Orality and Literacy

30 Oct 2021 02:15 - 21 Nov 2022 08:59
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    • book by Walter Ong
    • Walter Ong՚s Orality and Literacy was a mind-opening book, a major refactoring in my thinking. It՚s a little hard to describe the epiphany it engendered in me, because it sounds screamingly obvious now – that oral and written language are radically different, so different that cultures and minds based around them must operate in very different ways.
    • Consider what it means to know something in an oral culture. You can՚t write it down, obviously. The only way to perpetuate it is to tell it to someone else, or a group. To make it part of the culture you probably need to turn it into a song or make it part of a practice. If you have stories about your ancestors, they have made it to you through a chain of intermediate tellers, your parents and uncles and community members.
    • Instead of libraries filled with books, the knowledge you have access to is no more than what can be held in the head, or more accurately in the collective heads of your community. And the process of passing it down the generations is inherently noisy. Written language can persist unaltered for thousands of years, but oral language has to continually copy itself, like DNA, and like DNA is subject to mutation.
    • This is such a radical difference that we can՚t really imagine what it must be like to live in such a culture. And it seems to me that this process imposes a very strong selection effect on the collective memory of a culture – the only things that can survive this process of imperfect relays must have a certain stability to them, they must make sense only in ways that are compatible with the life of the community.
    • Jack Goody (1977) has convincingly shown how shifts hitherto labeled as shifts from magic to science, or from the so-called 'prelogical' to the more and more 'rational' state of consciousness, or from Lévi-Strauss's 'savage' mind to domesticated thought, can be more economically and cogently explained as shifts from orality to various stages of literacy. (p29)
    • Social Media combines elements of writing and orality in interesting new ways and I'm sure people have written about this.
    • Phil Agre՚s Writing and Representation caused a related and similarly violent lurch in my thinking, because it made me realize that the metaphor of writing underlies the technology of computing in a fundamental way, all the way back to the Turing machine. And while from a computer-as-medium perspective that was interesting but not problematic, from an AI standpoint it seemed to fatally compromise the whole operation. The strengths of writing (definiteness, stability, abstractness) were a late achievement of human minds and thus obviously unsuitable to be the building blocks of human minds, which evolved under conditions of orality (and before that, from animal signalling and sociality).
    • According to Agre, symbolic representations are:
      • objects (neither events nor processes)
      • passive (not possessing any sort of agency themselves, though cf Birnbaum),
      • static (not apt to undergo any reconfiguration, decay, or effacement, except through an outside process or a destructive act of some agent),
      • structured (composed of discrete, indivisible elements whose arrangement is significant in some fashion),
      • visible (can be inspected without thereby being modified), and
      • portable (capable of being transported to anyone or anything that might use them without thereby being altered or degraded).
    • Although the cognitivist understands symbolic representations as abstract mental entities, observe that all of these properties are shared by texts written on pieces of paper.... Observe also that most of these properties are either deficient or absent for spoken utterances, which evaporate as quickly as they are issued and which can only be decomposed into discrete elements with a certain amount of wishful abstraction.