Writing as a technology

The introduction of new technologies within a society often results in a critique of how such innovations will affect human consciousness.  Plato argues how the technology of writing influences one’s memory, does not represent reality, and ultimately weakens the mind.  Such arguments are presented in The Seventh Letter and Phaedrus which in turn, ironically, are recorded by way of text.

“The specific [writing] which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the resemblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.” (Plato, n.d.)

Unlike Plato, Ong (1982) seems to make a similar argument in his text; complicating our thoughts on the written word.  My understanding is that Ong believes print and writing isolates humans from one another creating multiple perspectives that do not resemble the truth.  I disagree with Ong, but I am slightly cautious because I have never experienced a predominantly oral culture.  I try to imagine if oral culture is more united and truthful than print culture, but I instantly begin to wonder if both cultures demonstrate complexities because human beings themselves seem to complicate language, stories and texts; despite being oral or print based.  If we take children for example before they are able to read or write, their oral stories are imaginative and creative and most importantly never are told the same way each time, consistently details change.  This theory can be applied to all human beings; language changes in all capacities oral or print—I do not believe one is any better than the other or more authentic.

I do believe print has the potential to isolate; however not always.  Print has created unity especially among groups in our postmodern world.  For example if we take a group from a  grade 10 class and ask them to read a text—the group than has a common thread to discuss, work through, connect and expand on.  The students who do not read the text and instead stare out the window become isolated from the group losing the only thread that connects each individual in the room to form the group.  Human society may have once been unified by oral culture, but nothing concerning contemporary society is unified or open.  We are a culture of individuality—this may have been brought about by way of technology innovations, but I am really not convinced.  However Ong seems very convicted, “The spoken word forms human beings into close-knit groups. When a speaker is addressing an audience, the members of the audience normally become a unity, with themselves and with the speaker. If the speaker asks the audience to read a handout provided for them, as each reader enters into his or her private reading world, the unity of the audience is shattered, to be re-established only when oral speech begins again. Writing and print isolate.” (Ong, 1982, p.73)   I believe that we have moved very far away from a unified model.

It is important to reflect on the influence of today’s technological innovations on the 21century learner.  Like those who were raised in a literate culture find it difficult to fully understand the influence of writing and text on an oral culture, I believe that some will find it difficult to comprehend the full effects of today’s technologies on human consciousness.  Today’s learner has been raised in a society whereby the World Wide Web has been commonplace, a great number of North American households have multiple cell phones, and social networking is perhaps the most prevalent communication means among teens and young adults.  Oral communication by way of face-to-face interaction is diminishing.  How will such tools affect human consciousness?  Will these tools “enrich the human psyche, enlarge the human spirit, and intensify its interior life”? (Ong, 1982, pg. 82).  Will such innovations lead to a greater degree of human isolation?



Ong, W. J. (1982) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. New York, NY: Routledge.

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