The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

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.


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