occurring in teaching text to students. Despite the changing requirements and needs for computer knowledge in the workplace, educators are not teaching these skills adequately. In elementary schools, computers are not seen as a core component of text education despite the fact that most currently written text is computer based. This situation is power based, and educators do not want to lose the influence that they currently hold. “Those who have control over the workings of a particular technology accumulate power and the workings of a particular technology accumulate power inevitably form a kind of conspiracy against those who have no access to the specialized knowledge made available by the technology (Postman, p.9).”

Students are often more engaged in learning when they are using technologies that they relate to. “Students are more willing to do more editing, to spend more time reviewing their text and improving it (Viadero, 1997b, p.13).” Despite this, educators still concentrate on older fashioned methods for text education, why? Ong has stated that often it takes time for modern technologies to be assimilated into our collective consciousness. Until this occurs there is always going to be a divide and a power struggle between teachers who believe in the ‘regular’ ways of teaching text and those that believe in the benefits of computer usage. “People had to be persuaded that writing improved the old oral methods sufficiently to warrant all the expense and troublesome techniques it involved (Ong, p.95).”

There is no doubt to me that text and computers are becoming more linked together. It is commonplace for students to submit their assignments electronically. The modern workplace requires the ability to write and read text electronically. One thing that I’ve realized through the first months readings is that text is a constantly evolving process, from its origins in the oral tradition to modern computers. As educators we need to be able to evolve with those technologies in order to provide the workforce of tomorrow a modern text education. This starts with educators being able to accept that perhaps, it is our socially responsible duty to provide this education. Until educators are willing to work with, not against modern text technologies we will always have this struggle.  “Where technology is used and where the teachers are given the right kinds of support and training and the right kind of equipment, then (they) are able to actually implement some of the best theory and practice regarding the teaching of writing (Viadero, 1997b, p.13).


Ong, Walter, J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London and New York: Methuen.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.

Viadero, D. (1997b, November 10). A tool for learning. Education Week, 17(11), 12-13, 15, 17-18. Available:

Bowers, et al. (2000) Native People and the Challenge of Computers: Reservation Schools, Individualism, and
Consumerism in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Spring, 2000), pp. 182-199.

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

Remixing Writing


The emergence of digital technologies challenges the traditional perception of writing as the inscription of characters (alphanumeric representation of ideas) onto a tangible medium. Changing storage media demands the incorporation of new definitions of writing to include non-tangible medium. In an era where many creators bypass traditional “hard media” in favour of electronic storage devices, what is “written” may in fact never involve “writing”. The detachment of the author from a work enabled the proliferation of a multitude of ideas;  as Walter Ong states “writing establishes…autonomous discourse which cannot be directly contested or questioned” (Ong, p.77). While individuals can access multiple writings, the static format of traditional codex inhibits interactions with the text. Jay Bolter states “digital media are refashioning the printed book” (Bolter, p 3). Nowhere is this more evident than the multiple projects of compiling a universal library on the World Wide Web. While there are many who oppose the digitization of the printed page, the benefits are discernible and imaginable.

Universal Literacy

The goal of literacy programs is for the reader to make connections (text to self, text to text and text to world) with any given texts (Keene and Zimmerman, 1997). The concept of a universal library and the magnitude of text distributions/manipulations possible by the World Wide Web revolutionize traditional views of literacy.

In his article “Scan This Book”, Kevin Kelly depicts writing, bound as codex, as existing as an island; isolated from other texts. Similar to Ong’s perception that writing is the interiorization of thought, the separation of the word from the living present, Kelly states:  “Its only movement comes when a reader picks it up to animate it with his or her imagination” (Kelly p. 3).  The digitization of writings affords the reader the opportunity to easily connect to the world as well as other texts through the means of hyperlinks. Kelly presents the idea of a user-driven “library”; one where the writing in books can be “crosslinked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture…every page reads all the other pages..” (Kelly, p  4). Readers will be able to personalize their literary experience further by the addition of tags “a public annotation, like a keyword or category name, that is hung on a file, page, picture or song, enabling anyone to search for that file” (Kelly p 4). Thus the text of the book or writing will no longer be separate from that of any other work. The deep links will allow users to traverse the “pages” of a book following link upon link ad infinitum. Additionally, readers will be able to “create” books from pertinent snippets from the abundance of information available on virtually every topic. Resonant of Ong’s description of oral societies  that are empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced   (Ong, p 45), Kelly proclaims “when books are digitized, reading becomes a community activity” (Kelly, p5).  The shared annotations, hyperlinks, tags, etc. become fodder for interactions which transcend time and space.  This is truly the conceptualization of “text to self, text to text and text to world” connections in a format heretofore unimagined, the remix into reordered books.

It is interesting to note that while the medium is new, the concept of the personalization of the reading/writing experience is not.  One has only to look at perhaps the oldest known medicinal works. De Materia Medica authored by Dioscordes was produced about 512 AD in its oldest and most famous form, an illustrated Byzantine manuscript.  The Anicia codex version of the work was amended, rearranged and annotated as it passed through the hands of various owners, (Discordes, n.p.) similar to Kelly’s vision of the annotations of digital book pages. “From this deep structuring of knowledge comes a new culture of interaction and participation” (Kelly p. 6). Different perhaps, but not new.  The difference will be in the dynamic interaction of ideas, not limited by constraints of time and space as were the static interactions visible in archaic documents.

“Once a technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do” (Postman, p7). Efforts to resist technological innovations are futile; (think Luddites) a better course of action is to embrace technological innovations and harness them.


Bolter, J. D. (2001). Writing space computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print. Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Dioscorides: Materia Medica. (n.d.). Retrieved September 30, 2009, from

Keene, E. O. and Suzanne Zimmerman. (1997). Mosaic of thought teaching comprehension in a reader’s workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Kelly, K. (2006, May 14). Scan This Book. New York Times. Retrieved September 30, 2009, from

Ong, Walter, J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London and New York: Methuen.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

Ong on Plato – As a Reactionary: Commentary 1

Commentary #1 ETEC540
Commentary 1 :Orality & Literacy: Ong on Plato – As a Reactionary

Above: Artist’s rendering of Platonic forms [retreived online Sept 2009]
Ong asserts, in his discussion [pp78-81] that Plato’s views about writing as expressed in the Phaedrus, demonstrate a reactionary response to the advent of writing, which was perceived by Plato as a threat to the primacy of orality and of the spoken word (Ong, 2002). Ong places Plato’s critique of writing along side similar critiques that have been issued by various figures over the course of the history of western culture during periods of technological transition. Ong mentions Hieronimo Squarcifico for example, who believed that the proliferation of books [circa 1477] was leading to a population that was less disciplined and less studious (Ong, ibid).
Resistance to technological change, and an investment in the status quo, were not the only characteristics of Plato’s views. According to Ong, quoting Havelock (1963) Plato’s entire epistemology “…was unwittingly a programmed rejection of the old oral, mobile, warm, personal interactive lifeworld of oral culture…” (Ong, ibid, pp79). He also states that Plato was “not at all fully aware of the…forces at work in his psyche to produce this reaction or overreaction…to lingering, retardant orality” (Ong, ibid, pp 80).
This discussion will explore some of the implications of Ong’s claims and examine the epistemological and philosophical underpinnings that provided support for Plato’s position. It will be shown that there was much more than just a resistance to a new technology, and a rejection of oral or written culture, involved in this critical stance about writing asserted by Plato. Plato’s denigration of writing and more generally about the role of art, was consistent with the ontological schema that supported his fundamentally mystical philosophical worldview.
A little background about the Phaedrus itself makes sense here. It is Plato’s famous work examining the nature of Love, through a dialogue purporting to be a discussion between Socrates and one of his colleagues Phaedrus. Important for our purposes here, it discusses some of the characteristics of writing and reveals also a critique of the role of artists [including poets] in society.
Ong lists four items that Plato suggests are wrong with writing; that writing is inhuman, that it destroys memory, that it lacks interactivity and that consequently it is passive. To understand why these characteristics and especially why interactivity was so critically important for Plato, it is necessary to understand the hierarchical nature of the Platonic world.
The highest discourse or reasoning procedure possible in pursuit of the ultimate virtue [Knowledge] is achieved through the interaction of oppositional pairs. Meaning is derived from the tension between two poles [one vs many, etc.] or is derived from the back and forth motion of thesis, ant-thesis and synthesis (Jones, 1970).
Ong fails to discuss the fundamentally mystical [not agnostic] philosophical system [The Forms, Hierarchy of Being] that supported Plato’s views. His hierarchical ontological schema [idealism] places man within a dualistic reality in which the world of sensory impressions [The World of Appearance] and observational data are not be trusted. That is, it is not the outside world [the world in which one makes scratches on paper or applies paint to canvas] that is the ‘essence’ of what it is to be human, nor, importantly, can one ever really know this outside world commonly referred to as ‘reality’. The ‘Essence’ of being, and the highest form of knowledge, can be apprehended through reason, it cannot be written down or ‘pictured’, made visible, etc.
Plato, using Socrates as his voice, sought a solution to the threat [as they both perceived it] of Sophist relativism, which they believed would lead to a society of moral anarchy. It was this perceived need to counter relativism that was largely responsible for Plato’s development of a rationalistic system and his concept of the Forms (Jones, 1970). Plato’s ideas about the nature of he Forms is complex, full exposition of the subject lies outside of the scope of this discussion.
However a brief synopsis of it is required to understand Plato’s hierarchical constructs of both reality and of the mind. Plato asserted that knowledge cannot be of nothing, of that which does not exist, and that real knowledge is eternally true and unchangeable. Therefore, the objects of knowledge, which he called Forms [or Ideas] must be eternal and unchangeable also. There is a form for every class of objects, [dog, table, beauty, god] and perceivable objects themselves are merely imperfect copies of the Forms.
The nature of reality that unfolds from these crucial assumptions is laid out in the” The Republic” in the metaphor of he Divided Line wherein reality is segmented into a dualistic schema, the Intelligible World and the World of Appearances.
Important to his construct of the mind is the hierarchical division of states of mind, thus, within the World of Appearances and at the base of the hierarchy is Imagining [including the production of art], which is the lowest form of cognition. Ascending ‘up’ to the next level is a better way of perceiving, the realm of Belief. Within the Intelligible World, the first level of the states of mind is Thinking, where the first type of real knowledge [mathematical knowledge] is attained. Finally as one ascends to the highest level to the realm of the Forms themselves, one has the potential to achieve true Knowledge [gnosis], arrived at through the employment of dialectic reasoning.
In summary, although Ong correctly notes some of the objections to writing made by Plato, he is not just another exemplar of a reactionary, as it relates to historical change nor in terms of an example of a simple or binary rejection of oral versus written culture.
Writing in the Platonic world, like art production, takes place in the world of appearances. Therefore, it can only be a pale copy, a transcription of the process, [later refined and expanded in the work of Kant] of dialectical reasoning. Plato’s views on writing were not merely a reaction or response to, a transition from orality to written culture but rather, a logical outcome of the profoundly complex views expounded in his philosophy.

Ong, W.J. (2002) Orality and Literacy, New York, NY Routledge, Publishers
Pages 78 – 81 Plato, Writing and Computers

Plato, excerpt from Plato’s Phaedrus [retrieved online September 2009]

Jones, W.T. (1970) The Classical Mind: A history of Western Philosophy, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

Ong’s 20th century bias

I have chosen to look at chapter 3 of Orality and Literacy for this commentary.  In this section Ong looks at the psychodynamics of primary oral cultures, the motivating forces that determine the behaviour and attitude of cultures with no knowledge at all of writing.  Through much of his discussion and description of primary oral cultures Ong looks at the subject, and in fact subjects, from a modern perspective.  His intention is to show his reader, by comparison,  how these cultures differed from ours.  Unfortunately his method of doing so creates what can be interpreted as a bias in his writing.  Ong is a 20th century westerner, writing from a 20th century point of view, with a 20th century bias. How these biases are woven into the chapter is the subject I wish to discuss here.


One area where Ong may be seen to show a modern bias is in discussing all primary oral cultures as one single group.  Given Ong’s definition of a primary oral culture, one with no knowledge at all of writing, one must first ask how Ong has acquired his information.  Since, obviously, a culture with no writing has left no written records, Ong must base his ideas on research done among the very small number of people on Earth today who would fit this definition; the very rare groups that have been discovered and have had no previous contact with the modern world, or he must use cultures that are aware of writing but are still primarily oral. He then must use conjecture to project the behaviours and attitudes of those groups onto the variety of cultures that existed before writing.  While there may no other way to do this, this does create a problem.  Ong is discussing as much as 50,000 years of human history and cultures from all over the globe.  It is unreasonable and biased to lump all primary oral cultures together and attach the same generalizations to all of them.  


Ong’s bias is further illustrated in the way he chooses to draw the reader into a comparison of modern to primary oral cultures.  While it is very unlikely that Ong intends to imply in his writing that primary oral cultures are inferior to literate ones, there is a tone to his writing that can, on occasion, be seen to do just that.  The tone suggests amazement that primary oral cultures could function and at one point asks us to, “Try to imagine a culture where no one has ever ‘looked up’ anything” (Ong, 1982, p. 31)  At another point he asks the question, “An oral culture has no texts.  How does it get together organized material for recall?” (Ong, 1982, pp. 33-34) To further draw the reader into the pre-writing world he asks us to imagine ourselves in a primary oral culture and wonders how we would deal with Euclidean geometry or baseball batting averages.  All of his examples are ones that involve asking the reader to imagine going back in time and think about how we would deal with these modern issues.   While this does allow the reader to get some small sense of life without writing, Ong fails, or  avoids pointing out the obvious, these modern examples would have no meaning or concern to the primary oral cultures.  In order to feel the absence of something you have to be aware of it.  To further illustrate the problem I have with Ong’s 20th century approach let me create an analogy.  I have no doubt that at some point in the future something will have been invented and become common that people today can’t even imagine.  I see Ong as the person living in that future time, looking back on 2009 and wondering how we could have functioned without that item.  He fails to realize that since I don’t know about it, it doesn’t matter.

One of the most obvious examples of Ong’s 20th century bias is in the example he gives to illustrate the difficulties faced by a person in an oral culture who would, “undertake to think through a particularly complex problem and would finally manage to articulate a solution which itself is relatively complex”. (Ong, 1982, p. 34)  From this he asks, “How, in fact, could a lengthy analytical solution ever be assembled in the first place?” (Ong, 1982, p. 34) One wonders what kind of complex problem Ong is imagining these cultures are dealing with that would require a lengthy, analytical solution.   I have no doubt that these societies did solve complex problems but I would suggest that the problems would be of a practical rather than a philosophical nature, for example, how to get water from the nearby river to the crops.  The problem would be thought through and the solution tried.  There was no need to write anything down, if it worked the people involved would have the knowledge and would pass it on in the same way they passed on their histories and their beliefs, with stories told through generations.

In his introduction Ong states, “Homo Sapiens has been in existence for between 30,000 and 50,000 years.  The earliest script dates from only 6000 years ago.” (Ong, 1982, p. 2) During these tens of thousands of years human population grew and developed into a variety of different cultures.  They developed laws, religions and belief systems as well as techniques for food production.  These were not primitive people grunting in caves, they were intelligent, inventive and creative.  Given this, we must come to the conclusion that writing was missing from these cultures, not out of any failure on their part, but because they didn’t need it.  Ong, writing from his 20th century bias seems to find this difficult to fathom and has allowed it to colour his approach to primary oral cultures.


Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge.

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

Cautions and Considerations for Technological Change: A Commentary on Neil Postman’s The Judgment of Thamus

Cautions and Considerations for Technological Change:
A Commentary on Neil Postman’s The Judgment of Thamus

Natalie Giesbrecht
ETEC 540
University of British Columbia
October 4, 2009


Kurzweil (2001) suggests that nowadays there is a common expectation of “continuous technological progress and the social repercussions that follow” (para. 2). In “The Judgment of Thamus”, chapter one of Technopoly, Neil Postman (1992) cautions us of the implications of technological innovation. More specifically he warns us of the “one-eyed prophets” or Technophiles, “who see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo” (Postman, 1992, p. 5). Postman consciously avoids boasting the opportunities of new technologies in favour of reminding us of the dangers of blindly accepting these. This skepticism and somewhat of an alarmist attitude could be construed as Chandler (2000) calls it “pessimistic determinism” – an almost fatalist perception where we cannot escape the wrath of technology (para. 14). What we are left with is an unbalanced argument whereby Postman assumes his readers are naïve and may well fall prey to the technological imperative. Underlying his negative outlook though, Postman presents key points to consider when thinking about technological change: 1) costs and benefits; 2) winners and losers; and 3) ecological impact.

Costs and Benefits

Postman (1992) uses Plato’s Phaedrus as a springboard for his discussion on technological change. From this story we learn that it is a mistake to believe that “technological innovation has a one-sided effect” (Postman, 1992, p. 4). Postman (1992) argues that every culture must always be in negotiation with technology as it can “giveth” and “taketh away” (p. 5). This stance asserts that technology is an autonomous force, and as Chandler (2001) explains it, technology becomes “an independent, self-controlling, self-determining, self-generating, self-propelling, self-perpetuating and self-expanding force” (para. 1). Postman briefly attempts to illustrate a more balanced critique of the costs and benefits of technological innovation by citing Freud (1930):

…If I can, as often as I please hear the voice of a child of mine who is living hundreds of miles away…if there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town (p. 70 as cited in Postman, 1992, p. 6).

Postman might argue here, what has technology undone? He contends that there are unforeseen side-effects of technology and that we can’t predict what is at the end of the road of technological progress – as “our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end” (Thoreau, 1908, p. 45 as cited in Postman, 1992, p. 8).

Winners and Losers

Innis (1951) discussed the idea of ‘knowledge monopolies’, where those who have control of particular technologies gain power and conspire against those “who have no access to the specialized knowledge made available by the technology” (Postman, 1992, p. 9). Postman (1992) infers that the benefits and costs of technology are not equally distributed throughout society and that there are clear winners and losers. A key example he refers to is the blacksmith, who praises the development of the automobile, but eventually his profession is rendered obsolete by it (Postman, 1992). Again, this viewpoint sees technology “as an autonomous force acting on its users” (Chandler, 2008, para. 8).

There is an unsaid expectation that the winners will encourage the losers to be advocates for technology; however, in the end the losers will surrender to those that have specialized technological knowledge (Postman, 1992). Postman (1992) states that for democratic cultures, that are highly receptive and enthusiastic to new technologies, technological progress will “spread evenly among the entire population” (p. 11). This sweeping statement is what Rose (2003) warns us against. Postman writes off the entire population as passive, mindless victims that have fallen prey to the autonomy of technology. However, he fails to acknowledge that the population may “resist the reality of technological impacts and imperatives every day” (Rose, 2003, p. 150).

Ecological Impact

Technological change is ecological and when new technologies compete with old ones it becomes a battle of world-views (Postman, 1992). For instance, a tug-o-war occurred when print entered the oral space of the classroom. On one side, there is orality, which “stresses group learning, cooperation, and a sense of social responsibility” and on the other is print, which fosters “individualized learning, competition, and personal autonomy” (Postman, 1992, p. 17). Each medium eventually found their respective place to change the environment of learning. Now orality and print wage a new war with computers. Postman (1992) asserts that each time a new technology comes along it “does not add or subtract something. It changes everything” (p. 18). Institutions mirror the world-view endorsed by the technology and when a new technology enters the scene, the institution is threatened – “culture finds itself in crisis” (Postman, 1992, p. 18). With this, Postman gives us a sense that technology is out of control, further evidencing his alarmist viewpoint of technological change.

Finally, the ecological impact of technology extends beyond our social, economic and political world to enter our consciousness. Postman (1992) believes that technology alters what we think about, what we think with and the environment in which thought is developed (Postman, 1992). Postman suggests that the population has a “dull” and “stupid awareness” of the ecological impact of technology (Postman, 1992, p. 20) – indicating that technology may be ‘pulling the wool’ over our eyes.


Rose (2003) warns us against taking extreme stances on technological changes – this leads to ideas that “become concretized in absolute terms rather than remaining fluid and open for analysis and debate” (p. 155). Nardi and O’Day (1999) suggest that extreme positions on technology critique should be replaced by a middle ground where we carefully consider the impact of both sides without rejecting one or another hastily (p. 20). Although it clear that Postman is biased toward a pessimistic outlook of technological change, he presents several key points that encourage us to think twice before accepting any technology and “do so with our eyes wide open” (p. 7). In the end, it is difficult to look past Postman’s bias and thus it is still questionable if in fact culture has blindly surrendered to technology as he suggests.


Chandler (2000). Techno-evolution as ‘progress’. In Technological or media determinism. Retrieved October 2, 2009, from

Chandler, D. (2001).Technological autonomy. In Technological or media determinism. Retrieved October 2, 2009, from

Chandler, D. (2008). Technology as neutral or non-neutral. In Technological or media
. Retrieved October 2, 2009, from

Innis, H. A. (1951). The bias of communication. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Kurzweil, R. (2001). The law of accelerating returns. Retrieved October 2, 2009, from

Nardi, B. A., & O’Day, V. L. (1999). Information ecologies: Using technology with heart. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.

Rose, E. (2003). The errors of Thamus: An analysis of technology critique. Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, 23, 147-156.

Thoreau, H.D. (1908). Walden. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd.

October 4, 2009   2 Comments

Orality and Mythology

In Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong (2002) drew a distinction between cultures characterized by literacy and cultures characterized by “primary orality”, the latter being comprised of “persons totally unfamiliar with writing” (p. 6). By accepting a form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the view that a culture’s language determines the way in which its members experience the world, Ong also considered these two types of culture to be two types of consciousness, or “modes of thought” (Ibid, p. 6). While Ong attempted to address how literate culture developed from “oral cultures”– i.e. cultures characterized by primary orality (Ibid, p. 31) – the sharp distinction he drew between the two respective types of consciousness involved in these types of culture makes the question of how this development would have been possible particularly troublesome (Dobson, Lamb, & Miller, 2009).

Ong  evidently recognized that there can be what might be called “transitional forms” between primary orality and literacy. He noted that oral cultures in the strict sense hardly existed anymore (Ong, 2002, p. 11), suggesting that cultures may be oral to a large degree even when they have been somewhat influenced by literate cultures. Furthermore, he granted that literate cultures may still bear some of the characteristics of the oral cultures from which they developed, possessing what he called “oral residue” (Ibid, p. 40-1). However, by characterizing literate and oral modes of thought as he did, it is not clear how it could even be possible for the former to arise out of the latter– although it is clear that they must have done so.

One of the main difficulties lies in Ong’s characterization of oral modes of thought as less “abstract” than literate modes. He asserted that all conceptual thought is abstract to some degree, meaning that concepts are capable of referring to many individual objects but are not themselves individual objects (Ibid, p. 49). According to this view, concepts can be abstract to varying degrees depending on how many individual objects they are capable of referring to. The concept “vegetation” is able to refer to all the objects the concept “tree” can and still more, and thus it is a more abstract concept. The oral mode of thought, Ong asserted, utilizes concepts that are less abstract and this makes it closer to “concrete” individual objects.

This notion of concepts being “abstract” is relatively recent, being developed mainly by the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). In ancient and mediaeval thought, the distinction between the concept “tree” and this tree or that tree would be described as a distinction between a universal and a particular. Locke’s view that universals are “abstract” ideas was based on the theory that they are formed by the mind’s taking away or “abstracting” that which is common to many particulars (Locke, 1991, p. 147). For example, the concept “red” is formed by noticing many red objects and then “abstracting” the common characteristic of redness from all of the other characteristics the objects possess.

A problem with this theory of abstraction as a general explanation of how concepts are formed was pointed out by Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945). Cassirer noted that the theory first of all claims that it is necessary to possess abstract concepts in order to apprehend the world as consisting of kinds of things, and that without them we would only have what William James – and Ong after him (Ong, 2002, p. 102) – called the “big, blooming, buzzing confusion” of sense perception. The theory also claims that to form an abstract concept in the first place it is necessary to notice a common property shared by a number of particular objects. Yet according to the first claim we couldn’t notice this common property if we didn’t already have an abstract concept. We wouldn’t notice that several objects share the property of redness if we didn’t already have the concept “red” (Cassirer, 1946, p. 24-5).

Cassirer’s criticism of abstraction as a theory of concept formation could serve as a particularly valuable corrective to Ong’s account of the distinction between orality and literacy. Cassirer himself offered a similar account of two modes of thinking which he called “mythological” and “discursive”. The “mythological” mode of thought resembled Ong’s “oral” mode in many ways. Like Ong’s oral mode of thought it was a mode of thought closely linked to the apprehension of objects as they stood in relation to practical activity (Ong, 2002, p. 49; Cassirer, 1946, p. 37-8). Also like the oral mode of thought it was associated with the notion that words held magical power, as opposed to the view of words as mere arbitrary signs (Ong, 2002, p. 32-3; Cassirer, 1946, p. 44-5, 61-2).

If Walter Ong’s account of orality and literacy could be synthesized with Cassirer’s distinction between the mythological and the discursive, it would benefit in that the latter is capable of describing a development from one mode of thought to the other without posing the problematic view that this involves increasing degrees of abstraction. The development of the mythological mode into the discursive mode is not the move away from a concrete world of perception to an abstract world of conception, but the move from the use of one kind of symbolic form to the use of another type. Furthermore, as the mythological mode of thought is already fully symbolic it is possible to study this mode of thought by studying the symbolism used in mythological cultures. While the stages of development from the mythological to the discursive described by Cassirer (e.g. perceiving objects as possessing “mana”, seeing objects as appearances of “momentary gods”, polytheistic forms of thinking, and so on) may not be supported by empirical evidence, the kind of analysis that is offered by his theory of “symbolic forms” makes the type of development in question conceivable and provides us with a program for studying it.


Cassirer, E. (1946). Language and Myth. (S.K. Langer, Trans.). New York: Dover. (Original work published 1925).

Dobson, T., Lamb, B., & Miller, J. (2009). Module 2: From Orality to Literacy Critiquing Ong: The Problem with Technological Determinism. Retrieved from

Locke, John (1991). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In M. Adler (Ed.), Great Books of the Western World (Vol. 33). Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Original work published 1698).

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

October 4, 2009   2 Comments