Is Technology Turning Back Literacy Time?

In Orality and Literacy (1982) Ong documents the development of writing and its effect on culture by presenting a number of dichotomies between primary oral and “chirographic’ literate cultures. He states that writing transformed our society and re-structured our way of thinking. Ong suggests that it may be difficult for us, because of our present immersion in a chirographic society to comprehend the mechanisms of a primary oral society. While he predominantly notes the numerous benefits of written language and the advances its development has afforded our society, he also makes references to the solid foundation of oral culture and stresses the importance of rich, well-developed speech (or “orality”). He outlines the following characteristics of thought and expression in primary oral cultures:

  1. Formulaic Styling – oral cultures require information (specifically complex ideas) to be packaged memorably for ease of recall
  2. Additive rather than subordinative – oral cultures are less structured (e.g. grammar rules, organization into points and sub-points etc.) than literate cultures.
  3. Aggregative rather than analytic – oral cultures need to make use of formulaic expressions (e.g. mnemonics) to make ideas memorable.
  4. Redundant or copious – in order to ingrain thoughts in memory, oral cultures must repeat information many times.
  5. Conservative or traditionalist – oral cultures only retain important and pertinent information to make it more manageable, thus eliminating extraneous facts.
  6. Close to the human lifeworld – only information that is familiar and relevant to their surroundings and individual life experiences is recalled.
  7. Agonistically toned – orality engages individuals in verbal conflict and debate
  8. Emphatic and participatory rather than objectively distanced – Oral cultures interact more with their audience and community and places a greater emphasis on collaboration.
  9. Homeostatic – Information pertaining to a cultures current situation is retained as opposed to dwelling on past events
  10. Situational rather than abstract – ideas and concepts that actually exist are learned as opposed to nonconcrete complex thoughts

Due to the qualities listed above, Ong asserts individuals from primary oral cultures are unable to process complex topics and subject matters as they lack the thought processes developed through engaging in the reading and writing of text. In other words, it was the advent of written language that allowed people think in more multifaceted ways and as a result has increased both wisdom and cultural memory.

While digesting Ong’s work and reflecting on his outlined traits of primary oral cultures, I began to contemplate how 21st century technology is affecting literacy and our written language. With classroom teachers moving away from textbooks and towards the integration of multimedia, we see a diminished focus on written word. Students can be seen using iPods and iPads to listen to novels as opposed to primarily reading the text. The advent of texting has resulted in a weakened vocabulary and poor grammar amongst learners. Additionally, the integration of web2.0 technologies into the classroom is forcing a more “oral” and collaborative system of communication. If a culture versed with writing causes oral communication to be affected as Ong proposes, then what will happen to our written communication as we shift towards a collaborative digital world? If the move from orality to literacy caused an alteration of the way we communicate, think and learn, what will the result of this shift towards digital literacy be?

In thinking about digital literacy and its possible effects, I located the article titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (Carr, 2008) Within his commentary, Carr contends that the shift towards a digital nature of reading is causing students to scan, skim and hurry through material. He postulates that this is causing students to have less patience and an impaired ability to think, reason, and process information. This shift sounds eerily similar to the reverse of the one Ong describes in his book. Are we as educators being too quick to adopt new technologies? Do we only see in retrospect how these tools are changing the nature of our thinking and learning? Will this shift have positive or negative effects on society?

An alternative perspective to the divide Ong describes aligns with that of Chandler (1995), Scribner and Cole (1981), who critique Ong’s depiction of a stark dichotomy between orality and literacy. Alternatively, they propose that although literacy does have a profound effect on individuals and cultures, this effect cannot be described in terms of changes in cognitive abilities and is not as exaggerated and clear cut as Ong describes. Taking these perspectives into consideration, perhaps the lines between orality and literacy are more blurred than Ong pronounces. Conceivably our digitally literate society could even land in the gray zone in-between, giving 21st century learners essentially the best of both worlds. While Ong’s book has proven to be helpful in understanding both literate and oral cultures and in reflecting on the distinctions between them, perhaps we should be concentrating more on the intersections between them and how our new technological world of electronic communications will fare.


Carr, Nicholas. (2008). Is Google Making Us Stupid. Accessed Online:

Chandler, Daniel (1995). Great Divide Theories in Biases of the Eye and Ear. Accessed Online:

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

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

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