Our first class session revealed much in terms of the vast range of technological literacy(s) among us that may represent the technological literacy of society at large. But our trepidations with using computers—nowadays more so with various software/programs/applications than actual hardware—are rather difficult to pin down. In any historical trajectory, the first place we tend to go to is to look at how Plato, in his Socratic dialogue Phaedrus, is anxious of the new technology of writing, and what it does to the originary speech. As Walter Ong asserts in citing himself, “Plato’s objections against writing are essentially the very same objections commonly urged today against computers by those who object to them” (“Writing is a Technology” 27). Because he’s a preeminent scholar of orality, I’m inclined to believe Ong’s analysis—after all, he had spent his whole academic career researching the subject. However, because he is the same scholar who has made backhanded comments on Native American oral communication in saying that:
There is hardly an oral culture or a predominantly oral culture left in the world today that is not somehow aware of the vast complex powers forever inaccessible without literacy. This awareness is agony for persons rooted in primary orality, who want literacy passionately but who also know very well that moving into the exciting world of literacy means leaving behind much that is exciting and deeply loved in the earlier oral world. We have to die to continue living” (Orality and Literacy 15),
I’m not sure that I trust his analysis completely. Besides the absolutism that Condescends-Other-Cultures prescribes for orality and textuality, his theory here is presumptive in the melodramatic “agony” of oral folk of which he is not a part, not to mention fatalistic in their assimilation due to inability to survive otherwise. Another reason Ong’s theories are problematic is that they tend to overlook what happens in between Plato’s 4th century B.C.E. and today.
On the other hand, a more grounded look into the various nuances of textuality’s evolutions can be found in the work of Dennis Barron, who says that “the computer is simply the latest step in a long line of writing technologies” (“Literacy and Access” 118). Barron takes us through an evolution of tools from the pencil to the telephone to the computer, and even provides a study of their original utilities, which apparently were not meant to be as writing utensils. Just like previous technologies, he suggests, the computer was originally intended for more mathematical computations, and not necessarily invented to be conducive of reading/writing/literacy.
The biggest difference seems to be that using computers for literacy activities is more multimodal in terms of the number of skills that we have to use. Reading a book, writing with a pencil, or speaking on the telephone are relatively more simple tasks and modalities compared to learning how to navigate course management systems such as Moodle or blogging on WordPress. To jump on Barron’s idea, this is “the flexibility of digitised text” (117). If the pencil and telephone are modern inventions, the computer and interwebs are postmodern inventions. The difficulty we have with teaching writing in a digital age, then, is that we’re not just learning how to hold a new tool with our fingers to write cursive or speak clearly into the correct end of the tool, but we are learning to be aware of available navigation from link to link in doing our research, or the many Microsoft Word icons and features that do various tasks, and must constantly, because of their rapid creation, not only learn our way around new software and digital applications, but also (re)learn updated versions of existing ones dot dot dot.
N.B. Our article by Barron was published in 1999. Here is an interview with Barron on his latest book, A Better Pencil (2009), which may or may not update some of his thoughts.