Where literacy and technological determinism collide

The steady upward climb of humanity from the rustic simplicity of prehistoric times towards the modern digital age has been long and arduous; fraught with peril and upheaval, power shifts and cultural extinctions, and an ever-increasing rate of technological innovation. In the past five thousand years, humans as a species have taken a giant leap forward, learning to wield perhaps our greatest innovation of all; a tool which freed communication from the ephemeral transiency of the here-and-now, and allowed thought and speech to be immortalized across time: the written word.

In the 1993 book Technopoly, author Neil Postman zeroes in on the written word as being a particularly powerful kind of technology. Postman is in many ways a classic technological determinist, believing that the technologies we invent and employ will shape the values of society in an inevitable cascading domino effect, over which we have little control: “But we may learn from Thamus the following” Postman writes, “that 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, 1993, p.7). Unwilling to be boxed in or labeled a pure technophobe, he tempers the hard lean towards technological determinism with a somewhat hollow-sounding concession that “every technology is both a burden and a blessing:not either-or, but this-and-that” (p.4-5).

In the specific case of the effect of literacy on memory, however, Postman pulls no punches. In reference to The Judgement of Thamus he writes, “The error is not in his claim that writing will damage memory and create false wisdom. It is demonstrable that writing has had such an effect” (p.4). Certainly it can be contested that the mere ability to write things down may have affected our dependence on, if not our capacity for, memorization, but for a writer this must be a slippery position to maintain a grasp on. Indeed, memory may be what the written word is after all best at. Writing establishes the potential for memory to be preserved indefinitely, for what is known to never be forgotten.

The belief that writing fundamentally changes the human relationship to thought, memory, and communication is not restricted to the technological determinists’ camp, nor is such a transformation in thinking considered by all to be inherently bad. Walter Ong suggests in his 1982 book Orality and Literacy that indeed the ability to read and write changes our very relationship to words, “that the literate person can never fully recover a sense of what the word is to oral people” (p. 12). That is, once we have acquired literacy, we cannot go back. But why would we? Writing has carved out for humankind a new kind of vision – an ability to look back in order to move forward, and to preserve the ideas and words of the present in a way that would be (and in some cases still is) inconceivable in primarily oral cultures, and yet maintain the ability to build on those ideas and words as we move forward. Walter Ong reflects in his 1982 book Orality and Literacy that “when an oft-told oral story is not actually being told, all that exists of it is the potential in certain human beings to tell it” (p.11). This notion is powerful and terrible at once – primary orality by its very nature does not allow for a story to continue as it was. The written word and literacy spread among the masses, however, does not remove the power of the storyteller to tell; on the contrary, it allows for the story to live on in existence long after the storyteller has been forgotten.

James O’Donnell addressed Postman’s fears somewhat more delicately in a 1999 Cambridge forum, acknowledging the role of literacy both in the turbulant past behind us and the unknown future before us. He described the current state of humankind as being “poised between doom and Utopia”, a sentiment which may seem extreme, but is certainly not novel. Apocalyptic predictions, fantasyland rhetoric, and everything in between are part of every culture and pervade literature throughout history. In saying that we are poised between these two extremes, we may as well simply say that it is up to the individual to determine what future they see – or wish to pursue, a point which Postman fails to acknowledge fully. For even as our technologies and innovations impact us, so too do we have the ability to determine our own path and future.

The ability to determine ones own future is a form of power which literacy has a particular knack in providing. O’Donnell (1999) describes literacy as having a democratizing effect, redrawing the lines as it spreads between those who have power and those who do not. Even the technological determinist perspective concedes this point. “Those who have control over the workings of a particular technology accumulate power and inevitably form a kind of conspiracy against those who have no access to the specialized knowledge made available by the technology” (Postman, 1993, p. 9).

Where O’Donnell sees democratization and Postman sees conspiracy, Ong sees the evolution of the mind through literacy. If these three thinkers can agree on anything, it is the belief that literacy is an especially potent technology when it comes to reorganization of power structures, and furthermore that it is not only the technology itself which controls, but those who wield it. Literacy – the written word and the ability to understand it – stands above all else in its transformative power, because although it may change our minds, our memories, and our modes of communication, the written word does not forget the past, and will never relinquish its central role in the hearts and minds of those who shape our future.

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

Postman, N (1993). The Judgement of Thamus. In N. Postman. Technopoly: the surrender of culture to technology (pp. 3-20). New York: Vintage.

O’Donnel, J., & Engell, J. (Speakers)(1999) From Papyrus to Cyberspace

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Cambridge Forums. Retrieved September 30, 2011 from http://media.elearning.ubc.ca/det/etec540/etec540-audio.html

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