Consciousness and the writing medium

After reading these articles, I find I am unable to come up with a satisfying thesis to unify these works. Although I found them the most difficult, Reid’s and Ong’s articles seem to work the best in finding related approaches to the functions and/or effects of writing on human consciousness.
Reid discusses the reduction of binaries, focusing on the bridging of internal and external in the creation of consciousness. Once the thought becomes external instead of purely internal, the external world would be more able to affect it. It then makes sense that the medium could affect thought, unlike the Platonic conception where it was untouchable by the technology used to record it.
(As an aside, although my understanding of the ideas discussed here is shaky at best, I wonder if the changed notion of authorship ties into this bigger idea of consciousness. If there is no set notion of authorship, how does this change the consciousness of an individual working on a Wikipedia article with numerous other authors as opposed to, say, an individiual essay he or she would turn into a teacher? Is this much different than a pre-internet article written collaboratively with other individuals?)
One aspect of Ong’s writing that struck me was his comment that “new tracks for thought are imposed by the new technologies. And the software of the computer vigorously interposes even another consciouness or other consciousnesses–the programmer or programmers–between the knower and the known.” This may have a number of interpretations, but one way I see it is that whatever operations a given word processing program allows you to do may affect what you write. The software engineers guide how you are able to express certain ideas through choices such as font selection, stylistic alterations like bolding and italics, or the ways in which graphics can be inserted into the text. The differences may be negligible in individual instances, but the implication seems to me to be that over time, writing with Word or Notepad or a WordPress account will change what and how students write. And as is evidenced by the comments from blog posts and class discussion, the mere use of the technology for posting a blog can cause some anxiety, which might affect what is ultimately written. The inverse may be true as well–some students who become nervous when faced with a pen and paper might feel more at home using a computer, simply as a medium where they are more comfortable, where legibility of handwriting is not an issue.
I realize I have gone slightly off-topic here, but it does relate to what a student’s writing output will be. The effects on thinking and consciousness detailed by these writers refute the claims in the Phaedrus that writing only records pre-conceived thought or a Platonic truth, that only fools think “written words can do anything more than remind one who knoews that which the writing is concerned with.” The modern arguments seem to be that writing is generative, and as such, the tools and technologies used to generate the writing will affect what the writing itself will be.
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One comment on “Consciousness and the writing medium

  1. First, I want to preface the following by acknowledging that the main point of the readings this week–as your post underscores–is that computers are a writing technology that causes us some trepidation in the same way that quill pens did Plato. But seeing as so much of this week’s readings were about the value of writing as a consciousness building tool–as illustrated by the title of your post– I think it’s important to comment on the ideology behind these articles.

    There is a great danger in equating writing and essayistic literacy to consciousness as Reid and Ong do. Reid states, “[F]rom my perspective, the theory that modern consciousness and symbolic behavior emerged together forms a scientific foundation for arguing that consciousness is indeed a product of the exteriorization of embodies mental process. That is, that it is our ability to store and process information in spaces outside our body that allows us to engage in complex thoughts on which consciousness is founded.” (25) My first question for Reid is, “What is the purpose of seeking a source of consciousness in text? Doesn’t it seems a bit forced?” The answer is that Reid is partaking in a long, bitter dialog between those who claim that those who are “literate” (in the common, though limited sense of essayistic literacy) represent the apex of human potential, and those who argue that the nonessayistically literate actually have all the same skills for complex and abstract thought (See the work of Brian Street and James Paul Gee). Like those who came before him, Reid uses the soft sciences of anthropology and cognitive psychology to give his opinions the patina of indisputable science. And for every seemingly common-sensical datum of evidence Reid and Ong use to support their theories, there exists plain evidence as well as research to the contrary. I’m not going to reproduce a hundred years of debate here, but let me just say this: Elitist thoeries rely heavily on the idea that the exteriorization of thought leads to a level of logic not available to merely oral peoples. This concept is patently ridiculous and clearly ideological if we accept as fact that spoken words are text as well as written words, and that every instance of text, heard or seen, is a unique instance and resides within the hearer/seer as a unique text unto itself. So, for instance, the notion that orally received text, such as sagas, never change over time or are never questioned is silly, because all texts change. –LW

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