The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

[R]evolution of Communication

New technology alters the structure of our interests: the things we think about.  They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with.  And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop. (Postman, 1992, p.20)

Walter Ong in his acclaimed book, Orality and Literacy, posits that “more than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness” (1982, p.77).  Writing has also transformed the way in which people connect with each other.  In an oral culture, communication was limited to what an individual could witness first hand or what they heard via another medium (clergy, messengers, etc.).  As the technology of writing developed, books, letters and telegraphs further evolved how people communicated with each other and allowed people to communicate with a broader audience.  This paper contends that there has been a revolution of communication as digital technologies have altered the way in which people communicate.  The question remains – Is digital technology creating connections or digitally dividing us? 

The Internet, and particularly Web 2.0, has altered our ability to refute written text.  In an oral culture, people had the opportunity to directly discuss (or disagree) with a message as the message and the source were one (Ong).  Ong argues that there is “no way to directly refute a text” (p.78).  Written work has had a long history of “stability and authority” and the average person was not given the power to question it (Bolter, 2001).  As writing evolved to include letters and newspaper, people could write editorials (that may or may not be published) to voice their opinions.  Web 2.0 has altered the landscape for personal expression and opened up communication.  Dobson and Willinsky agree that digital literacy is allowing people to “speak out and make one’s views widely available” (2009, p.1).  Even the terminology used has changed; books have readers, whereby websites have visitors (Kress, 2001).  A visitor can instantly comment on a story and share that with friends, family or the World Wide Web.  Take for example, CNN’s website, whereby at the end of each story, visitors are given the option of Mixx, Facebook, Twitter, Share, Email, Save and Print (CNN).  CNN also allows visitors to instantly comment on all stories posted.  Writing opened up communication lines and Web 2.0 further breaks down institutional barriers and allows individual voices to be heard. 

Ong comments, “A chirographic (writing) culture and even more so a typographic (print) culture can distance and in a way denature even the human, itemizing such as the names of leaders and political divisions in an abstract” (p. 42).  In an oral situation people are more guarded with their opinions as not to offend others.  When speaking, the audience is present and the speaker has to express their thoughts succinctly and timely.  On the other hand, writing puts a distance to what is being said both in terms of time and space.  A writer has time to reflect and revise their work.  Digital technology has created a new medium that allows written text to be more instantaneous like oral dialogue.  In UBC’s MET program, the students had a written discussion about the differences between an email message and a phone conversation and Clare Roche (2009) wrote, “if we are imagining that someone is reading our words, it is usually because we know that our written words can be kept and may be used as evidence against us”.  Laurie Trepanier (2009) commented that “email dehumanizes events and some people use it as an escape from having to do the dirty work”.  What people write and what people say are often very different. 

According to Ong, in an oral culture, people speak to be heard and unity is created when a speaker addresses an audience.  Ong argues that print isolates and is not written for any particular group.  Postman also believes that in a classroom orality leads to cooperation where as print emphasises individualized learning and competition.  The evolution of the World Wide Web to include Web 2.0 technology like blogs, social book marking, and wiki’s is altering that perception of text; Alexander comments that “an entire genre of Web services has emerged solely for connecting people to each other based on their interests and personality” (2008, p.152).  The goal of many social software applications is to create openness, collaboration and a community – very much the same as orality.  The Web also allows the audience to be global as it is not bound by location.  UBC’s Master of Educational Technology prides its self on being an internationally recognized program that is offered fully online and taken by students from thirty different countries (MET, 2009).  Jerry Bleecker comments, “When a document begins in BC, is refined in China, polished in Ontario, proofed in Japan, and submitted from New York, you know you’ve been part of a truly global learning experience” (MET).

In 1982, when Ong wrote his book, the World Wide Web was in its infancy and Web 2.0 was not yet on the horizon.  Web 2.0 and digital technology has evolved to incorporate many of the attributes that oral cultures appreciate: a sense of openness and community.  Digital technology is not without its pitfalls, but it gives the individual power to refute and let their voices be heard.  The line is already blurred between oral dialogue and written correspondence with instant messaging and texting and it will be interesting to watch as communication patterns continue to evolve and improve.  Digital technology holds the power to create connections between people.  These connections are different than that of a traditional oral culture, but strong communication channels and a sense of community can still be built.




Alexander, B. (2006). Web 2.0 and emergent multiliteracies. Educase Review, 4(1), p. 34-44.

Bolter, J. (2001).  Writing spaces: computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print.  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Eribaum.

CNN. (2009). Retrieved November 19, 2009 from

Dobson T, Willinsky J. Digital Literacy. In: Olson D, Torrance N, editors. Cambridge Handbook on Literacy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; 2009.

MET website. (2009).  Retrieved November 19, 2009 from

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

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

Roche, C. (2009). Orality and Literacy [ETEC 540 class discussion]. Retrieved from e-Learning @ UBC website:

Trepanier, L. (2009). ). Orality and Literacy [ETEC 540 class discussion]. Retrieved from e-Learning @ UBC website:


1 Clare Roche { 11.29.09 at 11:02 am }

I just wonder what will hapen to those who do not access to the digital discourse.

2 Noah Burdett { 11.30.09 at 9:13 pm }

In revolution of communication Sara brings up a great point, one that I wish to expand upon. The rise of web 2.0 allows us to move back towards a characteristic of oral societies. Namely knowing the person on a close level that one is communicating with. With web 2.0 we are able to develop relationships and build communities with many people around the globe and thus interact and participate with the knower on an ongoing basis. A possibility that was not available due to physical special and time constraint that held back other forms of writing.

What will happen to those that do not access the digital discourse? They will continue to use their traditional means to obtain knowledge and build communities of people that do the same. I think it is only a problem if one wants to participate and does not, rather than choosing to be excluded and accepting the consequences. However, they may find that their sources of information gradually dry up.

You must log in to post a comment.