Orality and literacy: Supremacy or convergence?

As cultures emerge, their needs evolve and transformations occur. This brings about a lot of changes. Evidently, this triggers schools of thought, promoters, antagonist, neutralists etcetera. Each school presents arguments or positions that matter to them. Ultimately, they each take their stand thinking it is for a good purpose.

The changes that occur in a culture is also in itself to serve a perceived need, hence from oral to literate to electronic cultures, these groups of people of schools of thought remain common denominators.

An innovation or invention is usually perceived as “futuristic” and this creates within the culture, a fear of the unknown which usually presents as the different schools of thought.

Reading through this history as presented in (Ong 1982, ch.3-4), the idea comes across to me that these changes come about not to eradicate the existing or status quo, but rather to consolidate them. Presently, the electronic culture has given a voice to both the oral and literate cultures, in the former (orality), through audio/visual recording and the latter (written word) through emails and chat. Thus the new innovations or inventions make the previous more potent and effective in serving the current and future needs of society. Thus these innovations herald the shift from one culture to another.

These changes seen as technologies appear to be man’s effort (consciously or unconsciously) to refine that which is already in existence in order to communicate better and be more inclusive in approach.

In the end, it all strives to bring unity, while not denying individuality. The electronic culture has emerged to aggregate the oral, written and printed word (technologies)to create a unity while still keeping the individual character of each of them.

“Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness” (Ong 1982, p.81)

If we perceive writing as a technology, can we also argue that speaking is a technology that came about following man’s desire to communicate more intelligibly?

Ong rightly pointed out the resistance faced by each new innovation from writing to printing to computers. (Ong 2002,  pp.78-79).

The recurring arguments in each culture hinges on memory, man’s ability to retain knowledge and originality, man’s ability to produce “authentic” knowledge.

For Socrates, in his oral culture, writing seemed like an innovation that will make man’s brain redundant, “Those who use writing will become forgetful, relying on an external resource for what they lack in internal resources. Writing weakens the mind.” (Ong 1982, p.78)

A closer look at this statement makes me wonder if Socrates words by Plato in the Phaedrus (274-) were indeed prophetic; with the spate of “Google it” going on among school age children (and in society at large) who seem to think there is no need to think any concept through when there is a resource they can “access.”

It makes me wonder how computers have affected the thinking of the electronic culture. I wonder if this has produced a thought process of “e-cheating” in our electronic age hence the issue of originality comes into question like Socrates implied centuries ago.

Printing to Heironimo Sqarciafico was a destructive tool to man’s memory. “Abundance of books makes men less studious” (quoted in Lowry 1979, pp. 29-31): it destroys memory and enfeebles the mind by relieving it of too much work” (Ong 1982, p.79)

The reference here by Ong was the pocket computer, which even though it has a lot of benefits does however seem to impede thinking. You do not need to memorise how to get to a location anymore when your pocket computer has a GPS. Infact, you do not need to remember how you got there the first time if you had to do it again. You simply rely on the GPS to think it through.

While, I agree with Socrates about one thing; “writing pretends to establish outside the mind what in reality can be only in the mind. It is a thing, a manufactured product.” (Ong 1982, p.78), I think that to say that those who use writing will become forgetful is rather preposterous on his part.

Socrates had no idea what the fall out of writing would be at the time because he had not tried it or seen people who had tried it and attest to his proposition. His statement does however bring a few questions to mind.

Why do I keep a journal? Does the singular act of writing in my journal destroy my memory or my ability to remember things?

Am I using my journal as my databank or as a backup to my memory? If something were to happen to my journal, what becomes of my expressed thoughts? How has journal keeping or writing affected the way I think?

The impact of these innovations and the shift from one to the other cannot be denied for it is indeed something to ponder.

How do these innovations affect how we think?

Are these innovations creating different forms of thought, i.e. are the thought patterns of the oral, literate and electronic cultures truly different one from the other?

According to Ong, the literate cultures are more objective in their thinking (Ong 1982, pg.112). As much as Ong considers this a plus, it does have a negative side, it shows that text is not capable of being humane and that implies that a literate society may also create a self absorbed thought pattern

How do they affect what we retain not just in our memories but in our society?

The oral cultures may have lost some information in the process of transfers over time, but not intentionally. It would have been a conscious effort on this culture to task their memories to remember things clearly. I think that for most of them, they would have developed a photographic memory.

In the final analysis, I would say that new innovations or technologies do influence how we relate to our environment (people, attitudes, etc). They are largely change catalysts but with each innovation, from oral to written, to print and to electronic, it is clearly a way to enhance that which already exists. Each innovation or technology is an advancement over what existed before it so it cannot be judiciously compared to the other  as each comes about and exists to serve the needs of its era.


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

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

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2 Responses to Orality and literacy: Supremacy or convergence?

  1. Soraya says:

    Great post ! you make some very interesting comparisons between the two cultures… yes, I feel that with technology our memory weakens as we rely on blackberries, computers and other devices to remind us of the basics. We even sync our I pod t’s with technology… 🙂

  2. Soraya says:

    it’s too late- I mean mobile me and I pod’s sync together and yes I am aware that they are both technology. lol

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