The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Formal Response # 2 – The Evolution of Culture: From Oral to Visual Dominance

      The dawn of the printing press not only changed the realm of writing, it also fostered a crucial change in human thought process and learning. The evolution of the written word into a mass-produced, evenly distributed visual work promoted a cultural shift from oral to visual dominance. Walter Ong provides important insights on the cultural shift and provides thorough examples to validate it. However he falls short of providing an adequate theory for the physiological changes within the human brain. This does not necessitate that he is incorrect, but rather that more information could be provided. The visual shift occurring in our culture has not always been met with enthusiasm. In fact, there is a form of backlash against the visual stating that it cultivates a lack of intelligence. Ong’s central message indicates a move from the oral to visual realm. Yet it can also be theorized that the shift is actually a return back to the visual. The theory we accept is minor in comparison to the interchange of the two realms, which will provide major implications for western culture and self-consciousness.

      The printing press is the technological advancement that ushered in the cultural swing of oral to visual. Ong argues that the letterpress situates words in space and locks them in place forming a visually appealing work. The printing press also allowed access to works en masse and was structured in a manor more easily read than that of manuscripts written by hand. Marshall McLuhan (1962) suggests that a technology, such as the printing press, creates changes in our thoughts and expressions. In other words, the new technology changes our consciousness. Ong (1982) uses numerous examples as evidence for the advancement of the visual cultural shift theory. The creation of lists, indexes, and even our own axioms indicate our move from oral to visual. Ong’s references to different cultures and examples are extensive and confirm that a shift had occurred, but Ong lacks physiological evidence as to why a change had taken place in human consciousness.

       The human brain is divided into two sides, the left and the right. Studies of patients with split brain provide us with insights into how the brain works. Their findings suggest that the left portion of the brain is responsible for speech, abstract thinking, logic, and numeracy. The right portion of the brain deals with spatial recognition and facial recognition, suggesting that the right portion of the brain is more visually oriented. Leonard Shlain confirms this theory in his book the “Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image”: “The right brain is nonverbal. … It comprehends the language of cries, gestures, grimaces, cuddling, sucking, touching, and body stance. Its emotional states are under little volitional control and betray true feelings through fidgeting, blushing, or smirking.” (Shlain, 1998, 18-19). Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink”, argues that cognition based on the visual is faster and more accurate than cognition influenced by words or logic (Gladwell, 2007). Therefore, the rapid change in our culture due to new technologies could cause us to use the rapid, more accurate side of the brain for processing new information. The theory suggested here has fascinating implications particularly for the fast paced world of the 21st century. Our reliance on visual images could be due to our need to get information at a more rapid pace.

       Visual perception may be a more powerful tool for incorporating information than oral. The New Encyclopedia website further demonstrates a visual dominance due to the fact that visual perception is multi-channeled, whereas auditory perceptions are mono-channeled. “The eye can absorb that many different things at once without confusion or overload, but the ear’s inability to take in multiple soundtracks — multiple dialogues — at the same time is further evidence of the greater power of visual perception compared with perception of aural (word-based) communication” (New Encyclopedia, 2008). The invention of the printing press created a basis for visual uniformity causing the shift in a need for multichannel communication.

      As Ong suggests, culture and perception have shifted from orality to the visual. However, Ong provides numerous examples of intellectuals who revolted against the use of writing, but no examples of those who revolt against the cultural shift from auditory to visual dominance. Lester Faigley, professor of English at the University of Texas, provides some of the major criticisms of the visual shift in his keynote speech presented at the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of Writing (1998 Conference) entitled “Technology and Literacy in a Wired Academy”. He attests that many scholars are researching the thoughts of images encroaching on written territory: “Barbara Maria Stafford has examined how current attitudes toward images were formed in eighteenth-century England, when educated people began associating images with ignorance, illiteracy, and deceit” (Faigley, 1998, pg. 4). Images were also seen as creating a loss of intellect. This can be seen in Williams Wordsworth’s poem, “Illustrated books and Newspapers”, in which he stated new technologies creating images that foster a lack of intelligence and a move backwards instead of forwards in intellectual discovery. Wordsworth indicates his apprehension of image based culture while trying to hold onto the auditory traditions:

 “Back towards caverned life’s first rude career.

Avaunt this vile abuse of pictured page!

Must eyes be all in all, the tongue and ear

Nothing? Heaven keep us from a lower stage!” (Wordsworth)

 Could the shift from oral to visual perception be a return to the visual? Ong (1982) suggests that the change occurs but does not necessarily reference whether the shift is a return to the visual or a new conceptual change. Harold Innis suggests that it could be a return to the visual. “the discovery of printing in the middle of the fifteenth century implied the beginning of a return to a type of civilization dominated by the eye rather than the ear” (Innis, 1951, p. 72). It is true that before written text many visuals were used in order to indicate meaning. Different cultures have used picture images to facilitate communication. However, in western culture, it is clear that manuscripts contained visual images as well as text, suggesting perhaps that the shift was from visual to oral and back to visual. The New Encyclopedia’s section on visual culture also asserts that change could have had a visual starting point. Similar to the creation of the printing press, the technological advancements in image making changed our cultural outlook. “The development of photography meant that a mass image-based culture could begin to emerge again, after visual culture had been overwhelmed by verbal and literate culture. To be sure, many innovations in drawing and painting had been achieved, and images had figured widely in the pre-photographic age; but they depended on the skill and perception of the image-maker.” (New Encyclopedia, 2008). Yet, what is more vital at this point is what this shift does to and for our culture.

      The shift to a visually dominated culture has its implications for how we perceive ourselves as well as how we learn and interact. The focus, as suggested by Ong, indicates that we are more independent but with the realization that we do not have to be. The technological advancements will change how we read, what we focus on (ourselves vs. society), and the world of academia. Hyperbooks and easily accessible mass media images, and videos will help shape our understanding. What is important to recognize is that the shift in our cultural perceptions is crucial to our understanding. Yet we are only now recognizing the interplay or relationship of the written word and the visual realm. The physical method of reading will shift along with our thoughts of writing conventions. The possibilities of this interplay will have a momentous effect on our current cultural belief system.


 Faigley, Lester. (1998) Technology and Literacy in a Wired Academy. Address. Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of Writing. Minnesota, Minneapolis. Retrieved from

 Gladwell, Malcolm. (2007). Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”. Back Bay Books.

 Innis, Harold. (1951). The Bias of Communication. Toronto: U of Toronto.

 McLuhan, M. (1962).  The Gutenberg galaxy: The making of typographic man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

 Ong, Walter (1982) Orality and Literacy. London and New York: Routledge.

 Shlain, Leonard. (1998). The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. New York: Viking, 1998.

 The New Encycopedia. (2008). Visual Culture. Retrieved on 7 Oct. 2009. Retrieved from

 Wordsworth, William. “Illustrated Books and Newspapers”. The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. Ed. E. de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1958.

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.29.09 at 10:56 am }

I found your article very thought provoking.

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