Commentary 1 – Orality and Literacy – Lisa Nevoral


Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy brings forward a compelling argument how writing has played a large role in shaping human consciousness (1982).  He writes in a “matter of fact” and authoritative manner, which makes the reader feel that what he has written uses common sense and is self-evident.  On the other hand, his views are too simplistic and create dichotomies and I am going to show how his work could be deemed technologically deterministic.

The one major theme I obtained from this book was that writing was a technology.  In the most simplistic sense, I thought of technology as a tool (ie. hammer) or an electronic device that I can use (ie. computer), but I had never thought of writing as a technology.  Our culture is so immersed in literacy that it seems impossible to separate oneself from it or to think of it as “artificial” as Ong thought (1982, p. 82)

Technological Determinism

Technological determinism is a phrase used to describe the belief that technology is the main reason for social change (Chandler, 1995).  In other words, a technology determines human behaviour.  In addition, many technological determinists reduce complex reasons as to why a social change may occur to one part of the whole reason.  This is called reductionism and Chandler (1995) relates this type of thinking to mono-casual explanations of change, where there is a ‘cause’ and ‘effect’.  As well, technological determinists view technology as autonomous; it is regarded as independent of society, out of human control and as Chandler defines it “[changes] under its own momentum and ‘blindly’ [shapes] society” (1995).

Technological determinism about literacy often leads to “Great Divide” theories.  These theories suggest differences between non-literate and literate societies, especially in regards to human consciousness or thinking (Chandler, 1994).  These theories produce binary explanations and opposing ideas of oral and literate cultures.

Technological Determinism and Orality and Literacy

Chandler (1995) suggests that a reader can spot deterministic language by referencing the following:

“The assumptions of technological determinism can usually be easily in spotted frequent references to the ‘impact’ of technological ‘revolutions’ which ‘led to’ or ‘brought about’, ‘inevitable’, ‘far-reaching’, ‘effects’, or ‘consequences’ or assertions about what ‘will be’ happening ‘sooner than we think’ ‘whether we like it or not’. This sort of language gives such writing an animated, visionary, prophetic tone which many people find inspiring and convincing.”

One such passage from Orality and Literacy (Ong, p. 77) displays this type of language:

“Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does… More than any other single invention, writing has transformed the human consciousness.”

This passage alone fulfils Chandler’s ideas of the use of deterministic language within a written work.  Ong wrote in a convincing manner (“the literate mind would not or could not think as it does”) and states the impact this one technology has had on society (writing and the transformation of human consciousness).

Ong’s theory on oral and literate cultures is considered a “Great Divide” theory.  There are many instances within his work that Ong uses language to compare oral cultures and literate cultures that are polar opposites.  Such examples include Ong referring to spoken words as “subjective, in context, natural, pre-logical, etc…” whereas written words are “objective, abstract, artificial, logical, etc…” (1982).   As well, the main premise of his book, thought processes between oral cultures and literate cultures are very different, causes even more polarization.

This polarization can be seen as Ong attempts to state different characteristics between oral and literate cultures to help convince readers that writing has led to a shift in human thought processes.  For example, he states that for oral cultures to store memories, they needed to use language that is mnemonic, rhythmic, and narrative in style and knowledge gets passed on by personal participation in conversations.  Due to this, oral cultures’ memories are very much in present time and personal.  Literate cultures, on the other hand, are able to store memories externally (as text) which can be objective and impersonal.  This leads to thoughts that are abstract, analytical, and definitional (Biokolo, 1999, p. 45).

Ong truly believes that writing has changed human consciousness but as Biokolo states “it is not logically admissible, and equally empirically impossible, to explain the entire direction and shape of society on the basis of a single technological term (p. 48).”

 Technology Determinism and Education

Technological determinism can be seen in education.  One example is that technology is viewed by many to be the solution of a number of pedagogical problems (Pedersen, 2001).  This in itself is technological determinism.  Just because an educator uses technology does not mean they change their pedagogy; this takes hours of work, professional development, technical development, and support to take root.  “Best practices” must continually be recreated and honed.  Using technology in classes should be built on experience, knowledge, and discussion, not “accidental” use of technology, as can be seen in many classrooms (Pedersen, 2001).  As well, one does not need to use technology to bring forth improved changes in pedagogy.

Another area where technological determinism can be seen in education is with e-learning.  On one side, some are concerned about the loss of academic freedom, which they think comes from the movement to commercialized education.  It is thought that the use of technology in education is “creating a rising capitalistic climate that includes political- economic interests such as commodification, commercialization, and corporatization of education” (Kanuka, n.d. pg. 6).  On the other hand, there can be a positive side to technological determinism in regards to e-learning.  There is an opinion that the e-learning communication tools (ie. asynchronous text-based discussion forums, emails, blogs,  etc…) improves complex problem solving abilities, forms argument formation capabilities, increases written communication skills, and allows for opportunities of reflective deliberation which leads to higher levels of learning (Kanuka, n.d.).  This is still a form of technological determinism since it is the technology that is providing the platform for higher levels of learning.

What’s the answer?

Technological determinism keeps emphasis on simple cause and effect proclamations.  There may be a multitude of reasons why a society has changed, which could include demographic, identity, cultural, economic, religious, political, warfare, or educational factors.  “Great Divide” theories dismiss the complexity and view societal and cultural changes in a simplistic light.  “Technological determinism does have a certain logic or correlation, but it does not imply causation” (Warschauer, 2004).

Instead of the view of how technology changes society, maybe one should be asking what relevant groups or circumstances directed changes in technology (Pannabecker, n.d. p. 2).  For example, what circumstances led to writing being initially created, what need was there to promote writing, and who were the people that led writing into becoming a wide spread phenomenon?

Technology does have an impact on society, but the introduction of a new technology does not automatically bring about certain results.  One cannot deny that writing has had some influence and consequences for society, but there is a need to “examine the sociocultural milieu into which information technology is introduced to see how the technology amplifies certain characteristics (or not)” (Murray, 2000, p.44).


Biokolo, E. (1999). On the Theoretical Foundations of Orality and Literacy. Research in African Literatures30.2, 42-65 Retrieved from

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye. Retrieved from

Chandler, D. (1995).Technological or Media Determinism. Retrieved from


Ong, W. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York, NY: Routledge

Pannabecker, J.R. (n.d.). Technological Impacts and Determinism in Technology Education: Alternate Metaphors from Social Constructivism. Retrieved from

Pedersen, J. (2001). Technological determinism and school. Journal of Educational Inquiry. Volume 2(1), 61-65. Retrieved from

Warschauer, M. (2004). Technological change and the future of CALL. 1-16. Retrieved from


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