Literate Bias in a Literate Society

In “Biases of the Ear and Eye”, Chandler outlines some possible problems involved in “Great Divide” theories which create dichotomies based on orality and literacy. In particular he points to the exaggeration of differences found in oral and literate cultures and oversimplification when attributing characteristics to oral or literate societies. A specific danger he mentions is the possibility of seeing non-literate societies as inferior to our own.

Chandler describes phonocentric bias as linking language with speech and considering speech to be more natural and real than writing. Speech comes naturally to children whereas writing is something which must be taught and practiced. As well, speech is necessarily a predecessor to writing, making it the primary ability.

Graphocentric bias values sight over sound and sees non-literate cultures as primitive. As speech is a requirement of writing, writing is seen as a progression which builds upon the ability of speech. Speech becomes the earlier stage: passed through by literate societies, making literate societies more advanced.

Coming from a graphocentric and literate background, it is a challenge to shed bias when Chandler writes that, “Given the biases which we so often encounter or unconsciously adopt, it is perhaps useful to remind ourselves that writing is no ‘better’ than speech, nor vice versa – speech and writing need to be acknowledged as different media with differing functions.” (Chandler, 1994)

To be better is to be more effective. Though it can be acknowledged that speech and language are different media with different functions, a judgment of effectiveness can be made in terms of each medium’s ability to perform a task, or the usefulness of the differing functions given a situation.
When taken to its essence, the primary purpose of media is to inform, entertain or provide some combination of both. Speech and writing are capable of accomplishing these purposes, each with its own strength or weakness.

Those with phonocentric views would argue for speech’s immediacy and realness. In passing information, the information could be explained or defended, adjusting to the understanding of the listener in order to be properly learned. They would argue for the universality of speech; accessible to most human beings who can speak rather than the smaller proportion who can read.

Those with graphocentric views would argue for writing’s permanence and reach. Ideas could be spread across time and space, allowing writers to impact readers whom they may never meet. Ideas could be recorded then built upon, either by the others or the author themselves.

In isolation, both views have their merits. Adding the perspective of the state of information today increases the test of each medium’s effectiveness. A single story or instructional method can be shared personally through either medium, but when the quantity of information is increased to 2.7 zettabytes and distributed worldwide, the limitations of speech become apparent. Such a quantity of information requires organization and indexing in order to be useful, which lends itself to written media. The fact that author and reader are separated, which is sometimes considered a negative aspect of writing, allows for the message to cross great distances.

One difficulty with identifying literate bias is determining how much of the current situation was determined by the prevalence of writing in our culture. The point could be raised by technological determinists that the information exists today because literate cultures permitted or encouraged the storage of information, whereas oral cultures might have streamlined both the content and audience out of necessity.

Chandler states that “we cannot write without bias, but we can learn to become more aware of our biases”. (Chandler, 1994) In investigating our bias, we find that the society created within the context of literate culture is logically best served by a literate medium.

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye. Retrieved, 25 September, 2012 from

Chandler, D. (1994). Engagement with Media: Shaped and Being Shaped. Retrieved, 25 September, 2012 from

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

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