Literal Technology and Human Memory: Loss or Adoption?

Review of “Orality and Literacy” Chapter Four (Ong, 1982)

Having been constantly immersed in a world of written letters and print, it is hard to imagine the condition of a completely oral culture. “Orality and Literacy” from Ong (1982) informs us of how people in the oral world think and act, with comparisons to the literal culture. He discusses that the invention of writing had a great impact on human communication and on the methods in how we convey and store information. In addition to these changes, Ong (1982) states that writing restructures consciousness. In his view, writing is a technology that holds responsible the transformation of human thought processes. It is notable that he mentions the repeated argument around newer technology and its possible disadvantage in human cognition. Ong (1982) identifies similarities in the criticism against writing by ancient Greek philosopher, Plato and the current critique on computers. Even today, the common debate is ongoing about whether literacy played a special roll in cognition shift or not (Eskritt et al, 2001). That is, Ong’s theory is criticized as “determinism” or the “great divide theory”. Has literacy interfered with human memory? Have humans lost their memory by relying on technologies? Ong’s (1982) chapter does not clarify how writing influences human consciousness in his chapter.

In “Phaedrus”, Plato interprets writing as a mechanical and inhuman way of processing knowledge, and as a result, destructive to memory (Ong, 1982). King Thamus concludes that writing will implant forgetfulness and cease to exercise memory because of the reliance of external marks (as cited in Goody and Watt, 1963). The same objection is put against computers in which modern technology is criticized as passive, unreal, and destructive to human memory (Ong, 1982). From this objection, the ancient people’s belief that writing acts as an absolute power on human memory is seen. Although Ong (1982) does not stand objectively against technology, commonly, he values literacy and technology as an origin of the drastic human change. He states, “technologies are not mere exterior aids, but also interior transformations of consciousness” (Ong, 1982). Furthermore, in his view, technologies enhance human life.

Due to his emphasis on the power of writing as a cause of transformation, Ong receives some criticism. One of the objections against Ong’s theory that is referred to as technological determinism takes the position that “technology is one of the mediating factors in human behavior and social change” (Chandler, 2000). In fact, Ong does not take cultural effect and other contextual effect into account when he analyzes thought processes with the study of letters from various cultures. In the process forming and fixing letters and their grammar rules, for example in the Japanese language, diplomatic factors and social context cannot be eliminated (Suwa, 2006). From the perspective of living in the Eastern culture and using the non-alphabetic language, his analysis of dividing alphabetic and non-alphabetic cultures’ cognition is too simplified. Nonetheless, invention of writing should have taken a major roll in our thought process. Indeed, in the current educational settings, writing or composing texts is almost equivalent to thinking.

According to Ong (1982), “writing is interiorized technology” that has “shaped and powered the intellectual activity of modern man”. If so, is it in exchange for externalizing our memory to technology? How? Neither Ong nor Greek philosophers clears this question, but some of today’s researchers do. Eskritt, Lee and Donald (2001) examined Plato’s hypothesis that writing as external memory would be detrimental to memory. Their research examined participants’ performance in a memory game by controlling participants’ note taking. The results suggest that literacy changes our memory strategy; rather than simply using writing as an external storage to lead us to become forgetful (Eskritt, et al, 2001). The findings suggest that when we write notes, we split the memory storage between internal and external memories (Eskritt, et al., 2001). Rather than storing all information in memory in our mind, we memorize only necessary information in order to use external written media. The authors suggest that the use of external memory aids is an active restructuring process of how information is distributed, and we are not passively downloading information (Eskritt, et al., 2001). This study was examined with card games, and they did not include literal recall tasks. However, the results give us an insight on the long-term argument on writing and its impact on human cognition.

The similar results are reported in a research examined memory and use of computer and the Internet. A study from Sparrow, Liu and Wegner (2011) suggests that when we expect to have access to information later on the Internet, we do not memorize the information itself. Instead, we memorize where to access the information. Similar to the study from Eskritt et al. (2001), the result suggests that when we use literacy and technologies, we shift our memory strategy, so that we effectively use them as external memory aids. Sparrow et al. (2011) suggest that the Internet is an external memory where information is stored collectively outside of oneself.

The two empirical researches support Ong’ s suggestion that technology takes a roll in shifting our consciousness. With opposition to Plato’s objection, in these studies, writing was not detrimental to our memory. By using written mediums and the Internet, our cognition appears to be connecting to “a larger distributed system” (Eskritt et al., 2001) as external memories. This collective system has added various mediums such as writing, printing, computer and the Internet. As the external cognitive aids become wider, the responsibility in choosing the right meaning is still up to each human. If we do not know the meaning of the information, we would not make the right decisions. We are expected to have a higher level of cognitive skills that comprehend, reflect and synthesize what the information says, rather than memorizing word by word. When future technology is added, if we follow Ong’s theory, our cognition will shift to utilize the new technology.


Chandler, D. (2000). Technological or Media Determinism. Retrieved from

Eskritt, M., Lee, K. and Donald, M. (2001). The influence of Symbolic Literacy on Memory: Testing Plato’s Hypothesis. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 55;(1), 39-50.

Goody, J. and Watt, I (1963). The Consequences of Literacy. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 5 (3).

Ong, W. (1982), Orality and Literacy:The technologizing of the world. London: Methuen.

Sparrow, B., Liu, J. and Wegner, D. (2011). Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertip. Science 333,776. DOI: 10.1126/science.1207745.

Suwa, K. (2006) Intercultural Communication and Kanji: Socio-cultural Evolution, Ryukoku International Center Research Bulletin 15. Retrieved from

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