In “Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World,” Walter Ong (1982) distinguishes the differences between oral and literate cultures. In his contrast of the two cultures, he analyzes them as distinct entities, separate from each other. In this formal commentary, I will highlight viewpoints presented by Ong (1982) and suggest that the two cultures can be viewed as fluid and their principles connected in thought.
Ong (2008) states, “oral peoples commonly think of names (one kind of words) as conveying power over things” (p.32). The so-called perceived power is subjective and differs from person to person. One person’s representation of something will never be exactly the same because of how we construct meaning. Ong (2008) posits, “without writing, words have no visual presence, even when the objects they represent are visual” (p.31). However, knowledge is formed from one’s own experiences and through accessing prior knowledge. Von Glasersfeld (2008) states, “to assess the truth of your knowledge you have to know what you come to know before you come to know it” (p.37). The first time a concept is introduced; the information gets processed, which allows a person to form his or her own meaning in a greater context. The acquisition of knowledge is manifested differently for each individual. Although you cannot “look up something” in a primary oral culture, there is still a conceivable meaning of what is being said based on one’s own experience and connection. There is a mistaken assumption that, in order to communicate, the representations associated with the words that are used must be the same for all communicators (Von Glasersfeld, 2008). I do agree that words also acquire their meanings through gestures, vocal inflections and facial expressions (Ong, 2008). Statements peppered with a hint of sarcasm can be more easily identified in an oral culture whereas in a writing culture, the tones of such words are to be determined by the reader. A written message can “sound” rude or offensive, however, the “sound” is perceived in the readers own head as the message is read.
For Ong (2008), the way to recall something you previously thought about is to think in mnemonic patterns, and relying heavily on rhythm and repetitions. This implies that you are the sole bearer of information and you would be dependent on your own memory recall. You are forced to consciously compartmentalize your thoughts so they can be accessed easily. Rather than having the onus on you to retrieve important information, an aspect of the written culture allows for the information to be at your fingertips and readily viewed. Ong (2008) states, “Oral communication unites people in groups” (pg.67), however, memory recall is an individual task, not a collaborative one. Oral cultures are also isolating in terms of time in space. Oral cultures unite people in the present; however, they isolate people from the past and future. Oral cultures rely on the transfer of thoughts from one to another. If this is the case, there is no room for creativity. There would be no autonomy of thought and imagination would be nonexistent. One could question, is what I know a true fact, or do I think it is true because I heard it from someone?
Although “there is no way to write ‘naturally’”, writing has enhanced human thought processes (Ong, 1982, pg.81). Writing diaries and journals allow unedited thoughts to flow freely onto paper. It’s simply the transfer of everything you’re thinking, into a form that allows for reflection, elaboration and publication. Writing allows humans to process and store information and this ability changes over time as a result of maturation and experience (Lutz and Huitt, 2003).
As the world evolves and technology advances, there is more information to process and remember. Since “oral cultures know few statistics or facts divorced from human or quasi-human activity”, there is no inundation of unnecessary information (Ong, 1982, pg.42). This allows for a static culture that doesn’t open itself up to other definitions of what may be considered human or quasi-human activities. Perhaps, the oral culture evolved into a literate one in order to compensate for newly acquired knowledge. A literate culture evolves to keep up with change and growth. If “writing is a technology”, then the technology of writing actually enhances thought and allows for greater storage of more complex ideas (Ong 1982, pg.80). Instead of memorizing word-for-word only important information, one can memorize where to find the written version of a vast amount of information. The actual location is memorized. As humans gain language skills, their ability to store and recall more complex events increases (Lutz and Huitt, 2003).
In order to survive, humans must adapt. Oral cultures have adapted to literate cultures. Ong provides a thorough distinction of the two cultures. Literate cultures should be seen as a manifestation of oral cultures instead of separate entities.
Lutz, S. & Huitt, W. (2003). Information processing and memory: Theory and applications. Educational Psychology Interactive, 2003. Retrieved from: http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/papers/infoproc.pdf
Ong, Walter. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World. London: Methuen.
Von Glasersfeld, E. (2008). Learning as constructive activity. AntiMatters, 2(3), 33-49.