The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Commentary 1


Black and White


Walter Ong, in his 2002 edition book presents a black and white view of orality versus literacy. In his view the presence of literacy alters the human mind. On page 77, Ong refers to how writing restructures the consciousness of man, “Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing, but normally even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form”.  In his historical explorations and in cited reports of studies of non-reading cultures, we are presented with his evidence to support that stance.


The chart accompanying the commentary summarizes in very simple terms the way he divides the one state from the other, with page references from the 2002 edition.1 Though the chart summary is considerably simplified, it does give a sense of the strong reported divide between the two psychosocial states as put forward.


Through the examples he gives, he assigns culture-wide transformative effects of becoming literate. Others such as Chandler feel the situation is more like a spectrum and that these two states may not be as separate as Ong purports them to be. Chandler in his chapters, Technological Autonomy and Reification in the Technological or Media Determinism study, explores this issue and states, “Rather than being ‘outside’ society, technology is an inextricable part of it”. The tools of literacy would be interpreted to be interwoven or melded within the socio-cultural milieu rather than being a separate ‘thing’ that influences.


An area that is not dealt with within the course readings is the child, as pre-literate. A young child has many of the characteristics attributed to oral cultures, with the exception of agonistic or rhetorical since these are cultivated oral skills and attitudes. Early age language acquisition mimics early language and writing development historically, as pictorial representations of objects, or pictograms are slowly replaced by alphabetic writing for the developing child. Likewise some the attributes Ong has given to literates are present in pre-literate present-day children. They are informally logical, and categorical in their dealings with others and the world. Context free, and autonomous, children are in a world of their own.  They are independent, and explore on their own.  In support of Ong’s position is a study by Castro-Caldas & Petersson, et al. (1998) showing in fact that brain activity is changed by the process of learning in scans of the brain, not just in psychological testing.  


Secondary orality shares features with both primary orality and literacy, except with mixed media interlinking and retrieval, a third system is there—a new literacy, which many now term hypermedia.  It is like a de-evolution, whereby bits and bytes are the new alphabet and the words are no longer the units of interest—it is the nodes or connections between key concepts that matter. The icons of the modern interface are a return to the pictograph, and emoticons and hypertext add depth, seeking to re-inject more contextual meaning.


One might agree with Ong that literacy irreversibly changes the minds of those in the cultures or perhaps literacy has an impact on each individual’s developing mind as proposed. As the web has evolved, there has been an increasing proportion of visual and aural data, and hypertext, while static text is decreasing. Though some of this is due to increased bandwidth, the medium is changing fast in the 2.0 web and we are literally moving away from static black and white in secondary orality media environments. If literacy affects the developing mind, then early exposure to the post-literate fast-paced online hypermedia may change a human beings mind in a new way, as yet unfathomed.





Ong, W.J. (2002) Orality and Literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Menthuen.


Chandler, D. (2009). Technological or Media Determinism. Accessed online October 3, 2009 at:


Castro-Caldas, A., Petersson, K.M., Reis, A., Stone-Elander, S., and Ingvar, M. (1998). The illiterate brain: Learning to read and write during childhood influences the functional organization of the adult brain. Brain, Vol. 121, No. 6. P 1053-1063. Accessed October 2009 online at:

Simple contrast derived from Ong

Simple contrast derived from Ong

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.28.09 at 5:28 pm }

I think you are right. I am beginning to see a notable difference in my students, especially in their literacy skills, from those I taught 15 years ago.

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