A new orality?

I was impressed with some of the thoughts of Walter J Ong in his Orality and Literacy: The technologizing of the word (Methuen, 1982).

Ong suggests that writing has changed the way we think, argue and communicate. That there are sharp differences between oral cultures and literate cultures, though these are often not clear because most of our knowledge of pre-literate cultures has been captured in writing, and we view them in a literate manner. It raises an obvious question as to whether an electronic culture will also change the way we think, argue and communicate.

Although writing is first evident in Mesopotamia around five thousand years ago, and written epics say two or three thousand years ago, Ong dates the change to literate thinking styles as much later - say with the age of the Romantics in developed countries. In other words it is when literacy is common among populations and printed materials relatively easily available. The residue of orality persevered for centuries. This raises the obvious question as to how quickly (if at all) an electronic culture will induce an electronic way of thinking and communication.

Ong suggests that there are some elements of orality that are likely to be seen again in an electronic culture, but that there would also be some sharp differences (of course note the date of Ong's work).

Ong characterises orally based thought and expression in comparison with literate thought and expression as being:

  • additive rather than subordinative - A tendency to simple additive principal clauses rather than subordinative clauses. For instance, the first verses of Genesis: In the beginning God created heaven and earth. And the earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God moved over the waters. And God said: Be light made. And light was made.
  • aggregative rather than analytic - A tendency to formulas, cliches and epithets, such as the "beautiful princess", the "sturdy oak", "clever Odysseus", and "wise Nestor", as aids to the oral expression and memory. Only with writing is a more analytic process facilitated - and then cliches become odious and epithets melodramatic.
  • redundant or "copious" - Without the permanence of writing to allow re-reading or referral when necessary, oral expression employs repetition and restatement for reinforcement and ensuring the hearer retains the perspective or flow of the argument. This "copia", as the Greek rhetoricians used to call it, also facilitates a public speaker, allowing the speaker to restate while considering the next stage in the argument.
  • conservative or traditionalist - As orally expressed thinking requires energy to be exerted in its preservation (memorising and further verbal performance), it tends to be held as precious, as are those who are the preservers of this wisdom - this discourages intellectual experimentation and speculation. Oral traditions evolve but do not show radical shifts in thinking.
  • close to the human lifeworld - Without the distance from living experience possible with written and printed expression, oral expressions tend to revolve around the living human world. For instance the Iliad's famous catalog of ships is not a list, but compiles the names of the Greek leaders involved in active doings. Similarly there are no oral how-to-do-it manuals, skills are learnt by apprenticeships.
  • agonistically toned - Oral expression tends to situate knowledge in a context of heightened struggle rather than in an abstracted, separate realm.
  • empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced - For an oral culture, learning or knowing means achieving close, empathetic, communal identification with the known, contrasting with the disengaged, objective knowledge of the literate culture.
  • homeostatic - Oral societies live in the present, sloughing off or evolving memories that no longer have present relevance, unlike literate cultures with their dictionaries, encyclopaedias and archives.
  • situational rather than abstract - Oral cultures tend to use concepts in situational concrete rather than abstract senses. For instance four concepts such as hammer, saw, log, and hatchet, would tend to be grouped by oral thinkers in terms of situations (with the hammer the odd one out), whereas literate thinkers tend to group them in terms of categories such as tools (with the log the odd one out). Moreover logical arguments have little place in oral thinking. For instance stating that where there is snow the bears are white, and then asking what colour are the bears in a place that always has snow might earn: "I don't know. I've seen a black bear."

Lidia Serrati, in an email message of 30 May 2000, noted the diversity of communication experiences in the emerging high technology world. Experiences might include voicemail, instant messaging, video cameras, software transducing voice to text or back again. What happens to communication if people communicate, not only without sharing the same environment (as per writing) but also not even the same or similar communication experience (the author might be replying to a continuing discussion via voice activated email software on a PDA while walking a dog wheras a final reader might be searching through subject indexed fragments via a search engine).

Ben Tomassetti, in an email message of 10 December 2002, kindly suggested the following sites may also be of interest:

What will such a technologically diverse, but perhaps not transparent, communication world mean for culture, information and collective decision-making?

That's about as far as I've reached so far.