The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Category — Commentary 1

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

Technological Determinism, Reductionism and The Great Divide: A Commentary on W.J. Ong










Technological Determinism, Reductionism and The Great Divide: A Commentary on W.J. Ong


 Erin Gillespie

ETEC 540

University of British Columbia

October 3, 2009



     In his text, Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong (2002) posits the technology of writing changed the human thought process. For Ong (2002), oral and literate societies are distinctly separated, as exemplified in his introduction to chapter four:

…functionally literate human beings really are: beings whose thought processes do not grow out of simply natural powers but out of these powers as structured, directly or indirectly, by the technology of writing. Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does…More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness. (Ong, 2002, p. 77).

            Ong (2002) argues a binary account or a “Great Divide” theory, where oral and literate societies think in significantly different ways due to the introduction of one technology: writing (Chandler, 1994). His binary account of oral vs. literate society suggests significant differences in information processing between oral and literate societies (Chandler, 1994). Ong (2002) supports his theory with academic research where available and his arguments are convincing. Interestingly, he does not include conflicting research which may suggest a continuum between oral and literate societies. Instead, his clear-cut analysis has a generalizing binary effect driven by technological determinism which requires careful consideration.

            Technological determinism is a framework that is influential on theories of culture and technology (Murphie & Potts, 2003). The term refers to technology as an independent agent of social change which shapes society in an autonomous fashion (Murphie & Potts, 2003). Ong (2002) states writing is a technology and “technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word.” (p. 81). Ong (2002) argues the technology of writing determines our behaviour because it changed how we think. However, by postulating a “Great Divide” between oral and literate cultures, Ong (2002) is guilty of reductionism and over generalizing between cultures.

            Ong’s (2002) generalizations across cultures and radically different societies when discussing the features of oral and literate societies weaken his “Great Divide” stance. In his essay “Technological or Media Determinism”, Chandler (1995) claims technological determinism involves reductionism, where complexity of the whole is reduced to the effects of one part on another. Chandler (1995) warns of the pitfalls of generalizing too widely in the area of technological determinism, noting convincing evidence is difficult to cite concerning the relationship between technology and social change.

      In his analysis, Ong (2002) exemplified reductionism by reducing changes, across all cultures, in information processing to the introduction of writing. Ong (2002) does not examine how the introduction of writing may have affected different cultures in different ways. For example, the medieval book of hours included illustrations and text, implying the introduction of writing did not usher in a total cultural transformation in thought (The British Library Board, n.d.). The detailed illustrations provide both oral and literate societies with the same information and provide historical evidence that the two societies coexisted within the same culture. It is fair to say writing affected cultures in different areas in different ways, but Ong (2002) overlooks this.  Ong (2002) itemizes the cultural effects due to the shift from orality to literacy, including artificial memory, analytical thought and abstraction (Murphie & Potts, 2003). However, Ong (2002) simply reduces the change to the introduction of one technology: writing. He fails to investigate other social factors that may have affected human thought such as economics, religion, politics, warfare or education.

      Ong (2002) does not examine how information processing may differ between oral cultures themselves or how thought patterns may differ within the same oral or literate culture in relation to variables other than writing. He instead critiques oral societies by claiming literate people have freer minds because they can store knowledge in written text leading to “more original, more abstract thought” (Ong, 2002, p. 24). Ong (2002) does not include convincing empirical research to support his claim that literacy changes the way we process information. However, Wolf (2008) published results of a scientific historical analysis which supports Ong’s (2002) theory of changes in evolutionary brain pathways in relation to literacy. Wolf’s (2008) research includes studies where brain imaging scans of literate people differ from non-literate and she examines how literate brains process information differently than the brains of dyslexic individuals. Wolf’s (2008) research does lend credibility to Ong’s (2002) claims.

      It would be a mistake to interpret Ong (2002) as completely dismissing the effects of orality in literate societies, despite his technologically deterministic “Great Divide” and his cultural generalizations. His theory of secondary orality implies that our communication methods and our use of language are still affected by primary orality. Considering continuity between orality and literacy, Chandler (1994) includes Ong in a discussion of phonocentrism, an interpretive bias where speech is rated higher than writing in general.  Chandler (1994) points out how Ong (2002) considers speech natural and real, and writing as artificial and dead. Ong (2002) recognizes how characteristics of orality are still apparent in various forms of communication in secondary orality. For example, both primary and secondary orality generate a strong group sense: A “true audience” listening to a speech and today’s global village are both “group-minded” (Ong, 2002, p. 134).

      Ong’s (2002) theory has strong implications for academics and educators should be aware of how any technology can open new kinds of thinking. Despite weaknesses in Ong’s (2002) technological deterministic binary division of oral and literate societies, he does not deny the effects of primary orality on secondary orality. His theory also encourages further research into the field of linguistics and cognitive processing, as demonstrated by Wolf (2008).





Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the ear and eye: “Great divide” theories, phonocentrism, graphocentrism & logocentrism. Available online 28, September, 2009, from

Chandler, D. (1995). Technological or media determinism. Available online 28, September, 2009, from

Murphie, A., & Potts, J. (2003). Culture and technology. New York, New York: Palgrave-MacMillan

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

The British Library Board. (n.d.). Scenes from medieval life: A book of hours. Available online 2, October, 2009, from

Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain. New York, New York: Harper Collins.

October 3, 2009   7 Comments

Memory Loss and Death


Digital ID: 465215. Work with schools, teachers' reference room : a teacher finds project materials, 1938.. 1938

Digital ID: 465215. Work with schools, teachers' reference room : a teacher finds project materials, 1938.. 1938


As a class, we are all aware that Ong’s chapter 4 is a discussion focused on the effects of writing on consciousness, outlining some characteristics of writing within a brief history.  After I had selected this chapter for the commentary, a second reading redirected my focus from the initial concepts of writing as a form of technology and the concept of writing as “contumacious” (Ong, 2002, pg.78) towards a slightly different focus on two concepts that was dispersed yet combined throughout the chapter.   These topics stirred ample thought and I feel they deserve more critical attention.  These ideas are identified in a continuous intertwined fashion including a passage as Ong states “One of the most startling paradoxes inherent in writing is its close association with death.  This association is suggested in Plato’s charge that writing is inhuman, think-like and that it destroys memory.” (Ong, pg. 80)  This statement provoked two divergent stems of thinking; the first being that ‘memory is destroyed’ and the second being the association of death to writing.  While the history and the effects of writing on a society has not held a prominent point in my academic career until this moment, I would never have believed nor have imagined that writing could be associated with either death or memory loss.   

 Memory loss

 The concept that writing destroys memory appears to be a little presumptuous as the very least.  Memory, much like the scraps of paper we store in our pockets are meant to be discarded when no longer required, resulting in “customary law, trimmed of material no longer of use, which automatically always up to date and thus youthful”. (Ong, pg. 97)  While it is necessary to have an appreciation regarding the lack of research into the effects of writing at the time of Plato’s statement, research today “suggests that people who will develop dementia may be able to delay memory loss by daily activities that stimulate the brain such as reading, writing and card games.” (Dementia Matters)  The human mind was meant to disregard information that was considered not relevant or needed for current existence.  Writing has created not memory loss, but the ability of a culture to preserve what would naturally be lost; resulting in an artificial reversing of the natural memory loss process.  


 The second concept which Ong mentions is that of death.  According to The Oxford University Press death is defined as:

1 [C] the fact of sb dying or being killed:

2 [U] the end of life; the state of being dead:

3 [U] ~ of sth the permanent end or destruction of sth:

4 (also Death) [U] (literary) the power that destroys life, imagined as human in form (Oxford University Press, 2005)

Considering the aforementioned definition, the association of death to writing is a difficult notion to digest.   Writing has the ability to immortalize the writer, to transcend time and culture and to persist even when the culture that created the actual writing no longer exists.  As Ong writes “most books extant today were written by persons now dead.”  (Ong, pg. 101)  Ancient texts such as the rongorongo from Easter Island evidence this statement.  These ancient texts are a writing system in with a combination of ideographic and phonetic.  (The British Museum)  While these texts are not fully deciphered and may never be, the culture that created the text is long gone, but their legacy lives on in their writing and the interest that they generated.

 The intertwined concepts of memory loss and death which are a result of writing create many doubts.  This may be due to the fact that I belong to a culture where writing is integrated in all aspects of daily life.   Just considering that we can store in artificial means, (not the mind) a wide variety of information, ensures that death can not occur.  The life of the information, stories and memories will never die unless our capacity to write and learn to read those writings ceases to exist. 



 Dementia Matters.  (2009).  Daily Activities that stimulate the brain may delay memory loss.   Retrieved online from the World Wide Web:

Ong, W.J., (2002).  Orality and Literacy: The technologizing of the Word.  New York (NY): Routledge.   

Oxford University Press, (2005). Death.  Retrieved online from the World Wide Web:

 The British Museum.  (Unknown).  Wood tablet with rongorongo inscription.  Retrieved online from the World Wide Web:

October 3, 2009   1 Comment

Dichotomies by Dilip Verma

Our society is inextricably interwoven with technology to such an extent that we have become completely dependent upon the tools of our own creation. Technology is such a part of our reality, and has been so internalized that we are no longer always conscious of its influence or presence, but rather take it for granted. There is very little public discourse about the effects that technology has had and is having on our consciousness, so it is enlightening to read works by authors such as Ong and Postman. Postman (1992) analyses the influence that technology has had in shaping our society, while Ong (2002) looks at one technology, literacy, and examines the changes it has caused to our cognitive processes. These authors present technological dichotomies that help us to “become aware of our biases…and to reflect critically on their implications” (Chandler, 1994, Photocentrism, ¶ 1). There are dangers, however, in reducing complex continuous processes into discrete elements.

By simplifying the nature of our interrelation with technology, by taking a dichtomatic approach, it is easy to highlight the important issues in technological discourse. However, there is a risk of exaggerating or over stating the case. Sweeping statements are powerful and eye-catching, but all too often hyperbole. Deterministic discourses are by nature over-analytic and take an idea to extremes. For example, Ong goes so far as to suggest that writing has a “close association with death” (2002, p. 80). And Postman declares that in the United States of America there has occurred “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology” (1992, p. 52). These are interesting and important concepts, but not necessarily realities.

Postman is a valuable addition to the technological debate as he is a lone voice standing against the predominant tecnophilic utopian discourse. Postman’s fear of our belief in “scientism” (1992, Chapter 9) is valid and thought provoking. Nevertheless, Postman notes that “A new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything” (1992, p. 18). This is a very broad statement. Chandler counters that “any medium facilitates, emphasizes, intensifies, amplifies, enhances or extends certain kinds of use or experience whilst inhibiting, restricting or reducing other kinds” (1996, Engagement with Media, ¶ 12). Technologies act on the culture that was already there, which is why countries such as Norway and the United States, both having the same technologies, do not use them in the same way.

Though the distinctions that Ong (2002) makes between orality and literacy are extremely thought provoking, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to physically separate and distinguish oral and literate cultures as two discrete elements. In opposition to the arguments of Ong, Graff (1986, p. 69) notes that “the oral and the literate then, like the human and the printed, need not be opposed as simple choices. Human history did not proceed in that way; rather it, allowed a deep rich process of reciprocal interaction and conditioning to occur as literacy gradually spread and gained in acceptance and influence”.

To define a dichotomy, I have chosen the following, cited by Nubiola (N.D.), from the Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology (1901-1905). A dichotomy is a “form of logical division in which, at each step, the genus is separated into two species, determined by the possession and non possession, the presence and absence, of a mark or attribute. The species so determined satisfy the rules of division: they exclude one another, and they exhaust the extent of the genus divided.”

         The idea of exclusion is important here; If Ong sees literacy and orality as a dichotomy, then he is suggesting in some way that they are mutually exclusive mediums that “give shape to experience” Chandler (1996, Engagement with Media, ¶ 11). Both orality and literacy have always been interwoven in all literate cultures. For example Graff (1986, p. 70) notes that “for many centuries, reading itself was an oral, often collective, activity, and not the private, silent one we now consider it to be.” What is more, the influence of orality and literacy varies greatly between societies. For example, the percentage of the Mexican population that are regular readers is low whilst in Japan it is very high. Television, the linguistic staple of Mexican culture, is both aural and visual but not textual as is the written word. Doesn’t it over simplify the subject to neatly categorize Japan and Mexico in the same group?

         If we are going to make a distinction between modes of communication, then surely linguistic and non-linguistic are more natural choices. Ong (2002) argues that spoken language is natural whereas written language is artificial, but all language is artificial as it is language that mediates experience. Chandler (1994) notes that language allows for the construction of reality. Because we have so completely internalized language, we are no longer aware of its mediating effects. It is language and not the written word, as Ong contends, that separates the world into discrete things. Chandler (1994, Logocentrism, ¶ 6) cites Arieti (1976) as arguing that  “we tend to perceive what we can subsequently understand or place in some category, and we tend to overlook the rest.” Our senses receive an infinite amount of information that we organize or filter by categorizing through the naming of objects. Even here though, the dichotomy simplifies reality. Surely, at the most basic level, organisms can distinguish between what is edible and what is not as a basic form categorization without words. Categorizing in fact is not something that started with language, but was enhanced by it.

         In general great divides succeed as discourse but fail as realistic approaches. Society is not cut and dry, but made up of continuous variables. To divide societies into literate or oral, or into technopolies or technocracies is not practical. Chandler (1994, Great Divide Theories, ¶ 6) quotes Finnegan (1988) as stating that ·”’continuity theories’…. stress a ‘continuum’ rather than a radical discontinuity between oral and literate modes, and an on-going dynamic interaction between various media”. This is much closer to our techno-shaped reality, a shade of grey rather than black or white.

Baldwin, J.M., ed. (1901-1905). Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology. 3 vols. New York. Macmillan.

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Photocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism. Retrieved September 27, 2009, from litorial/litorial.html

Chandler, D. (1996, February). Engagement with media: Shaping and being shaped. Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine. Retrieved September 27, 2009, from media/Documents/litorial/litorial.html

Graff, H. J. (1986). The legacies of literacy: continuities and contradictions in western society and culture. In S. De Castell, A. Luke & K. Egan (Eds.), Society and Schooling: a reader. Cambridge University Press.

Nubiola, J. (N.D.). Dichotomies and Artifacts: A reply to Profesor Hookway. Retrieved September 30, 2009, from

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

Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York. Vintage

October 3, 2009   1 Comment

The White Flag of Surrender

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

By Neil Postman


            How has our culture changed because of technology? Are the effects of technology positive or negative? Do we get to decide which technology society keeps and what we disregard? Are we just ‘tools of our tools’ (Postman, 1992)?

            As technology’s pace continues to hit warp speed, we see an ever changing, increasingly new list of benefits and burdens; and changes to our culture, which had not been anticipated. We may learn from this that it is a mistake to suppose that any technological innovation has a one-sided, limited effect (Postman, 1992).

Blessing and Burden

            Technology is a myriad of discoveries that can be akin to Pandora’s box; both good and evil emerge. Society is unable to stop the advancement or progress of either. Postman (1992) states that once the hand of technology is played in society, it does what it was designed to do. A good example of this is the Internet. The Internet was originally designed by the US military as a tool for communication. The original creators could not have foreseen the magnitude and impact that the Internet would have on society. It allows society to build and create new forms of communication and business that is constantly being rediscovered; it also advances social ills like child pornography and gambling. It can create chaos and change culture at the same time. Unforeseen consequences do arrive, and therefore the discoverer is not always the best judge of the good or harm that is a result of an introduction of a new invention in society (Postman, 1992).

Technology Changes our Culture

     Changes the power structure.

Technology produces an elite group that has been given undeserved authority, prestige and power (Postman, 1992). Unfortunately, this power structure is not distributed equally (Postman, 1992). Countries that do not have the capability of developing or using technology fall quickly behind the rest of the world.

Power changes hands without warning and is unpredictable, creating power struggles and shifts. Technology provides the elitists with weapons that only encourage this unbalance of power.

     Influences the masses.

Postman (1992) states the obligatory truth that the medium is the message. The medium and the message are influenced by each other due to the fact that “…embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another” (Postman, 1992, p, 13). This has the ability to influence the individuals who are receiving the message via the innovative modern medium.

     Changes our lexicon.

Our very language and definitions have been altered by technology. New words have been added to accommodate our new possessions, like ipod, RAM, memory stick, etc. Words are now redefined by the new paradigm in which technology creates.

     Redefines our values.

Technology changes our ideologies, theories, context, ideas of freedom, truth, fact, wisdom, and history (Postman, 1992). It changes our context in that it influences our reference point in society and history. It changes what we think about and how we think about it (Postman, 1992).

Technology challenges our understanding of what is real. “…New technologies change what we meant by ‘knowing’ and ‘truth’; they alter those deeply embedded habits of thought which give to a culture its sense of what the world is like; a sense of what is the natural order of things, of what is reasonable, of what is necessary, of what is inevitable, of what is real” (Postman, 1992, p. 12). When a culture changes the context in which they live, a paradigm shift occurs, influencing the very structure and foundation on which society rests.

     Changes our community.

            Our community is no longer the people who live next door. Our community is the entire world. The very arena in which thought and ideas are developed (Postman, 1992) is impacted by technology. Society is constantly ‘wired’ via e-mail, voicemail, fax, Blackberry, texting, cell phones; keeping us connected to everyone at all the times. It changes our environment, and how we use the tools determines our work places and private spaces.

     Changes our worldview.

Technology promotes a certain worldview; when this view is challenged, an institution feels threatened. When this occurs, a culture feels threatened (Postman, 1992). “…New technologies compete with old ones- for time, for attention, for money, for prestige, but mostly for dominance of their world-view” (Postman, 1992, p.16). Society’s worldview changes according to what we have been exposed to. Therefore, those who control our exposure, also control our views of family, society, ethics, etc.

     Changes us.

How do we process the many megabytes of information that is thrown at us everyday? Information overload, techno-stress, carpal tunnel syndrome, user frustration and technosis are symptoms of our constant changing technological environment. The quantity and quality of information is uncontrolled. Authority of authors and creators are not questioned, challenging us to give authority to those individuals who did not earn it and do not deserve it.


There are many benefits and burdens to technology. It does not add or subtract to our culture, it indeed changes everything (Postman, 1992). Technology has far reaching affects that impacts our culture in varied ways- both positively and negatively. Society can change, adapt and metamorph to accommodate and live with new technology and the innovations and creations that it produces. Or it can allow the degradation of our culture to remnants of a civilized and orderly existence.

Do we have any choice but to surrender to the technology age? Yes, but only if you want to be left behind. 


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.

October 3, 2009   1 Comment

Refuting the theory of the Great Divide

The theory of the Great Divide advanced by many cultural evolutionists would have us view world history as being the evolution of a primitive society to one where literacy is its hallmark.  Primitive societies, with their rich oral traditions, their prodigious memorization skills, their ability to keep large audiences rapt during discourses and storytelling are contrasted with literate societies whose characteristics include the ability to free up the mind spaces for exploratory thinking, the necessity of record-keeping to preserve details of times gone by and the ‘decontextualizing’ ( Peter Denny, 1991) of words to the extent that reference books are required to interpret the author’s meaning.

Oral societies are deemed to be pre-literate, lacking the ability for logical or rational thinking, humanized and immediate. (Ong, chapter 3)  In contrast, literates are isolated, often abstract, can manipulate data beyond the boundaries of context and are finally freed of the need to store historical or practical knowledge.  In so many of the descriptions, oral societies are thought to be less capable, perhaps even less able than literate societies who are seen to be generally superior.

Ong advances that both societies are not only different in their presentation of world knowledge but that the thinking process is actually altered as one moves away from Orality. “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.” (Ong, p. 78)

This polarized view of  cultural evolution is flawed for many reasons. Chandler remarks that a more moderate view of the world is more accurate. (Chandler, p. 5) There is no evidence to suggest that primitives are less capable of logical or rational thought.  “Those in non-literate societies do not necessarily think in fundamentally different ways from those in literate societies… Although one commentator, Peter Denny, argues that ‘decontextualization’ seems to be a distinctive feature of thinking in Western literate societies, he nevertheless insists that all human beings are capable of rationality, logic, generalization, abstraction, theorizing, intentionality, causal thinking, classification, explanation and originality (Olson & Torrence 1991, p.81) All of these qualities can be found in oral as well as literate cultures.” (Chandler, p. 4)

A more precise view would be to admit that most societies are operating in a mixed mode.  Michael Clanchy uses the term “the growth of a literate mentality.  “He…argues that the shift [from memory to written record] was facilitated by the continuing ‘mix’ of oral and literate modes and that written forms were adapted to oral practice rather than radically changing it.” (Clanchy, 1979)

“The reality of social uses of varying modes of communication is that oral and literate modes are ‘mixed’ in each society. There is nothing absolute about a shift to a greater use of literate modes, which is better described as a change in the ‘mix’.  Oral conventions often continue to apply to literate forms and literate conventions may be applied to oral forms.” (Olson & Hildyard 1978 cited in Street 1984, p. 19)

Furthermore, it is difficult to reconcile Ong’s view of primitive societies when approached from a practical sense.  All societies, no matter how self-sufficient, must have the ability to register trade, administrative functions and perhaps legal data.  This quantitative data requires some recording process that is more permanent than an accounting of family histories or heroic exploits; a method that is not be dictated by the need to please the audience. (Ong p. 67)  It requires a practice that has more permanence than the spoken word, than sound itself. (Ong, p. 32)

Brian Street writes that even in oral societies, there is a component of literacy that is present.  He describes two kinds of literacies.  The use of record keeping for  commercial events, such as transactions, and all sort of bureaucratic events is called ‘Commercial literacy’. (Street, p. 157)  The ‘maktab’ literacy, the one taught in schools, is more representative of the arts, humanities and literature we would expect.  The first literacy is meant to support the social structure, the other as a way of distinguishing social classes. (Street p. 13)

So why then does the use of text seem the indicator of a higher civilization?  First, let us define text.  “Texts are material artifacts that take many different forms: cave paintings, tattoos, stone tablets, clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, manuscript books, musical scores, maps, printed books, engravings, newspapers, photographs, films, DVDs, computers. Every kind of text is produced by a special technology, but all those technologies share a simple purpose: they were designed to supplement the fragile human mind by providing a more durable artificial memory system. Those technologically preserved and transmitted memories are the foundation of all human culture.” (Pathways)

Ong uses Homer’s writings as evidence of a clear distinction between oral and literate thinking.  And indeed, Greek civilization is thought to have been one of the most advanced of its time.  But it is not the ability to suddenly free up their cluttered memory and launch into unprecedented creative and rhetorical thought that makes their society so exceptional.  Nor does it make them the prime example of shifting from oral to literate thinking.  The basis of their sudden evolution from Orality to Literacy lies in their reinterpretation of the Phoenician writing.

“The changes introduced into the Phoenician script by the ancient Greeks should not be regarded as ‘improvements’, but as a revolution that forever altered the Greek society and the human history by creating a new state of mind, the ‘alphabetic mind’.” (Havelock, 1982a, p.7 cited in  Jahandaríe, p. 12)

The Greeks created  syllabries, comprised of the actual sounds of human speech. (Jahandaríe, p. 12) “The new script also democratized literacy.” (Jahandaríe, p. 12) The simplicity and ease of use of this new alphabet meant that priests and scribes were no longer the only ones able to utilize this technology. And thus, Greek and Roman civilizations became the first on earth “to be equipped with the means of adequate expression in the inscribed word; the first to be able to place the inscribed word in general circulation; the first, in short, to become literate in the full meaning of that term, and to transmit its literacy to us.” (Havelock, 1976, p. 2)

This does not mean that the characteristics of their mind were altered but that they finally had a method to record, in a permanent and accurate fashion, the intricacies of human thought and the nuances that make up all cultures.  And so, the newly literate were to become a society of  “Conservators of knowledge”. (Jahandaríe, p. 13) Their alphabet, which allowed a faithful reproduction of the range of sounds and “the preservation of the subtlest of linguistic nuances” (Jahandaríe, p.14) provided the means of converting heretofore oral poetry into historical records.  It is interesting to note that other societies may have had as sophisticated and advanced a culture as the Greeks and Romans, but their permanent records, by virtue of the shortcomings of their own alphabets, lacked the sufficient details to document its glory.

As an illustration, Havelock argues that “the Old Testament, the Vedas, the Koran, and the Epic of Gilgamesh are less sophisticated in both language and content than the Homeric texts not because they are the products of simpler minds, but because they were inscribed in scripts that…[could not convey] the full richness of the original oral tradition.” (Jahandaríe, p. 15)

Ong’s illustration of the Oral mind as contrasted to the Literate mind is enlightening as an illustration of how cultural evolution is affected by technology.  And indeed, the invention of the Greek alphabet may have been one of man’s most significant innovations.  But it seems unlikely that any civilization could be so primitive as to not require some form of recording device beyond oral tradition.    I cannot conceive of a time when there is a clear line between Orality and Literacy.


Chandler, Daniel (1994): ‘Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism’ [WWW document] URL [28 Sep. 2009]

Goody, Jack (Ed.) (1968): Literacy in Traditional Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Jahandaríe, Khosrow. “Spoken and written discourse: a Multi-Disciplinary Perspective – Google Books.” Google Books. 3 Oct. 2009 <>.

Olson, David R & Nancy Torrance (Eds.) (1991): Literacy and Orality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Ong, Walter (1982): Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen

“Pathways of Excellence.” Pathways of Excellence. 1 Oct. 2009 <>.

Street, Brian. Literacy in theory and practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press , 1984.

October 3, 2009   1 Comment

Immortal stories: from orality to literacy

Commentary #1 – In response to: Ong-Orality and Literacy Chapter 3 “Some Psychodynamics of Orality”

Chapter 3 of Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy addresses the characteristics of primary oral cultures in relation to residual oral, chirographic and typographic cultures. The crux of Ong’s argument in this chapter is that it is extremely difficult for literate people to truly understand the nature of a primary oral culture because understanding demands the complete suspension of knowledge regarding literacy. One of the most profound explorations within the chapter is the nature of traditional stories and characters and their relevance today, not only as immortal components of the storytelling culture but also as historical landmarks indicative of the orality or literacy of a time.  Many of the classic stories modern literate cultures grew up with could be seen as lasting because of their abundance in print, but in actuality it is their ability to survive the test of orality that has solidified their place in history.

Ong explains that memory and the ability to repeat information without visual aids was crucial in primary oral cultures.  Since “colorless personalities cannot survive oral mnemonics”, the description of people and events must contain bizarre figures, formulary number groupings and/or epithets in order to be memorable (p.69).  These colorful elements that served as memory tools in oral cultures act as devices of fantasy for literate cultures; the same words play out differently as a result of levels of orality and literacy within a culture. Whereas such colorful descriptions would be part of oral rhetoric, they invoke the spirit of fantastical fiction, of fairy tales, myths and legends in modern literate cultures. Ong describes the nature of oral world as “highly polarized, agonistic… [defined by] good and evil, virtue and vice, villains and heroes” which supports the notion that these characteristics serve as mnemonic aids first and story elements only as residual effect (p.45). By invoking the likes of Mark Antony, Odysseus, Cyclops, Little Red Riding Hood and more, Ong draws upon characters that have withstood the test of time and forces the reader to examine them within the oral context.

If the opposite of agonistic name-calling in oral cultures is praise, then Mark Antony’s funerary oration confirms Ong’s assertions about the use of polarities as mnemonic devices. The lines directly following “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” are “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones” (III,ii). To a listener in oral cultures, these polarities have a sort of musical quality that commits the tune to memory, while to the reader, these lines are simply Shakespeare. Within the same short passage of Shakespeare comes multiple references to “honourable Brutus” and “ambitious Caesar”.  In the true spirit of the oral world of both ancient Rome and 16th century Shakespeare, these mnemonic aids are indicative of the true content of an oration. In pointing out the origin of these subtle stylings, Ong lays the framework for a cognizant analysis of texts born from primary oral or residual oral cultures.

The importance of epithets is evident in the polarized oral world of heroes and villains. Ong refers to the presence of epithets as “formularly baggage which high literacy rejects as cumbersome and tiresomely redundant because of its aggregative weight”(Ong, 1977 as found in Ong, p.38).  Modern conventions of English are weary of the kind of repetition that would suite an oral culture. However, it is an interesting feature of oral cultures that epithets were required in order to establish the foremost characteristic of an individual in order to make them memorable. Ong asserts that “once a formulary expression has crystallized, it had best be kept intact” although today, we might refer to this as oral typecasting (p.39). It is interesting that once an epithet or memorable expression is built up in an oral culture, it is almost impossible to escape. The nature of how oral communication dispenses means that it would be impossible to track everyone down who had heard something and correct their memory. However, literacy allows for the spread of the written word and while information is not erased in literate cultures, the dissemination of current information is much easier. A newspaper could proclaim a man guilty one day and then retract the next day and while a record would exist of both occurrences, the existence of a paper trail is the authority in changing appearances and opinion. Ong suggests that oral cultures kept oral epithets and formulary expressions intact because it would be very difficult to undo them under the authority of orality.

In literate cultures, Ong muses “you do not need a hero in the old sense to mobilize knowledge in story form” which is likely why stories that originated in a primary oral or residual oral cultures have a magical and fantastical quality about them (p.68).  On the surface, texts and transcripts of facts and stories that emerged from oral cultures appear to have their own style, but Ong points out that the conventions of writing we abide by today were not in existence in oral cultures. Polarities provided structure in the oral world and Ong does an excellent job of unpacking the nature of communication in the absence of literacy.


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

October 3, 2009   1 Comment

Thinking, writing and everything in between…

“Without writing, words as such have no visual presence (…). They are sounds” (Ong, 2008, pg. 31).

       Humans have forever experimented with and longed for different ways and methods to simplify life and daily processes; whether it is cleaning clothes, cooking, bathing, transporting items from one place to another, etc. Many of these efforts have accidentally or unintentionally resulted in impressive technological devices and processes. In my opinion, the (now) necessary technology we call writing, was created this way.

       Ong (2008) believes the first writing efforts began as a way to aid memory through the elaboration of lists or tallies; I believe writing began as a transmission of needs, thoughts and ideas which later became more structured and organized, giving way to general rules (grammar) and guidelines of how things should be written (spelling) and organized (syntax). The introduction and implementation of writing has had different effects on human thought processes. Ong (2008) affirms writing structures the literate mind, its oral processes and human consciousness.

       Writing is a complex dynamic mental and physical procedure which allows humans to develop more complex thought processes and it involves thinking, feeling and sometimes talking (Beck, & Fetherston, 2003). With writing, humans are allowed (and somewhat forced) to discover new and alternative vocabulary or ways of transmitting a message effectively. The writing process allows the writer to become separated from whatever he is writing about (Havelick, 1963 as referenced by Ong 2008); it truly allows the author to experience a deep reflection process as a result of reviewing what he wrote and how he wrote the message. This process allows thoughts to become “timeless”, context-free symbols that portray a message; there is no need for body language or contextual cues. Writing allows the author to “develop codes in a language different from oral codes used in the same language” (Ong, pg. 104).

       Although there are many advantages and positive aspects to the writing process, there are also “downsides” or strains that writing causes, especially on the authors. Writing sometimes brings our train of thought to a halt (writer’s block) because of the rules and guidelines we must follow to successfully and effectively deliver the message. We become so worried about the correct wording, grammatical structure and syntax; we sometimes forget to re-focus on the main topic or message to convey. On the other hand, this technology has allowed writers to “transport” readers to unknown places by using rich, descriptive text similar to the language used in oral cultures to tell stories and share reflective messages.

       Plato suggested writing destroys memory (Ong, 2008, pg. 78) and viewed the process as inhuman, yet paradoxically wrote his ideas to object on the process. In support to Plato’s idea and expanding a bit on the concept of memory, I do consider writing destroys memory; if we consider memory as the capacity to store short-term information only. Writing has facilitated the use of lists or tallies; our brain does not store “irrelevant” information when we can download it unto a piece of paper for later consultation. With the inclusion of writing to our lives, our brain is allowed to work on other more elaborate and complex processes, such as deeper analysis and comprehension of a specific topic; modification or composition of theories or statements. According to Benjamin Bloom (1956), the previous require higher order thinking skills, or the integration of various “simple” skills to develop the more complex abilities.

       Writing as a technology has changed the way humans think, express feelings and learn. The educational process has, as a result, changed dramatically, giving room for diverse activities in which the teacher isn’t always the one with all of the information; students are allowed and encouraged to look for information, question the validity and reliability of the sources and discuss their opinions on a specific topic.

       Along with great technology and resources, comes a greater responsibility of humankind to use these resources responsibly; we are now seeing a greater gap among literate and non-literate (oral) people. Nowadays, access to information in certain communities is practically impossible, impeding the democratization of technology, writing and information; while on other parts of the globe, new technological media (Wikis Blogs, etc.) facilitates and encourages the distribution and contribution of information. As always, humans have found alternative ways to distribute information and encourage writing as a skill and as a technology. A clear example is this class and this media chosen to deliver course content.

       As part of a literate culture, we must consider the implications of the differences between oral and literate cultures in the educational process and the integration of technological media to this very important mix. The writing process, as we now know it, must be an integrative, flexible process that adapts to the needs and context of the reader and writer.



Beck, N., & Fetherston, T, (2003). The effects of incorporating a word processor into a year three writing program. Information Technology in Childhood Education Annual, 139-161.  

Bloom, B.S. (Ed.), Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., & Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay.

Ong, W. (2008) Orality and Literacy. The technologizing of the word. Routledge, USA-Canada

October 3, 2009   1 Comment

Text Endangered


The dictionary defines “text” as the original words of something written or printed as opposed to a translation, paraphrase or revision. According to this definition primary documents would constitute as text whereas the translation of a novel into Korean or Swedish would not. In that case, O’Donnell argues text today is highly unstable due to the changes in technology.

Text is endangered due to the way it is digitalized and organized. Rules of writing such as grammar and punctuation did not govern writing systems of the past. Instead “the ancients made do in a wilderness of irregular scratches on a page, and made do quite well.” (O’Donnell, 1998) Writing in the past was less formalized and structured which indicates that the purpose of writing was not for wide distribution but for personal use. This belief created a casual and utilitarian culture for writing.

People today may view such text as chaotic due to the absence of paragraphs and punctuations. But instead of appreciating the distinctiveness of the original text, people today impose their own system of writing by adding punctuations and revising the grammar to make the text fit into the current period. O’Donnell illustrates text found during the 20th century was very stable with appropriate formatting and editing, the attention to appearance was present as well. However, it was during the late 1900’s that “we have now returned to a time of instability marked by debate over means of presentation.” (O’Donnell, 1998) The vast options of representing and storing text are diluting the original work.

O’Donnell illustrates that “[t]o enter a text in a computer means to make choices. It is possible to make the simplest possible set of choices and to allow the text to take the form of a series of Roman alphabet characters, upper and lower case, delimited by carriage returns, tabs, and a handful of standard punctuation marks.” (O’Donnell, 1998) Such choices made by people today assigned to transfer information and ideas of the past will have a significant impact on how newly presented text will be understood. Before virtual libraries replace libraries it is important to consider just how fragile text is. Even the simple process of changing the font of the text can take the life and time out of the text.

Despite the implications associated with the digitalization of text, the concept of the virtual library is a step many libraries especially in the post secondary level are taking and planning towards. O’Donnell describes the “ ‘virtual library’ as a dream that many share” (O’Donnell, 1994) The public’s confidence in virtual libraries can be observed “in 1992, [when] public libraries throughout California suffered major budget cuts up to 65% forcing branches to layoff staff, reduce hours of operation, and eliminate new purchases. In some counties libraries closed down altogether when voters failed to approve taxes that would have supported them. In the same year, according to The Washington Post, the state suspended all construction plans for new university libraries in order to focus its attention and budget on ‘virtual libraries.’” (Roy, 1997) With this much focus and government support, soon print-based libraries will become museums or historical sites where tour guides announce through their loud speakers that people used to read, research and relax in such an institution.

One of the main benefits of virtual libraries is that it does increase access and availability because resources will be made available online anywhere. However, switching from print-based libraries to virtual libraries only replaces previous limitations with new restrictions. O’Donnell explains the problems surrounding accessibility in the representation of text by various word processing formats in that “[a]n abundance of word processing formats has generated another abundance of would-be standard formats. Recognition of these formats depends on users’ choices of hardware and software. If, for example, I need to get tax forms from the U.S. Treasury, I can find them on the World Wide Web and print them at home in minutes. But I must have previously acquired one of (at last count) four different ways to manage text (PDF, PCL, PostScript, or SGML) in order to get those forms at all.” (O’Donnell, 1998) Therefore, users with computers or software that is not compatible or up to date will be denied access. Thus, what seems to be progression is actually regression.

In addition to computer incompatibility, technologies are changing rapidly thus information is constantly being formatted and reformatted into the technology of the time. The transfer of text from one entity to another is a dangerous risk because the process threatens the survival of the original text. Similar to oral cultures as information is passed down from generation to generation details and meanings are altered and in today’s society each generation of technology is replacing the next generation at a much faster rate. Perhaps “our present plans to convert as much as possible of our print heritage to digits might, for the most part, be a waste of money…since, as reading loses favor… in one hundred years almost no one will read the literature–books and journals–from the past because it will be obsolete in the electronic medium. As a consequence.”(Seiler and Surprenant, 1991)

It is important to re-evaluate the process of managing and presenting text. In order to strengthen the quality of electronic resources and virtual libraries relationships between libraries, creators, publishers and aggregators of electronic resources need to be well established to reduce the loss of text in the process.


O’Donnell, J. (1998). Hyperlink: The instability of the text. Avatars of the word: Papyrus to cyberspace, Retrieved September 20, 2009, from

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.

Roy, Michael V. (1997) “The Virtual Library: Rhetoric and Reality” © IT Journal On-Line: Spring 1997. Retrieved October 1, 2009, from

Seiler, Lauren, and Thomas Surprenant. (1991) “When We Get the Libraries We Want, Will We Want the Libraries We Get?” Wilson Library Bulletin. 29..157.

October 3, 2009   1 Comment

Virtual Libraries: Past, Present, and Future

Use this link to view this commentary as a PDF document.

virtual_libraryThis commentary will review the 1994 James O’Donnell  essay, “The Virtual Library:  An Idea Whose Time Has Passed”.  After critiquing the essay, a synthesis will describe the two diverging arguments brought forth by the author, and the weaknesses of the conclusions reached.

The essay argues that the “virtual library”, as an all encompassing, centralized repository of “universal knowledge”, is an ancient aspiration. O’Donnell states that the “fantasy” of the virtual library is an ancient one that is “almost coterminous with the history of the book itself” (O’Donnell, 1994, para. 9).  This ancient hope is now encapsulated with today’s technology of the Internet and computer.   However, O’Donnell believes that society now risks excising the traditional roles the library has played for centuries in this quest to create the virtual library.  He describes the central roles of the library as, “an extraordinary one, of course, and thus fragile” (O’Donnell, 1994, para. 8).  One of these functions has been to collect codices and books to help knowledge survive.  While the continuing to focus of preserving knowledge, the library collections changed, “between the traditional literary culture of antiquity and the chiefly monastic Christian textual culture of the middle ages” (O’Donnell, 1994, para 12).

Another central tenet of the library that the author further describes is the “authority” and centralized power that books developed and maintained concurrently with libraries.  Text maintained power due to the acceptance, expectation, and reliance on its existence (O’Donnell, 1994, para. 15).  O’Donnell sees this deference to text as a, “reliance on texts implies that someone will own texts and they will be accessible: ownership and access remain central concerns in all discussion of the present and future of the library” (O’Donnell, 1994, para. 20).  He sees these issues of the power of text, and the control and access to text as being predominant issues up to and including modern libraries.

Both ancient and modern libraries have also seen them share, “the fantasy of the virtual library” (O’Donnell, 1994, para. 24).  This is due to all libraries, virtual or otherwise seeing themselves as receptacles of the culmination of knowledge.  However, O’Donnell sees the concept of any library, virtual or otherwise, fulfilling such as goal, being “at best a useful fiction, at worst a hallucination” (O’Donnell, 1994, para. 28).  He also sees virtual libraries as creating risks for authors, professors, publishers, librarians, and scholars, for the stability of text and its ability to transmit key knowledge to new generations (O’Donnell, 1994, para. 31-32). Further, the very dominance of text in under threat the face of the visual and aural capabilities of a virtual library (i O’Donnell, 1994, para 27).  The author further questions where the control and access functions will be maintained within a virtual libraries contents as, “one of the most valuable functions of the traditional library has not been its inclusivity but its exclusivity that keeps out as many things as it keeps in” (O’Donnell, 1994, para. 36).  O’Donnell sees the most positive of outcomes as being a virtual library the incorporates all that exists now in libraries but, “only better and faster” (O’Donnell, 1994, para 34).

In my opinion, O’Donnell’s arguments are unclear as he describes two divergent, but incongruent themes.  One theme describes the virtual library in terms of a “myth” that will not come to fruition, while the other theme acknowledges the development of the virtual library while worrying about the change or extinction of many of the traditional roles of libraries that may come with a virtual library.

One area of concern is that O’Donnell appears to argue that the form of the library is one that only in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries saw change.  However, he refutes his own point when he notes that libraries changed from a scholarly to a Christian focus. (O’Donnell, 1994, para. 12).  Further, this evolution of the library is also seen by Roy (1997) who notes that, “although the clientele, sources of funding, classification system, and prevailing media has changed, the fundamental function of the library has remained stable throughout history” (para. 1).  The library has experienced change but has continued to exist.

Another area of concern is regarding the centralized power of the library.  Other proponents of the virtual library such as Babbar and Chandok (2008), also note that “the most critical issues in a digital archiving strategy are not technical, although these are formidable, but economic, societal, and organizational” (p. 295).  Roy (1997) also explains, “the potential for censorship, control of access to knowledge and information, and limitation of intellectual freedom is boundless” (para. 12).  While the issue of control may be a continuing issue, if “the library” continues to function as a monolithic entity with all included media scrutinized, cataloged, and housed within a library that has “one ideal form” (O’Donnell, 1994, para. 26), there may be an alternative outcome.  It can be argued that the Internet and thus a virtual library could be the exact antithesis of this unified form due to the vast number of sources from individuals writing weblogs to media organizations creating online content.  All of these wellsprings are separate, yet within the loose coalescence of the Internet are simultaneously accessible and thus create individual personal libraries for every “netizen”.  While an entity such as a university may reject a text in codex or electronic form for its library, virtual or otherwise, the difference is that the electronic text may still be accessible from another online source.  To this end, the question must be raised if the control function of libraries is a vital, necessary, or viable one or are there better roles to play.

O’Donnell’s argument that the “author is already an endangered species,” (para. 28) can be disputed as anyone with Internet access may become a published author with a readership from zero to millions.  While O’Donnell may be concerned about the survival of the library, others are not.  Babbar and Chandok write that, “to claim, as some now do, that the “Paperless Society” will make libraries obsolete is as silly as saying shoes have made feet unnecessary” (p. 298).  McClure (1995) continues this belief by declaring, “whatever it is called – library, learning center, digital or virtual library – the institution will continue to be a place” (p. 314). The author appears cynical of a technologically-based decentralized library proposed by some.  To be sure, a pollyanna optimism surrounding virtual libraries is not useful either, only a balanced consideration of the positives and benefits of the concept will help examination this important scholarly topic in a thorough manner.  If O’Donnell’s dystopic library vision is true, then other cultural edifices such as museums and art galleries may also be headed for their demise.  However, I suggest that it is more likely that all libraries will continue and evolve into new, still vital forms that continue to serve their patrons.


Babbar, P., & Chandhok, S. (2008). Paperless Society: A Digital Library Future.  Retrieved from

McClure, L. W. (1995). From brick face to cyberspace. Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, 83(3), 311.  Retrieved from

O’Donnell, James J. (1994) “The Virtual Library; An Idea Whose Time Has Passed.” Retrieved from

Roy, M. V. (Spring 1997). ” The Virtual Library: Rhetoric and Reality.  Retrieved from

October 2, 2009   1 Comment

How has the Technology of Writing Changed the Act of Teaching?

17th Century Parish Registry Letters
Graphic taken with permission from

In my opinion…

Teaching today, is highly dependent upon technologies such as writing. As members of a literate culture, writing has been the focal point of most all of our learning. From the time we are born we have been encouraged to learn how to write. Whether it’s from our earlier years when we learned to write the alphabet, build words and create sentences or during adolescence when we were expected to take notes and write comprehensive papers, writing has always been and will probably always be a focal point in our lives.

It is hard for us to imagine what the written word has done for learning because as literate people, we haven’t experienced anything else. We have no other point of reference other than what we have read or heard about. “… to try to construct a logic of writing without investigation in depth of the orality out of which writing is permanently and ineluctably grounded is to limit one’s understanding…” (Ong, p. 76) Before we can discuss how writing has changed how we teach, it would seem logical to consider first how teaching was performed prior to the introduction of the written word.

Language existed long before writing which meant that verbal communication was the medium through which all cultural knowledge was passed on to the next generation. As language and culture continued to evolve so did the need for better modes of communication. Early forms of writing date back to the days of pictographs when people scratched drawings on stone walls depicting important events within the lives of their people. It allowed for the transfer of more complex information, ideas and concepts using visual clues. (Kilmon) From pictographs came ideographs or graphic symbols such as those used by the Egyptians (hieroglyphs), the Sumerians (cuneiform) and the Chinese (Chinese characters). Writing is an extension of these and other systems where agreed upon simple shapes were used to create a codified system of standard symbols. These systems continued to evolve throughout ancient history. The Canaanites, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Christians either modified existing systems of simply created their own. These systems were not widely understood and were only used and by relatively few people. More often than not, it was the clergy who played an important role in the development and maintenance of these systems during this time. It took the invention of the printing press and the printed word before literacy began to have any mass appeal. (History of Handwriting)

The development of writing shifted the focus of learning orally to learning visually which, in turn, taught us how to interiorize it thus changing the nature of how we learn. “Writing… is not a mere appendage to speech. Because it moves speech from the oral-aural to a new sensory world, that of vision, it transforms speech and thought as well.” (Ong, p. 84) Speaking and writing are two different processes. Speech is universal. Everybody acquires it. Writing is not speech written down. Writing requires systematic instruction followed by practice. Not everyone learns to read and write. (Literacy Skills: Speaking vs. Writing) “Clearly, there are fundamental differences between the medium of writing and the medium of speech which constitute ‘constraints’ on the ways in which they may be used.” (Chandler) It has taken a considerable amount of time for writing to superseded speech as the primary tool for learning. The transition, while it may have been awkward for some, has succeeded in altering the way in which we now learn.

Learning in today’s literate culture relies more on text and writing and less on the spoken word. We devote more time teaching students to how to read and write and we expect them use these newly acquired literacy skills to think and to reason intellectually. As teachers, we tend to measure success with either a letter grade or a number grade. “If it makes sense to us, that is because our minds have been conditioned by the technology of numbers so that we see the world differently then they did.” (Postman, p.13) For teachers, marking or grading is synonymous with learning. Our indoctrination into the literate culture is so complete that it is difficult if not impossible to separate the two. Our dependence on the written word is so complete that it has taken us head on into a new era known as the information age.

The onslaught of the digital age has raised many new issues within education and with existing teaching models in particular. The field of Information technology has grown so rapidly that it’s impossible to keep up with the pace. Technical gadgetry continues to astound even the most computer savvy individual, and while these technologies may have heightened our awareness of the digital world we now live in, it may have also dulled our sensitivity to the dominance it has had on our literate world. “… embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another.” (Postman, P13) Technology, in this case the computer and the internet, which has given us instant access to knowledge in the public domain, has challenged the way we view teaching and learning much the same way that writing did so long, long ago.

In conclusion, while I may not necessarily agree with Ong’s statements about the dichotomy of oral and literate cultures, I do believe that there is some merit to his separation of the two cultures. If nothing else, it has helped to explain how previous learning practices may have been altered and current teaching practices will be shaped. I have similar doubts about Postman, about his technopoly taxonomy and his position on computer technologies. However, it does get us to think about how these technologies can alter our conception of learning. It seems apparent that, for the most part, we are in unchartered waters. As teaching practitioners, we have no other choice but to take all of this into consideration as we go about constructing teaching strategies designed to promote practical learning and abstract thinking.


Chandler, D. (2000). Biases of the Ear and Eye. Great Divide Theories. Retrieved on September 25, 2009 from:

History of Handwriting. The Development of Handwriting and the Modern Alphabet. Retrieved on September 24, 2009 from

Kilmon, Jack (1997) The Scriptorium: The History of Writing. Retrieved on September 25, 2009 from

Ong, Walter J. (2002). Orality and Literacy. London, England: Routledge / Taylor & Francis Group

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

Todd, Joanne (2001) Examples of Letters of the 17th Center Found in Parish Registers. Retrieved on September 17th, 2009 from

University of Westminster: Learning Skills Site. Literacy Skills: Speaking vs. Writing. Retrieved on September 23, 2009 from:

October 2, 2009   1 Comment

A Different Lens to View Through

Our ability for making and receiving sounds is amazing.  Sound is a resource central to humanity.  In Walter Ong’s book,  Orality and Literacy (1982) the importance of our oral nature is seen as a foundation for language and communication. Ong (1982) states that “language is an oral phenomenon” (p. 6) and continues by saying “in a deep sense language, articulated sound, is paramount. Not only communication, but thought itself relates in an altogether special way to sound.”(Ong, 1982, p. 7)   Ong’s analysis of the sound thought connection is enlightening.  However, beneath his analysis are remnants of another perspective that also reveals an enlightened view on human orality and communication.

This subtext can be seen emerging in the second chapter of the book titled “ The Modern Discovery of Primary Oral Cultures”.  In this section, Ong explores our understanding of orality by examining the mindset of the primary oral culture of ancient Greece.   He does this by discussing Millman Parry’s ground breaking literary analysis of Homeric Poetry.   Prior to Millman, “scholars and readers generally still tended to impute to primitive poetry qualities that their own age found fundamentally congenial “(Ong, 182, p 18).  In other words, these seminal artifacts of ancient oral culture were always seen through the biased lens of literate mindsets.  As a result, Homeric poems were given misguided adulation as “the most exemplary, the truest and the most inspired secular poems in the western heritage.”(Ong, 1982,  p. 18).  Millman, as Ong explains, proved otherwise.  By excavating the use of the hexameter line, Millman revealed that that the choice of words and word forms in Homeric poetry was dependent on the use of this hexameter form.  From there he went on to reveal an underlying cultural mindset embedded within these works.

Ong (1982) explains that “in the Iliad and the Odyssey Homer was normally taken to be fully accomplished, consummately skilled. Yet it now began to appear that he had had some kind of phrase book in his head. Careful study of the sort Milman Parry was doing showed that he repeated formula after formula.”(p.22)

The implications of this finding, according to Ong are significant.  These treasured exemplars of the western heritage were now seen to be products of  a culture dominated by formulaic thinking and clichés.

“…the entire oral noetic world or thought world relied upon the formulaic constitution of thought. In an oral culture, knowledge, once acquired, had to be constantly repeated or it would be lost: fixed, formulaic thought patterns were essential for wisdom and effective administration.”(Ong, 1982, p 23)

Millman’s focus on the use of the hexameter line proved to be a shrewd and insightful “Rosetta stone” into the underlying formulaic constitution of thought of oral Greek culture.  Ong goes on to extrapolate on these findings in the next chapter, outlining a series of characteristics associated with thought and expression in oral cultures calling them, for example, additive rather than subordinative and redundant or copious (Ong, 1982 p. 37-39).  The result is a plausible analysis that is complex and abstract.   Yet, throughout his analysis Ong also exposes remnants of another perspective on the nature of oral cultures.  Less abstract and more fundamental in approach, this ulterior perspective offers a model for further analysis and comes through in the ways Ong and Millman describe the Greek oral processes at work.

For example, Ong consistently uses a vocabulary of production to describe these oral processes. “How could any poetry that was so unabashedly formulary, so constituted of prefabricated parts… Homeric poems valued and somehow made capital of… the set phrase, the formula, the expected qualifier” (p. 23) and “Homer stitched together prefabricated parts.”(p.23) Ong alludes to a practice of economy taking place in Greek oral expression.  He portrays the Greeks as craftsman plying their oral trade through the skillful manipulation of their sound medium.  And he describes Homer as such, “Instead of a creator, you had an assembly-line worker.”(Ong, 1982, p. 22)  And herein, lies the more fundamental perspective beneath Ong’s analysis.  We are assembling words and in its most elemental form, a spoken word is a sound wave.  Sound waves are naturally occurring physically explainable resources in our world, like copper and water.  And when we learn, over many thousands of years, to craft these waves into useful sounds, we are simply pursuing a human need to use and exploit another resource in our world. “THE HUMAN domestication of sound in the form of speech has taken us farther than our mastery of fire or tools or any of our other conquests. (Burrows, 1990, p. 39)  Just as we’ve harnessed the qualities of water to make energy and copper to conduct electricity, so too have we effectively harnessed the qualities of sound to make language.   And so beneath Ong’s analysis there is a compelling, organic determinism that offers a lens in which to view Greek orality more directly.

Like the ancient Greeks, we are all assembly line workers harnessing an earthly resource:  the sound wave.   Ong identifies some of the qualities of the sound resource calling it evanescent and dynamic. (p. 32) But he pulls up short of hauling the sound resource fully out of the mine.  Issues around the relationship of the signal to its source, its relationship to the receiver, questions of distance and direction and temporality are left unexplored.  If he and Millman had explored the qualities of sound more deeply and examined it in the context of resource development, they would have arrived at a view of the Greek mindset more directly.   Harnessing our earthly sound resources imposed foreseeable conditions on oral Greek thinking.  For example, sound has limited storage qualities therefore oral formulas were logical ways to improve the storage capacity of their sound products.  The additive uses of “and” increased the efficiency of manufacturing sound products on the spot.  And copious, colorful details allowed Greeks to market their sound messages more effectively to distracted listeners.   Seeing through Ong’s complex analysis , this resource perspective lets us postulate about Greek orality more easily.

Perhaps less detailed and literature oriented than Ong’s analysis, this resource perspective on orality is also less abstract and offers a lens through which we can make logical postulations not only in the study of orality but  as a useful lens for exploring the development of other communication wave forms such as reflected light waves (text) and emitted light waves (digital forms).


Burrows, David. (1990). Sound, Speech and Music. University of Massachusetts
Press: Amherst, MA.

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the ear and eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved 28 September, 2009 from:

Ong, W.(1982). Orality and Literacy. Routledge: London.

October 2, 2009   1 Comment

Closing the gap or re-wiring our brains? Maybe both!

Ong states that “the electronic transformation of verbal expression has both deepened the commitment of the word to space initiated by writing and intensified by print and has brought consciousness to a new age of secondary orality (p. 133).” Secondary orality is the way in which technology has transformed the medium through which we send and receive information. Ong includes various examples such as telephone, radio, television and various kinds of sound tape, and electronic technology (Ong, p. 132).

Ong discusses Lowry’s argument that the printing press, in creating the ability to mass-produce books, makes people less studious (Ong, p. 79).  Lowry continues by stating that “it destroys memory and enfeebles the mind by relieving it of too much work (the pocket‐computer complaint once more), downgrading the wise man and wise woman in favor of the pocket compendium.  Of course, others saw print as a welcome leveler: everyone becomes a wise man or woman (Lowry 1979, pp. 31‐2). (Ong, p. 79).”

The World Wide Web has opened up an entirely new sense of “secondary orality”. Prior to the WWW, texts were primarily written by one or a small group of authors and were read by a specific audience.  Today, with the advent of Web 2.0 the underlying tenets of oral cultures and literate cultures are coming closer together.  Even within ETEC540 we are communicating primarily by text, but we are not entering our own private reading world, we are entering a text-based medium through which we can read and respond to each other’s blog posts (such as this post). In addition, we will contribute to a class Wiki where the information is dynamic and constantly changing. How then, is the WWW changing the way we interpret, digest, and process information?

The Internet has brought about a new revolution in the distribution of text.  Google’s vision of having one library that contains all of the world’s literature demonstrates that “one significant change generates total change (Postman, p. 18).”  Nicholas Carr, in his article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and Anthony Grafton in Paul Kennedy’s podcast “The Great Library 2.0” both make similar arguments about the Internet.  Carr points out, the medium through which we receive information not only provides information, but “they also shape the process of thought”.

Carr contends that the mind may now be absorbing and processing information “the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.”  That is, information is no longer static; it is dynamic, ever changing, and easily accessible and searchable.  Carr gives the example that many of his friends and colleagues and friends in academia have noticed that “the more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.”

Comparably, Google’s attempt to digitize all the text on earth into a new “Alexandria” is certainly an ambitious project, but as Postman states, new technology “is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and that (Postman, 5).”  Some see the library as liberating, making an unfathomable amount of knowledge available to anyone with an Internet connection.  Others, such as Anthony Grafton, argue that reading text off the screen takes away from the romantic adventure that one gets from being the first to read at a rare book found in the library of a far-off country (Grafton in The Great Library 2.0).  Grafton also argues that the ability to search for key-words in electronic texts has created “on-time research” which has made academics and others work at a rapid pace, and fill in parts of work very late using Internet sources.  Carr sites other examples of academics who have lost the ability to read and absorb long texts, but instead have gained the ability to scan “short passages of text from many sources online.”

Lowry’s argument that, to some, print destroyed memory and debilitated the mind, while to others, print created equal accessibility to text has repeated itself with the advent of the Internet.  Carr and Grafton are both argue that instantaneous access to huge databases of information such as Google Books may be detracting from our ability to absorb texts.   That being said, Postman states “once a technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do. Our task is to understand what that design is-that is to say, when we admit a new technology to the culture, we must do so with our eyes wide open (Postman, p. 7).”  Thus, perhaps there is no point in arguing the negatives.  Whether it is Google or a different association that makes all the printed text in world available to us, it is the direction that technology is taking us and there will likely be nothing to stop it.  The question is, what will our societies and cultures look like after it is all done?   It will not be the world plus Library 2.0, but an entirely new world.


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

Kennedy, Paul (host).  (August 24, 2009). Ideas. The Great Library 2.0. Podcast retrieved from

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

Carr, Nicholas. (2008). Is Google Making Us Stupid? The Atlantic. July/August 2008. Accessed September 30, 2009 from

October 2, 2009   2 Comments

Captain’s Log Stardate 5938.3 – The Universal Library

As I read Kelly’s article “Scan This Book” I was struck by its utopian outlook. It felt almost like it had a Star Trek feel to it. With that in mind I thought that I would discuss the arguments for and against the Universal Library in the form of a “Captain’s Log” from Star Trek:

Captain’s log- Stardate 5938.3:

I have been enjoying reading the novels of 21st century Earth held within Unilib (our Universal Library). It is hard to imagine that people of that time were opposed to the digitization of all books. Concerns over copyright and advertising revenue seemed to dominate the debate over whether or not it would be a good thing to have free access to all books ever written. Now it seems unthinkable to live without Unilib. Just imagine what would have happened to great countries like Somalia and Afghanistan had they not been given the free access to these documents in their language. No doubt their populations would have remained impoverished and unenlightened, forever looking for help from the countries who were wealthy enough to learn from the books they purchased and which their poorer cousins were unable to afford.

What if Unilib failed to emerge? Our world would be vastly different. We would not have developed the deep collaborative spirit that emerged among all readers as they linked, tagged and bookmarked. The vast mashups of reading material would have never materialized. A greater sense of understanding and authority arose as more and more knowledge was linked and connected to each other. Cures for cancer, diabetes and heart disease would not have been imagined because there would not have been the interconnectiveness of the vast scientific wealth.

Thank goodness the differences between the copyright holders and those interested in digitizing the world’s books were able to be settled. Authors whose works lived in obscurity began to become more popular as social book networks virally distributed links to their works. Universities were able to expand their libraries overnight because the cost of a digital book was miniscule compared to the cost of hardcover text.

Not only did universities increase their collection of human knowledge, the entire world did as well. Man’s history was more accurately depicted once governments and publishers no longer asserted and inserted their view of historical events. A more complete picture arose as readers from all walks of life, ethnicity and nationality added links and tags to historical documents. This collective and connected account of man’s story helped foster a better understanding between nations which ultimately led to the formation of our world government and a redistribution of the earth’s resources.

Our universe would be dramatically different had the United States Congress not passed their controversial copyright law of 2100. This law extended copyright indefinitely. The outcry and revolt that followed led to the great consumer boycott of 2112. This boycott, which was organized by Jim Gates (Bill Gates’ great, great grandson), called all consumers to refuse to purchase any product that was covered by copyright law. The resulting economic crash brought the mega corporations of Sonysonic and MicroApple to their senses. They soon were able to work out an agreement that allowed consumers to use intellectual property and at the same time reward those who created the content.

With opposition due to copyright removed Google, Carnegie Mellon University, Microsoft, Yahoo and other interested parties were all able to pursue their digitization projects. It soon became apparent that they should combine forces in order to create a single project that would amount to the world’s single book. With copyright no longer being a concern Google’s practice of having authors opt out of the digitization project was no longer in effect.

Google’s original strategy of having authors opt out had some legacy issues.  It is interesting to note how this practice transferred to other segments of the society. Employers used this model to gather sensitive information on their employees if the employees did not opt out of the human medical data base initiative.  Governments collected confidential information on the citizens who did not opt out of the Big Brother data bank.

The Unilib movement did have its critics. There were those who claimed that “scanning books and chucking their poor innocent words into a vast, searchable database will only create massive intellectual fraud and confusion” (Keen, 2007) They argued that “taking a few words out of one text, replacing them with a few words from another, is the surest way to undermine the coherence of any textual argument” (Keen, 2007) and that “(re)mixing great books like Plato’s Republic with Hobbes Leviathan will create intellectual garbage.” (Keen, 2007) Fortunately these fears proved to be unfounded as readers fully engaged in the process of reading. The concern that readers would not chose to read entire books was unfounded. Not only did people read complete works but they then created remix anthologies that linked works of a common thread. It was from these threads that humans have been able to evolve to where we are today: a united species seeking self-improvement over financial gain. Without the Universal Library this would not have been possible. Thank goodness mankind was able to work together to create the cornerstone of our society.


Birt, Y. (n.d.). Wisdom and the Universal Library. Retrieved September 22, 2009, from Yahya Birt:

Dyson, G. (2005, November 30). The Universal Library. Retrieved September 20, 2009, from Edge The Third Culture:

Google’s Book Scanning Hits Snag. (2008, May 12). Retrieved September 26, 2009, from Wired:

Grafton, A. (2007, November 5). Onward and Upward With The Arts. Retrieved September 19, 2009, from The New Yorker:

Keen, A. (2007, March 6). Why Google’s universal library is an assault on human identity. Retrieved September 22, 2009, from Blogs ZD Net:

Kelly, K. (2006, May 14). Scan This Book. Retrieved September 17, 2009, from Etec 540 website:!-1842142989!!20001!-1!-1938337275!!20001!-1

Manjoo, F. (2009, May 6). Your Search Returned 12 Million BooksGoogle’s goal of a universal online library would be great for humanity. It can still be great for authors and publishers, too. Retrieved September 25, 2009, from Slate:

O’Donnell, J. J. (n.d.). The Virtual Library:An Idea Whose Time Has Passed. Retrieved September 25, 2009, from

Prpick, S. (Composer). (2009). The Great Library 2.0. [C. R. Ideas, Performer] unknown, unknown, unknown.

Sherman, C. (2006, May 18). Building the Universal Library. Retrieved September 21, 2009, from Search Engine Watch:

Unknown. (2009, June 22). ITC Library. Retrieved September 23, 2009, from ITC:

October 1, 2009   2 Comments

Postman, print and literary determinism.

technological determinism and writingThere is a global conflict taking place.  That battle occurs not in cities and towns but in the hearts and minds of members of the global community.  If this sounds alarmist and hyperbolic it is and encapsulates the sentiments of Neil Postman in his introductory chapter titled, “The Judgement of Thamus” (Postman, 1992).   Postman (1992) is of the mind that technology in the form of television and computers are influencing society in general and students specifically in profoundly negative ways.  He cautions us that before a technology is readily accepted into a culture the negative aspects of that technology must be considered.  He present a very narrow definition of technology.  Postman fails to recognize that, “Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness.”  (Ong, 1982, p.81).  Postman’s technological deterministic stance is moderated by the work of Ong (1982) and Chandler (1994).  To say that consciousness is being fundamentally altered is a stretch but are we being influenced by the shift from a print based culture to a hypertext media?  Most likely.  What these changes to our consciousness are and to what degree will have academics debating for years.

Although Postman (1993) concedes that there are positive and negative aspects of any technology he does not present this balanced view in his Chapter, “The Judgement of Thalamus”.   Postman recounts a story described by Socrates to his friend Phaedrus detailing the invention of writing by Theuth.   A weakened memory, an over reliance on text to remember and an informed citizenry that appears to be wise but in truth lacks the capacity are but some of the criticisms of writing outlined by King Thamus to Theuth (Postman, 1993, p. 4).  How did orally based cultures remember when in the words of Ong (1982) the spoken word was “ephemeral”?   The answer is quite simple, “By thinking memorable thoughts” (Ong 1982, p. 34).   Pre-literate cultures depended upon mnemonic patterns, that were heavily rhythmic with predictable balanced patterns, repetitious with alliterations or assonance and many other mental cues.  Memories were embedded within standard thematic stories and proverbs with serious thought being mixed in with these memory systems.  Despite these mnemonic aids non-literate cultures were prone to sloughing off old information in favour of “lived experience” (Ong, 1982, p.47).  But to see writing for all of it’s negative qualities without acknowledging that it is in fact “essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials” (Ong, 1982, p. 81) is short sighted.  Postman fails to balance his critique of technology, specifically the computer, by not recognizing that by extension this advancement of “human potential” is further achieved by computers which are the next evolutionary stage of the written word.  Postman believes that the conflict between media and the spoken word leaves students “casualties” of a psychic battle.  “They (students) are failures because there is a media war going on, and they are on the wrong side” (Postman, 1993, p.17).  I would beg to differ that our students are failures in fact graduation rates have never been higher despite the doom and gloom proposed by Postman (Ministry, 2009).   Postman cautions that moving towards a more literate based culture, as exemplified by the computer in the classroom, shifts the balance from group learning, cooperation and a sense of openness to one of introspection and isolation (Postman, 1993, p.17)   With the advent of social networking sites and on-line collaboration as demonstrated in the open source movement I think that Postman has missed the mark.  Collaboration and cooperation have never been so easy as well as applicable on a massive scale.  Cyber symphonies are taking place in real time by musicians who otherwise might not have the opportunity to play with each other.  As the shift continues to a knowledge based economy in the West, those students that balance the necessity to gain computer literate skills with lived experience will have the technological and real life skills to be balanced citizens.

There is something that Ong and Postman agree on and that is that, “more than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness (Ong, 1982, p.77).  However Postman does not elaborate on what these differences are stating that, “This is because the changes wrought by technology are subtle if not downright mysterious. (Postman, 1993, p.12)  Fortunately Ong outlines some of these “mysterious” changes.  One of the critiques of writing is that it is autonomous in that it cannot be debated with (Ong, 1982, p.78).  This critique is not new and Plato had the same misgivings over writing despite putting his concerns down on paper.  In fact when writing was supplanted by print these same critiques were present.  Postman argues against readily accepting technologies into a culture.

In any given social theory Chandler (1994) cautions technological determinists, such as Postman, that linking any technology to societal change is overly reductionist and is “widely criticized”.  Reductionism when applied to social theory simplifies things to a point whereby one can examine aspects of society in detail however it is at the expense of seeing the whole picture.  Thus, where, Postman sees a conflict between technology and society others might see it as simple one piece of the complex puzzle that is societal change.


Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the ear and eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved 28 September, 2009 from:

Grade 12 Graduation Rates (2009) 2003/4 – 2008/9. Ministry of Education downloaded on October 1st, 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.

October 1, 2009   1 Comment

Commentary 1 – Lengthy because it’s interesting!

            A computer cannot replicate a library. The gradual digitization of our society has had profound implications on methods for collecting and preserving writing. A debate currently surrounds the usage of digital methods for storing and retrieving information. While there are positives to digitalizing human knowledge, specifically writing, it is crucial to recognize the many obstacles if there is any expectation of merging written work with the technological world. Thus, the virtual library, without addressing the shortcomings, may be too good to be true. Major legal issues also arise with the attempt at a virtual library. Copy write laws, orphaned books, and Google’s role become major points of contention which to some may seem unethical. It does not have to be black and white. A fusion of technology and written documents is being forged by groups such as the UBC InterPARES project and the Turning the Pages 2.0 toolkit. The digital age and digitization of the written word will have extensive implications for future generations. Our decisions about how to manage the digital written word will set the stage for generations to come. These challenges must be faced to ensure that our past does not become a blank spot in history.

            Kevin Kelly’s article, Scrap This Book, focuses on mainly the advantages to a virtual library. According to him, this library will essentially be “one big book of humanity” that encompasses all written documents in human history. As Kelly suggests, there are numerous advantages for all written works to be digital and freely accessed. Scrap This Book indicates that online versions of written work will be more accessible to other cultures that have had little access to information in the past. The article does not however, indicate if poverty or socioeconomic status could be a hindrance to another cultures access to this new library. Currently more than half of the world’s population does not own a computer, making it quite difficult for accessibility of the digital work. What Kelly does emphasize is that the universal library will “deepen our understanding of history, as every original document in the course of civilization is scanned and cross-linked”[1].  The cross-linking of information would be advantageous as “every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages”[2]  The book would resemble the popular information site Wikipedia. The ability to find information, access relatable material, and look up confusing points could foster a better understanding of information.

Furthermore, libraries could benefit from the digitization of written material. Libraries could increase their collections by buying digital books. These online versions would be more cost effective consequently increasing what they can offer the public. Kelly paints a beautiful scene, but there are critics who have reservations about the sole reliance on digital means. These critics maintain that the virtual library maybe over simplified and as a result, unrealistic.

            James J. O’Donnell suggests in his article, An Idea Whose Time has Passed, that the digitization of books and the virtual library are “as fresh as last week’s newspaper”[3]. In fact, his article frequently refers to the virtual library as a “fantasy” or “dream”. O’Donnell opposes the view of Kelly indicating that the imperfections of the online virtual library must be acknowledged. O’Donnell questions what information should be included in a digital library, for example, if emails, notes, or shopping lists should be included. It is difficult to decipher what constitutes written work and who would indicate it as such. In this great book of humanity, a question emerges: whose responsibility would it be to moderate the content? Moreover, would classified military documents be included even though it could be a threat the security of that country? It is also apparent that the issue of young children would need to be addressed. As a free and interactive space, should children have access to all parts of the library? Our morals should dictate that the digital library blocks access to adult themes, which does not seem possible unless somehow people prove their age. Yet blocks could have the potential to alter the fundamental principle of the digital library which presumes to be “truly democratic, offering every book to every person”[4].

            Another concern is in regards to the Wiki format of the digital library. With a Wiki format, creative works can be “linked, manipulated, annotated, tagged, highlighted, translated, enlivened by other media and sewn together into the universal library”[5]. O’Donnell broaches a concern for this format stating that classic works should not be modified. The moral implication being we should avoid making changes or have the ability to edit the only copies of great works in literature. It would be as if an attempt was being made to alter history. It would be a disservice to history to change it to suit the current generations’ purposes.

            There are other fundamental issues in regards to the virtual library. The digital world is currently fragile and still experiences issues in which data can be lost. In Avatars of the Word, O’Donnell makes a striking point in regards to the digital world’s vulnerability:

“We will no longer be able to depend on survival of information through benign neglect. There are medieval manuscript books that may have lain unread for hundreds of years, but offered their treasures to the first reader who found and tried them. An electronic text subjected to the same degree of neglect is unlikely to survive five years.”[6]

The apprehension felt by many is that the reliance on digital will be a gamble of sorts putting us in the position to loose data due to neglect, outdated software, and computer glitches. Conversely, the written word is more permeable despite change or abandonment. In a 2006 article written for Popular Mechanics, corroborates O’Donnell’s unease on the exclusive reliance of digital work. The article, The Digital Ice Age, identifies that many of our software programs that store information are at risk:

“the threat of lost or corrupted data faces anyone who relies on digital media to store documents – and these days, that’s practically everyone. Digital information is so simple to create and store, we naturally think it will be easily and accurately preserved for the future. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, our digital information – everything from photos of loved ones to diagrams of Navy ships – is at risk of degrading, becoming unreadable or disappearing altogether”[7]

`           The article implies that backwards compatibility is a legitimate concern and evidence exists to confirm these suspicions. The Doomsday book project from 1986 provides a troublesome look into the future. William the Conqueror’s Doomsday book, written in 1086, was compiled into an interactive program where more than a million people submitted documents, photos, and thoughts. Fifteen years later the disks used to compile the work were corrupted due to compatibility issues with the newer systems.  Examples such as the multimedia Doomsday book project confirm that the digitization of all written work is fraught with challenge. The realization is that backups, constant care, and updating would be required to maintain the digital library’s functionality.

            The business of storage can promote its own problems. There are numerous ethical implications and copy write issues that plague the “dream” of a virtual library. Google is currently scanning vast numbers of books and storing them for future use the digital library. Some suggest, such as Kelly, that Google is simply facilitating the realization of the digital library while at the same time liberating “orphaned” books that are in publisher limbo. Kelly also suggested that the library would be a center for equality and deem the copy write laws obsolete. He considers publishers to be greedy by not sharing their information to the world. The problem with this logic is that Google itself is a business or a company out to make money. It is too simple to believe that Google has purely altruistic motives. Google will receive something from this enterprise, whether that is currently apparent or not.

Who owns what will be a central issue that will have to be addressed as written information becomes digitized and more readily available. Copy write in the future should be clearly presented to ensure credit is provided to those who did the work. Google is not the only company at work on digital projects.

There are several other groups at work forging a middle ground between written work and the digital world. These factions attempt to embrace the digital and technological shifts occurring in our society, while at the same time, maintaining some of the original formatting. A bridge can be made between total digitization and a sole reliance on books. The Rocket eBook is a hybrid of a paper book and digital information. In Writing Space, Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print, Jay David Bolter suggests the eBook has similar characteristics of a book, such as margin writing and the ability to highlight passages, but also “turns any text into a hypertext in which the reader can search for the occurrence of words and phrases throughout the text, so that the whole text becomes immediately available”[8].

Other initiatives include the Turning the Page toolkit which keeps the appearance of a real book but allows people to have access to the work online. Turning the Page “allows libraries and museums to put entire collections of books online in a compelling 3D environment”[9]. Thus Turning the Page preserves book integrity while enabling people around the world to have access to the documents or written work.  In addition to these developments, projects are in progress which address the issue of storage and copy write infringement. The UBC based project InterPARES is attempting to “translate the theory and methods of digital preservation drawn from research to date into concrete action plans for existing bodies of records that are to be kept over the long term by archives ad archival/records units within organization-endowed with limited resources”[10] Essentially, the project creates plans that will facilitate keepers of digital information in the maintenance of records by addressing the issue of backwards compatibility and issues of patent and copy write laws. As stated in the InterPARES overview “Governance, law, art, science and scholarship urgently require concrete plans for the preservation of digital materials so that today’s actions, thoughts, achievements and creations will have a future and the future will have a memory”[11].

            Books hold a special place in our culture and society. There is something tactile about reading. Nothing can substitute the feel, texture, and smell of a book. Even history could be altered. Although the advantages of a virtual library are attractive, one must look at the whole picture including the potential problems to comprehend its full potential. Replacing books with all digital material would simply not be feasible. Yet, that does not mean that written material should not be digitized. Instead of one or the other it is possible to embrace both and utilize them to our advantage. As O’Donnell suggests: “Paradoxically this means not asking what computers can do in and four our old institutions; it means asking what needs doing and then looking with a clear unprejudiced eye for the best way of doing it. The answer will often be electronic, but the challenge will be to make sure that what the electrons do is indeed valuable to our society.”[12]

            The challenge is to see both sides of the technology. There will always be a place for the pen and paper writing, but it is possible to use the digitization of the written word to enhance not to destroy the other form. Our world is changing and technological innovations will continue to change and shape our understanding. By incorporating both in a hybrid, or symbiotic relationship, more can be achieved without the loss of culture and history.

           Works Cited

[1] Kelly, Kevin. “Scan This Book!” The New Yorker 14 May 2006. New York Times.  Web. 25 Sept. 2009.

[2] Ibid

[3] O’Donnell, James J. The Virtual Library: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed. University of Pennsylvania. Web. 25 Sept. 2009.

[4] Kelly, Kevin. “Scan This Book!” The New Yorker 14 May 2006. New York Times.  Web. 25 Sept. 2009.

[5] Ibid

[6] O’Donnell, James J. Avatars of the World. From Papyrus to Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge, 1998. Web. 25 Sept. 2009.

 [7] Reagan, Brad. “The Digital Ice Age.” Popular Mechanics. Dec. 2006. Web. Dec. 2006.

 [8] Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001. Print.

[9] “Turning the Pages 2.0 – Building the Online Library.” Web.

[10] “InterPares 3 Project – International Research on Permanent Authentic Records in Electronic Systems.” UBC. Web.

[11] Ibid.

[12] O’Donnell, James J. The Virtual Library: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed. University of Pennsylvania. Web. 25 Sept. 2009.

October 1, 2009   1 Comment

Some Psychodynamics of Orality

In Chapter 3: Some Psychodynamics of Orality in the book Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong examines primary oral cultures: People who have no system of writing. For oral cultures, words are only represented as sounds. Ong says that the problem with sound is that it is evanescent: It can’t be stopped and preserved. When it is stopped, there is nothing only silence. (Ong, p.32) He explores how oral cultures can recall words if they are unable to record them through writing considering the fact that literate cultures procure their information from written information: “The organized knowledge that literates today study so that they know it, that is, can recall it, has, with very few if any exceptions, been assembled and made available to them in writing.” (Ong, p.33) He suggests that it is through the use of mnemonics and formulas that oral cultures can recall information. Mnemonics and formulas provide a basis for thinking for oral cultures due to their rhythmic sounds that are easy to retain and recall. (Ong, p.34-35) Ong also credits additional characteristics with helping oral cultures think, express themselves, and memorize information. These characteristic of thought and expression are as follows:

· Additive rather than subordinative: Oral cultures use less structure than written cultures and are not as concerned with the rules of grammar as much as literate cultures. They express themselves by appending their thoughts together in a pragmatic manner. (Ong, p.37)

· Aggregative rather than analytic: Oral cultures use formulaic oral expressions to make expressions more meaningful and memorable. (Ong, p.38)

· Redundant or copious: Oral cultures repeat information so that it becomes ingrained in memory. (Ong, p.39)

· Conservative or traditionalist: Oral cultures repeat information over and over again to ingrain the information and avoid adding any extra information as it would be too much of a burden to remember. (Ong, p.41)

· Close to the human lifeworld: Oral cultures remember information that is familiar to their surroundings and their own life experiences. (Ong, p.42)

· Agonistically toned: Oral cultures remember dramatic events that have a tone that expresses drama and agony. (Ong, p.43)

· Empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced: Oral cultures prefer being close to their audience where the audience and the speaker each have influence over each other. (Ong, p.45)

· Homeostatic: Oral cultures retain information that pertains to their current situation, not dwelling on the past. (Ong, p.46)

· Situational rather than abstract: Oral cultures learn about ideas and concepts that actually exist. (Ong, p.49)

Ong believes that oral cultures are not able to process complex topics such as geometry, categorization, logical reasoning and definitions for example because he believes that cultures need to be literate in order to engage in these types of thought processes that are generated through reading and writing text. (Ong, p.55) In addition, Ong suggests that oral and literate cultures process information differently which is referred to as the Great Divide Theory. However, Chandler (1994) states that “those in non-literate societies do not necessarily think in fundamentally different ways from those in literate societies, as is commonly assumed. Differences of behaviour and modes of expression clearly exist, but psychological differences are often exaggerated.” (Chandler, 1994)

Regardless of whether a culture is oral or literate, both cultures are able to learn and the ways in which they learn are similar based on identical learning theories. Ong’s characteristics of thought and expression pertain to the cognitivism and constructivism learning theories. 

Mnemonics, which Ong described as helping oral cultures recall information have also been described by Driscoll (2002) as helping the encoding of information by making new material more memorable to learn. (Driscoll, p. 92) When oral cultures repeat information in order to learn it, this is referred to as rehearsal which is an effective means for learning information that is non-complex in nature. (Driscoll, p.91) Both mnemonics and rehearsal are categorised as being part of the cognitivism learning theory. (Driscoll, 2000)

Ong describes thought and expression as additive for oral cultures whereby thoughts are informally appended together as opposed to subordinative whereby phrases are more formally joined together for literate cultures. Clark and Mayer (2008) state that a less formal conversational style from either spoken or written text is an effective way to engage people in deeper cognitive processing because people will try harder to understand what the person is saying.  (Clark & Mayer p.163)

When oral cultures remember thoughts and expression that are close to the human lifeworld, homeostatic, and situational, these all touch on the constructivism learning theory whereby people learn by constructing new knowledge based on the knowledge that they have already acquired. (Driscoll, p. 375)

When Ong states that thoughts and expression are empathetic and participatory for oral cultures, research has proven that people learn more from a collaborative learning environment than from learning alone. (Clark & Mayer p.278) In addition, Postman (2002) states that orality places emphasis on collaborative learning. (Postman, p.17)

Although people have depended more on print for their learning during the past four centuries, people can still learn by using the means that oral cultures did in the past. Ong’s characteristics of thought and expression conform to the cognitivism and constructivism learning theories that describe some of the ways that both oral and literate cultures learn.


Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the ear and eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved 28 September, 2009 from:

Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2008). e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Pfeiffer San Francisco.

Driscoll, M.P. (2000). Psychology of Learning for Instruction. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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.

September 30, 2009   1 Comment

Burden or Blessing?

As a typographic culture (and becoming more so a Web 2.0 culture), we take for granted the power that writing has on our everyday existence.  Neil Postman (1992) in his book, “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology” asks us to consider both the “burden and blessing” that technology holds within our lives.  To examine writing as a technology, Postman refers to Plato’s Phaedrus whereby King Thamas is opposed to sharing the new technology of writing as he fears that it will be detrimental to his people.  Although Postman argues that we should not be as one sided as King Thamas, I find that his position is sceptical and often Luddite in nature.  That being said, I feel that Postman’s “Technopoly” offers numerous points for further reflection.

“The words technical change have come to symbolize for people all over the world a hope that is new to mankind” (Mead, 1955, p.1).  Postman shares that Plato’s Theuth shared a similar interest to Mead of spreading the new technology of writing to the masses.  Many see technical change as a means to add to a cultures knowledge base and should be widely distributed.  I also think that we should take what we know and better ourselves with new techniques and technologies.  Postman on the other hand cautions that a “new technology does not add or subtract something.  It changes everything” (p. 18).  I don’t agree with Postman that new technology can change everything as I feel it needs to be proven valuable and useful first.  An example of this is the perseverance of Sidney Pressey to revolutionize teaching with his “Automatic Teacher” machine (Petrina, 2004).  Pressey’s goal was to create a new technology that would free teachers from mechanical tasks so they could spend more time with individual students (Petrina).  While the intentions were admirable, both the technology did not live up to its standards and the culture of teaching was not agreeable to machines as teaching aids.  The teachers in Pressey’s time did not believe that this technical change was a blessing to them as thus Pressey’s “Automatic Teacher” was never widely adopted.  Similar sentiments were felt when writing was the new technology and people opposed its adoption.

Ong (1982) shares the story of A.L. Luria who did fieldwork with literate and illiterate people in rural Uzbekistan in 1931.  Luria found that “it takes only a moderate degree of literacy to make a tremendous difference in thought processes” (p. 50).   Both Ong and Postman agree that those that are in control of knowledge have power.  Postman cautions that this elite group have been “granted undeserved authority and prestige by those who have no such competence” (p. 9).   Postman makes an excellent point of “underserved wisdom” and I would argue that this is reflected with what is taking place in today’s classroom.  There are teachers, administrators and parents that believe that using new technology in the classroom is of paramount importance and thus, those who use it are applauded and those who refrain from adoption are seen as obsolete.  I would agree with Postman that there are “winners and losers” in the knowledge monopoly.  The technological knowledge gap that exists within a school creates a burden on teachers.  As someone from a literate cultural circle it is hard to understand the struggle that occurred as writing was the new technology and was gaining popularity.

Postman urges us to examine the introduction of computers into the classroom as he feels they will alter they way in which we teach and learn.  Postman describes how King Thamus believed that communication and instruction were tied to orality.  He argues that orality stresses group learning and cooperation whereby print learning focuses on individualization and competition.  Ong would agree with Postman in that he feels that orality creates unity and “writing and print isolate” (p. 73).  Both Postman and Ong wrote in a time that differs from now: widespread adoption of computers in classrooms is inevitable.  I consider the points that both make and I would agree to some, but I would argue that an evolution has taken place and that computers are being used to increase collaboration and improve overall learning among students.  Web 2.0 has taken hold and wiki’s and community weblogs are being implemented into classrooms and are facilitating cooperation and collaboration among students.  The successes of Learning Management Systems, such as Moodle, are built on the premise of social constructionist beliefs whereby knowledge is created by the expertise of the group (Moodle).

Technology is ever changing.  Technological change has occurred from oral cultures to chirographic cultures, to now a Web 2.0 culture.  If Postman was writing in 2009 he would have to include discussions of digital footprints and such into his discourse.  I believe that we have to take lessons from the past to decide if the latest and greatest technology is a burden or a blessing and if we as individuals chose to adopt it.  It is hard to understand that once writing was the new technology and it had opponents.  I think Heidegger (1953) said it best, “but we are delivered over [technology] in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral.”



Heidegger, M. (1953/1977). The question concerning technology. In M. Heidegger, The question concerning technology and other essays (trans. W. Lovitt) (pp. 3-35). New York: Harper & Row.

Mead, Margaret. (1955). Cultural Patters and Technical Change. New York: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

Moodle. (2009) Retrieved September 27, 2009 from

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

Petrina, S. (2004). Sidney Pressey and the automation of education, 1924-1934. Technology and Culture, 45(2), 305-330.

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

September 30, 2009   2 Comments