Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Technology creates a new culture and changes old ones


By Walter J. Ong
Routledge: London, 2002 (first published in 1982).
also available in Questia

In Chapter 1, "THE ORALITY OF LANGUAGE:THE LITERATE MIND AND THE ORAL PAST, Ong emphasizes that human consciousness has been evolving with the development of media.

Many of the features we have taken for granted in thought and expression in literature, philosophy and science, and even in oral discourse among literates, are not directly native to human existence as such but have come into being because of the resources which the technology of writing makes available to human consciousness.We have had to revise our understanding of human identity. (p.1)

One interesting observation is that the rhetorical culture of the ancient Greece was a product of writing. The rhetorical culutre was not a natual development of the human Faculty of Language, but an evolution of primary orality in prehistoric times into oral art, made possible by reflection and organization, a new culture brought about by the spread and maturation of writing culture. The new technology of writing changed the old culture of orality. One thing to add is that this new orality of rhetoric gradually became the 'norm' of the writing culture both in the hand-writing and the print-writing ages. Technology creates a new culture and changes old ones.

In the West among the ancient Greeks the fascination showed in the elaboration of the vast, meticulously worked-out art of rhetoric, the most comprehensive academic subject in all western culture for two thousand years. In its Greek original, techne rhetorike,‘speech art’ (commonly abridged to just rhetorike) referred essentially to oral speaking, even though as a reflective, organized ‘art’ or science - for example, in Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric - rhetoric was and had to be a product of writing. Rhetorike, or rhetoric, basically meant public speaking or oratory, which for centuries even in literate and typographic cultures remained unreflexively pretty much the paradigm of all discourse, including that of writing (Ong 1967b, pp. 58-63; Ong 1971, pp. 27-8). Thus writing from the beginning did not reduce orality but enhanced it, making it possible to organize the ‘principles’ or constituents of oratory into a scientific ‘art’, a sequentially ordered body of explanation that showed how and why oratory achieved and could be made to achieve its various specific effects. (p. 9)


Below is a very rough synopsis on how technology has changed and will change human linguistic communication and mindsets.

Prehistory: Primary Orality
Before letters were invented, humans just used words as a supplimentary medium to actions in the shared context.

The Axial Age: Handwriting Literacy -> Rhetorical Orality
As letters began to be used, humans, at least those who were fortunate and smart, learned to objectify their speech in writing and to think and be self-conscious. This reflection and examination brought about the ancient wisdom of the Axial Age, a wisdom of life that is hard to exceed even now. The new writing culture affected the old oral culture to sophisticate it into the rhetorical speech.

Gutenberg: Print Literacy (for science,literature, politics and economics in each nation-state) -> Educated Orality (developed in modern school)
The new technology of mechanical movable type printing started the Printing Revolution and books were now printed not copied manually.Exact reproduction of books by printing machines made publishing of detailed tables and figures in science possible. Great literature, notably the Bible, spread in books. In the process, a strong local language became, with a great help from modern schools markets, a national language and contributed to the creation of a nation-state. With its great political and economic power, the new national language suppressed weaker vernacular languages. People learned to think through printed books written in their national language. People who also learned to speak in that way were considered 'educated.'

Radio and TV: Secondary Orality (for science, literature, politics and economics in each nation-state) -> Maturation of Print Literacy
Radio and TV made the national language oral as well as written. Before radio and TV, it was not easy to spread the 'standard' speech (pronunciation and intonation) in various parts of the nation-state. Science and literature were not only written and read privately but now spoken and heard collectively in the national language. This simultaneous national experience strengthened the sense of a nation-state . Immediate transmission of information promoted more politica and economic activities. The demand for print literacy increased.

The Internet: Global Literacy (for science, literature, politics and economics in the global community) -> Global Orality (for science, literature, politics and economics in the global community)
With the Internet, the Information Revolution, the third revolution after the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, became obvious and undeniable. Instant and free distribution of knowledge promoted the use of a common language. The English Language, spoken in England (where the Industrial Revolution started) and the United States (where the Information Revolution started) along with other areas was chosen by many scientists, politicians and business persons for its accumulated knowledge in each field. With the positive feedback and lock-in, English has become a de facto global language or universal language. With YouTube and other technologies, spread of a 'standard' version of English speech is now as easy as ever. 'Global' or 'universal' orality in English may be achieved among the 'educated' in the foreseeable future just as the 'national' orality in the national language was achieved among the 'educated' with radio and TV. The shared sense of one global society develops, as the counter-sense of diversity develops. Whereas schools in the 19th and 20th centuries focused on the national literacy, schools in the 21st century, at least those in higher education, may focus on the global literacy. The demand for global orality increases accordingly.


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