Of Chandler, Ong and Plato; or, Of Carts and Horses and Who’s to Blame

Plato has been widely cited for his fear-mongering proclamation in the Phaedrus declaring the newest technology – writing – as the demise of memory (e.g.: Ong, 2002, p. 78). I must admit having often been of same mind, relating fully to Plato’s concern, citing it as foundational evidence for my own concerns around literacy today which I have feared is on a rapid slippery slope as we surf and scan the Internet for tidbits of information, blissfully ignorant of content detail and its potential to spur deep thought (Schrader, 2009). But in light of considering Ong’s Orality and Literacy (2002) as possibly overly deterministic (Chandler, 2000; ETEC 540 notes), I have to consider that perhaps there was a problem before the creation of writing that prompted the creation of writing. Writing must not have been the cause of inaccurate memory or forgetfulness.

In order to think that something needs to be changed, there must be a problem with the existing structure or way of doing things. In this case, it was oration: the means of communication, of relating history through the generations, of presenting scholarly thought. If this bears sensible and by chance, Plato – dare I say – erred, it is possible that for each “technology-driven” societal change, it was not the technology that was the causative factor but a societal observation or individual perception that whatever was current at the time could have been made better.

To stay with Plato, at that time in that society, the preferred means of communicating – in spite of the presence of writing and skill of literacy – was still speech. As Ong (2002) points out, a sense of history and truth was built and maintained via story-telling profuse with repetition, and formulaic verse. Ong also cites evidence, however, that shows this type of reporting is not entirely consistent (2002, pp. 58-59). Someone in classical Greek society must have noticed and questioned possibilities for viable record-keeping alternatives. In so doing, that someone must have considered inscription, as civilizations elsewhere in the world had already done. From what Goody tells us, this consideration occurred in the seventh century B.C., well after the “invention of writing” in Mesopotamia but taking hold and bringing about literacy in Grecian society fairly quickly. Greek scholars and manufacturers alike must have become quite preoccupied with the production of assistive writing technologies of the time, such that by the time of Plato some two hundred years later, many were literate as Plato was.

Plato then would have to be conjecturing with regards to the effects of writing on memory. While giving much value to oratory skill, his was not an illiterate culture and he could only speculate that memory was dying at the foot of the pen – or stylus. Himself skilled in oration and assuredly having a good memory, Plato had never been of a wholly oral culture where the option of writing to record thoughts did not exist. Both Goody and Ong are clear that story-tellers in oral cultures are wise to their audience and the relevance of details in their tale (Goody, 2005; Ong, 2002). They adjust – or edit – their stories accordingly. As such, with the passing of time and the changing of stories, some details are added and some forgotten. They both also detail that a single story-teller telling a story immediately on the tail of itself will not tell the story the same way though insisting it is identical. This is certainly indicative of memory being inherently less than perfect, and if this so be the case, we cannot hold writing hostage as primary suspect. In fact, we might rather have to exalt writing as the preserver of memories where memory itself fails for its ability to record into a retrievable, verifiable document. If anything, it is the individual’s decision to lean upon writing as a crutch – again, an assistive technology – so that said individual might become cognitively sedentary or inattentive. This, though, cannot be the fault of writing as writing cannot make that conscious determination. It is merely dead words on a page (Ong, 2002). Fault must lie with the lazy.

So in the defendant’s seat to take the blame for the idleness of humankind, writing – or any other “new technology” – at worst should be found no more than temptress. But it is not the tempting where fault worthy of prosecution is found. Fault is with the one with the conscience, the power to decide, for what would writing be without the author behind it? If we are to take credit for the writing, we cannot blame the writing for the written. No more so can we blame writing or any other technology for any fault of the mind.


Chandler, D. (2000). Technological or media determinism. Retrieved from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tdet01.html

ETEC 540 (2010). Critiquing Ong: The problem with technological determinism [Course notes]. Retrieved from https://www.vista.ubc.ca/webct/urw/lc5116011.tp0/cobaltMainFrame.dowebct

Goody, J. (2005). Literacy in traditional societies. New York, NY: Cambridge UP. Retrieved from http://books.google.ca/books?id=B9SUyI-3tRwC&pg=PA67&lpg=PA67&dq=invention+of+writing+goody&source=bl&ots=CYCOdYqoXz&sig=aW6A7vzomDHKM3AbiUhp_A2v1tg&hl=en&ei=gGqqTPnDJYuosAPjwvj3Aw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=invention%20of%20writing%20goody&f=false

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

Schrader, V. (2009). Questioning changes in literacy: The acceptability of technological influence. (Unpublished graduate essay). University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.

This entry was posted in Commentary 1 and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Of Chandler, Ong and Plato; or, Of Carts and Horses and Who’s to Blame

  1. Everything is constantly evolution and change, your hypothesis that perhaps there was a problem that prompted the creation of writing makes sense to me. I wonder if the training with ‘The Art of Memory” was available to everyone. It is said that the rhetorician Seneca could hear a list of two thousand names and spit them back in order.

Leave a Reply