The Myth and Partial Reality of Disruptive Technology

 

Whether it was the first brick phone to present day smartphones, not a day goes by in Silicon Valley where we don’t hear another technology company disrupting our lives and creating innovative products to connect people and allow communication to sidestep barriers but technology has always had detractors. Consider the written language which Plato says  in  “The Superiority of the Spoken Word. Myth of the Invention of Writing,”  that oral communication is superior to writing. For Plato, he notes that oral communications allows the speaker to immediately address an audience and to explain or clarify an idea to an interlocutor while arguing that writing is “unresponsive” and devoid of social contact.

 

In “Writing Restructures Thought” Walter Ong addressed Plato’s concerns by noting that the written text will always have a level of ambiguity but writing can reduce a significant amount of it.  He says writing has its limits and parameters and this can give a writer exigence to make conscious decisions so that the message can be accessed by the audience; Ong has said that writers will invoke their audience and fictionalize the people they are writing to in order to attend to their potential needs. In addition, Ong thinks the unresponsive nature of the written language can promote objectivity because it creates distance between the writer and the idea. Instead of judging the delivery of the orator, the idea is isolated from the writer and if the idea can withstand scrutiny, it may last for a significant time.

 

While Plato and Ong are arguing over the value of communication, we also have to consider the purpose and audience that we are addressing. For example, individuals in direct sales may benefit from developing their oral skills to reach their quota whereas a copywriter needs to be a maestro with his or her words. But even these lines are blurry. Sales people could benefit from invoking an ambiguous audience and by anticipating who they may speak to, they can prepare for the unexpected. Likewise, copywriters should have a target audience to address, tailoring an advertisement to the consumer’s desires. Whether you are in sales or in advertising, you can draw from each medium to create new technologies to communicate; the limitations from writing can be supplemented by the strengths of speaking and vice versa.

 

In reading Dennis Baron’s “From Pencils to Pixel,” I read that some technologies were brushed aside. For example, the phone was seen as incapable of replacing the telegram because people preferred permanent records. Just because the first iteration of a technology has limitation doesn’t mean that it’s useless. Rather, these limitations  provides an opportunity for the innovator disruptors to fill that gap. Nowadays, we can record and transcribe our phone conversations. To bemoan the downfall of society because of the adoption of new technology is to be trapped in the past. As Ong ironically alludes to, the written language made Plato’s ideas accessible to a wider mass–something even Plato couldn’t orally dispute.

 

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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.

Plato’s Lament

To my surprise, I was struck with the age-old lament present in Plato’s Phaedrus that the new technology, in this circumstance – writing – will alter the fabric and structure of society, and result in its inevitable decline. Imbued with today’s contemporary discourse over the fear and uncertainty, or excitement and fervor in many quarters, concerning the digitalization of all things print, I had not consciously thought of writing, the actual words, characters taken and put on tablet or parchment, as a form of new technology or revolutionary advancement since grade school. The current state of rapid digital turnover in the twenty first century seems less significant than the conversion of oral language to the new written form.

Through Socrates, Plato laments with increasing anxiety over the potential loss of one’s mastery of memory, and the distance that emerges by capturing the oral and making it written. Moreover, the absence of an appropriate interpreter and teacher who controls the knowledge, which Socrates decries “drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it” (118). The underlying sentiment that disturbs me in the artificial dialectic between Socrates and Phaedrus is that Plato seems to envision a “right type” of student and thinker that is most deserving of this advanced knowledge rather than a more democratic, and yes, modern vision for the dissemination of knowledge.

I realize that this excerpt from Phaedrus is over two thousand years old and it may be unfair to impose a modern sensibility on the idea of who has access to knowledge. But many of Plato’s ideas seem pertinent in today’s quickly changing Internet landscape – does this new technology improve the current curriculum or does it diminish it, making it a mere reflection and unequal substitute of the former model?

Dennis Baron offers further technological advances in the development of writing in his “From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies” outlining the “new literacy technologies “ that were developed after the advent of the clay tablet, taking the form of the printing press, telegraph, typewriter, telephone and most significantly the pencil. Each of these new technologies propelled the dissemination of the now written word into more hands that I suspect would not necessarily please Plato. The modern corollary to Plato’s argument is that the Internet provides unfettered, undiluted access to just about everything and to everyone with access to a computer, but as Barron aptly points out “literacy has always functioned to divide haves from have nots, and the problem of access to computers will not be easy to solve” (132).

A final thought on Phaedrus, Plato employs the new technology of writing that he fears and decries in crafting his own argument, as Walter J. Ong points out in “Writing Is a Technology that Restructures Thought” that a critical “weakness in Plato’s position is that he put these misgivings about writing into writing” (28), which suggests that Plato recognized the power of the new technology as he debated for the older way – Plato’s thoughts once again finding resonance in today’s uncertain, shifting digital world.

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.

Agony in the Digital Garden

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.