We Keep Going Ong and Ong about This Technology Thing

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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Tecnologically Speaking

I was first introduced to the idea that writing is technology as an undergraduate studying linguistics. It was hard to wrap my brain around the concept at first – I guess I had always taken reading and writing for granted. People read and write, right? My world has always been filled with various forms of the written word. For that matter, my world has always been full of technology – technology that I have, for the most part, taken for granted. The only time I really took notice of technology was when it wasn’t available to me – my neighborhood was one of the last in the area to be wired for cable television, and my parents waited so long to buy a VCR I thought my head would explode. To think about writing as a technology is to consider this common practice from an entirely different angle.

As Dennis Baron reminds us, the earliest instances of writing were not records of conversation but of business transactions. Writing then, it seems, is a technology invented by those with property as a means of memorializing and protecting their interests. While literacy has become much more common since those first scratchings, it remains a tool of the privileged. The language of the dominant group is always the most valuable literacy in our increasingly globalized community. Those with the means to access the technology of literacy have greater access to power and control in their lives and their communities. Writing, like other technologies, is a commodity.

Those with access to writing technologies by default gain access to broader, more complex ways of thinking, as Reid tells us. Though Plato denounces the written word for it’s inability to answer interrogation, it is the written word itself which allows us to so thoroughly interrogate discourse. As Reid says,”it is our ability to store and process information in spaces outside our body that allows us to engage in the complex thoughts on which consciousness is founded” (p.25). Had Plato not immortalized his thoughts in writing, we would be unable today to consider his views. Had the Canterbury Tales remained as stories transmitted only by speech, scholars would not have been able to build entire careers around their analysis.

I find myself uncertain of what it is I am getting at here. There is a tension present in this notion of writing as technology. Language expressed orally seems to have as its primary purpose interpersonal communication. People within the same community likely speak the same language – language unites them and allows them to share. Spoken language is available to almost everyone. The ability to write is harder won. As Baron points out, the first technologies of writing were costly, available only to a few. In our increasingly digital world the same holds true. Written language can leave behind those without access to the current technology, diminishing their power and control. Writing can be a great joy, a means of opening the mind to wonderful new worlds. It can also be the barrier to those worlds and to crucial aspects of our world. Writing can help you or hinder you, depending on your access to technology.