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Thoughts on Orality and Literacy

September 29, 2008 By: Asli Category: Communications Lab

Although Orality and Literacy by Walter J. Ong is heavily academic, I thoroughly enjoyed the first 4 chapters. Ong was able keep my interest alive from the first sentence to the end with his rich references and meticulously laid-out arguments. I would not be exaggerating if I said that the book is -at least the first 4 chapters are- one of the most thought-provoking, as well as enlightening works I have read on the subject of orality and literacy, which made me think about and look at technology in a whole new way.

Surely, I have never regarded writing as the most quintessential form of technology that humans have created. The points that Ong highlights, such as .. makes me turn to myself along the way, at each step of his arguments and question my own perceptions. As he reaches the conclusion that “technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness”, I ask myself, what do I think of technology today?

I’m doing a Masters in Interactive Telecommunications and it is expected that technology fascinates me, but I do recall -many times- that I have had my own share of doubts and criticism towards new technological tools. Email destroyed the letter! Facebook overtook in-person conversations! Cell phone hindered isolation! Internet media is taking over the newspaper! But Ong’s arguments made me realize something else; technologies can co-exist and give way to other technologies, which are borne out of human needs, from our own consciousness! The process of becoming literate for oral peoples took thousands of years, but did literacy replace the importance of the “rhetoric”? Definitely not. The orally gifted among us still hold great power (politicians), they are still respected (professors) and they are still followed (prophets) to this day. So does this mean that the new technologies and media will not deteriorate the importance of the script, but perhaps enhance it? Doesn’t it follow that if writing reconstructed consciousness, then computers will re-reconstruct consciousness?

Ong argues that we have a tendency to reduce sensations to visuals. (”Typographic and electronic cultures has a tendency to reduce all sensation and indeed all human experience to visual analogues.”) But since writing, printing and computers are all ways of technologizing the word, according to Ong, then the challenge for us ITP Students is precisely; technologizing the word. That’s something to ponder upon.

I’m looking forward to reading the next chapters on Orality and Literacy ; I think I will have more answers and more questions in the end.

One last thing that makes sense to me more now after reading these chapters: Words have meanings; scripts and oral works tell stories. We are here to learn to technologize the word in other ways. Then, what we create should have a meaning, a story behind it, no? I will keep this in mind.

PS: To be honest, thanks to this reading I learned that Homer was “a assembly-line worker” not a “creator”! To this day, I thought he wrote Iliad and Odyssey.

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