In Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought, Walter Ong reminds us that humans have, essentially, been making the same complaints against technology since the Middle Ages. It’s enlightening, yet depressing at the same time. We’re in 2016, and people are still making the same arguments that “technology causes laziness”, “technology makes you stupid”, “technology isn’t natural or human”. I’m not saying that we should blindly allow technology and tools to be present in our lives without critical awareness and analysis; however, I’m largely unimpressed by many of the cases made against technology, from Plato’s Phaedrus to this article on technology and stupidity by the Huffington Post. Even Ong, who lectures us for thirty pages about the significance of writing on the the development of modern literate society and does a pretty decent job of poking at the holes in Plato’s techno-phobia, makes some questionable claims. Don’t get me wrong; I agree that writing has been an incredibly significant development in human history. However, I wonder if writing affects the human brain and neuro-cognitive functions the same way Ong insists, and I wonder if we can still apply Ong’s arguments to the reading/writing/speaking connection in 2016, thirty years after he wrote his article.
Do we believe Ong? As a student who is interested in science research, scholarship, and data, I have to say that I don’t find Ong’s arguments very persuasive, and I don’t see him as a very credible authority figure. Where is the data? Where is the research? When it comes to making statements about the relationship between the reading/speaking/writing connection in the human brain, Ong seems like an armchair scholar, and I’m a bit skeptical of his arguments. Show me a PET, MRI, or CT brain scan, and you’ll get my attention.
Are Ong’s ideas still relevant? Ong gives us some very neat little terms to digest: Primary Orality and Secondary orality – however, are these terms still relevant? Especially for so-called “digital natives”? Is it possible to have “primary and secondary orality” come together as one? Is it even appropriate to separate these two? Ong claims that writing is an unnatural act that is completely different from the natural act of speaking. However, I’m not sure that speaking a human language by itself is a natural act. We don’t emerge from our mothers’ uteri being able to speak fluently in any language. We are only able to speak after being constantly immersed in a language of our society or culture, and even then speech isn’t so “natural” and easy (see this website about the various types of speech disorders). Speaking for communication isn’t an inherent human quality. Look at the terrible, tragic story of Genie – a child who was tortured and kept in isolation for so much of her childhood that she never learned to completely speak. What would Ong say about this? “Speech is a Tool that Transforms Thought”?
Ong brings up many interesting ideas and questions for us to grapple with, and I hope we get the chance to discuss them in class! I definitely have more questions than answers at this point.