It is difficult to imagine a world without text. The written word is imbedded in every aspect of our lives as we rely on text to participate in natural and virtual environments. In Orality & Literacy (1982), Walter Ong provides perspective on the intricacies of orality in societies that were precursors to the literate world we live in. Ong (1982) describes early oral environments and asks the reader to try and imagine a world where nothing was “looked up” and there was no presence of a written word to acquire knowledge. The chapter that investigates orality explains the temporary existence of sound and the importance of memory structures and systems needed to pass information throughout oral cultures. In chapter 4, Ong (1982) declares that literate humans thought processes are structured and influenced by the technology of writing and that writing has drastically transformed human conscience.
Ong’s book Orality and Literacy (1982) provides insightful dialogue surrounding oral cultures and their transition into the text driven world. I agree with the majority of Ong’s beliefs surrounding oral and literate cultures. However, I do not agree with his dichotomist view of orality and literacy. I believe that text, writing, and orality can and should braid together to heighten knowledge as we collaborate within our environments.
Ong speaks to some key themes that make oral cultures unique. I believe that collaboration is a fundamental part of learning and there is nothing more powerful than what we gain from face to face conversation with others. Ong (1982) confirms that sustained thought in oral societies is tied to communication. In oral societies face to face communication is the only way to communicate and because of this, oral societies are able to develop environments that value traditions passed orally from generation to generation. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of orality are the concepts of beat, rhythm, and repetition. These elements are directly related to language and music. Ong (1982) confirms that oral thought is rhythmic and that rhythm and gesture are inherent in spoken language. Beat and rhythm are fundamentally important in music. Genres like Rap and Hip Hop would not exist without these key elements. Ong also confirms the importance of redundancy in oral cultures. He insists that words are gone the second they are spoken and as a result redundancy and repetition must be used to memorize and keep thoughts from vanishing (Ong, 1982). It is this type of repetition that helps us remember songs that move us and in conjunction with beat and rhythm music becomes ingrained in our memory.
In chapter 4, Ong’s argument is clear as he insists that more than any other invention, writing has changed and fundamentally affected human conscience (Ong, 1982). While this is true, a considerable flaw in the writing process is that It is not collaborative. Writing forces us into solitude. As I write this commentary, I am sitting at a table with two colleges. We are all writing for this course, and as we “work together” at the same table, each of us is engaged with the text developing on our own computer screens. There is no face to face collaboration developing on any level. Ong’s view of the alphabet is also interesting and very poignant. Ong (1982) states that our alphabet is the most adaptable writing system we know of and that it is easy for everybody to learn. Some may view this as a positive but I see it as a flaw. I believe that the alphabet in some situations forces its simplicity on to cultures that have rich and elaborate text imbedded within them. Just because something is easy to learn does not make it more valuable than something that takes time, effort, and patience.
Ong believes that writing has altered our conscience to such an extent that orality and text are disconnected polar opposites. I agree that orality and literacy are very different. Oral cultures debate, learn, collaborate, connect, and trust. Text itemizes and dehumanizes. However, I believe that oral traditions and the written word should happily co-exist and that this paring can accomplish the inconceivable. In an interview from 1990, Steve Jobs was asked to comment on technology. He states “We humans are tool builders. . . we can fashion tools that can amplify these inherent abilities we have to spectacular magnitudes.” (Jobs, 1990). Job’s view is important because it tells us that the tools and technologies we create, when used in conjunction with the words and ideas we develop, can work together to expand and develop societies in unrivaled ways. Scholars agree that conversation has always been the most important form of learning (O’Donnell, 1999). However, conversation on its own is not enough. Because our connected world is so vast, we need to employ some form of text and writing to help us consolidate the knowledge we acquire. Yes the written word makes our learning less personal but writing gives us the ability to store our abundance of knowledge in ways that work best for us.
Walter Ong has an interesting view of orality and the influence written text has on our conscience. Oral cultures have a deep connection with others, the environment and the world they are surrounded by. In contrast, writing has dehumanized us. However, I believe that we should use text as a tool but only in conjunction with a strong foundation in the fundamental principles of orality. In today’s society, we need text and orality to work together more than ever.
Jobs, S. (2012, Feburary 19). Steve jobs lost interview 1990 – A must watch for any entrepreneur [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nMD6sjAe8I
O’Donnell. (1999). From papyrus to cyberspace [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.cambridgeforum.org
Ong, W.J. (2012). Orality and literacy. London and New York: Routledge.