Technology and the Resurgence of Orality

Features of orality are resurfacing with modern technology. Writing has been the overwhelming technology for recording information for centuries. At its inception, writing was criticized for how it would affect our mind. (Postman, 1992) It removed discourse, much of the personality, though emoticons are used to mimic emotions of the speaker, and encourages a lazy memory as users look up information rather than store it.

The decline of the printed book as a childhood developmental tool has been decried since before I was a child. Television, with its flashing images, sounds and motion, draws attention immediately. Like writing, the video is unable to be questioned. Modern technologies bring discourse back into our lives. Twitter is increasingly a part of every TV show. News programs urge viewers to visit their webpage for in-depth analysis, follow them on twitter, and to comment or even report details on location. Human beings are social. Social nature requires interaction which is why television is increasingly supplemented by the internet. Computer technologies are reaching a point where the rhetoric is being reintroduced to our primary forms of communication.

Writing stores our knowledge outside of human mortality, creates a permanent record in which people can share words and ideas beyond their physical, audible presence. As Ong (2002) mentions, in an oral culture words are gone before they are finished forming in the mouth. The permanence of the written word takes away the discourse inherent in an oral culture. A speaker interacts with their crowd. Reading into how they react, offering explanations and responding to questions. The written word is unable to respond to queries from the audience. Foot notes from authors predict how a reader may react and readers are still able to interact with the medium itself. Books may be highlighted and filled with notes. This creates community if many people read the same book, contributing their observations but these individual notes are not shared with the whole audience.

The modern written word consists of hypertext. (Bolter, 2001) Instantly searchable electronic bits able to serve as pathways to other forms of knowledge. Comments allow authors and audience to interact. Through conversation, writers meet their audience, elaborate and change. The written word is no longer permanent – it flows and changes like ideas in a conversation. The social nature of the internet has allowed for the discourse of orality. A web author receives comments on his work from readers, he may then change or augment his work to reflect problems in understanding or new information presented by his readership. This discourse enables him to engage in rhetoric. They must be accountable for their knowledge. Challenges to an idea in a journal were limited to the few who purchased the journal, read the article and became motivated to write a formal letter. The effort required to challenge an idea is a limiting factor.

Bolter (2001) describes how writing is being remediated by modern technology. Ong (2002) focuses on how technology, writing, has changed us, allowed us to think the way we do. As such, we cannot completely remediate the written word. It will always be a part of us as orality survives today. Writing has become a way to augment the image. Pictures easily capture more detail than anyone wants to read about and the increasingly simple publication and storage of pictures has popularized their use in information distribution. An instant update to friends using Twitter can be replaced by a picture. Instagram and Tumblr create photo blogs without the need for any sort of written word. The written word has become less prominent in the media from which we obtain information, its main purpose is to augment the information contained in the photograph.

Google Goggles allows people to search images. A birder may snap a shot of a black bird with a yellow patch. Goggles would search the image for objects of similar colour, shape and size. A group of similar images would appear hyperlinked with ever more images indicating that particular bird’s life history, audio files of bird song, videos and even traditional text. This allows the photographer to gain large amounts of information, all without a single bit of writing; video made searchable frame by frame as images, audio tracks transcribed. Underlying much of this would be text. That image would not stand for only a picture of a yellow winged black bird, but a combination of audio and visual cues. With the image published and labeled, our birder can engage with the community who can inform of mistakes, answer questions and provide additional details.

Language is the DNA of writing, we would not have words to write otherwise. The written word is the foundation of modern communication, it has shaped our minds and culture. As we move away from the written word as information delivery, we will not lose it. The interaction between speaker and audience is again part of our information distribution systems. The community of internet allows for discourse lost in traditional print media. The ever changing nature of technology has brought about an end to some of the initial criticisms of writing. Plato would rest easier if not for the internet’s further replacement of our memory.


Bolter, J. D. (2001). Writing Space. Computers, Hypertext and the Remediation of Print. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books.

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1 Response to Technology and the Resurgence of Orality

  1. cmck says:

    Hi Adam,
    It looks like we wrote about a similar topic. I too am interested in how Web 2.0 has helped bring back some of the benefits of previous forms of communication. I like your focus on the photograph, too. The whole Web 2.0 idea is remediating writing, but as you say, communication is not dying.


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