FROM ORALITY TO TELELITERACY

 

By Steven Mizrach

Introduction

 

The original goal of this paper was to analyze the relationship between literacy and orality as cultural processes. However, in doing the research for this paper, I found it soon became critically apparent that the very interest in this relationship on the part of anthropologists, communication scholars, cognitive scientists, education scholars, and sociologists was only provoked in this century by the dawning awareness of the arrival of a third term in this equation - something that was not orality and not literacy but something else. It was interest in this new form of communicational competency that provoked the "Toronto School" of Innis, McLuhan, Ong, and others to look at earlier transitional moments in Western civilization. Although there is not an agreed upon scholarly definition of this third term, in this paper I will call it "teleliteracy."

 

An Evolutionary Sequence - ?

 

What is about to be presented is something that most anthropologists would disdain: a linear, evolutionary perspective on changes in communication technology within the specific sphere of "Western civilization." This account will be horrifically oversimplified, in the interests of brevity. However, this framework is being utilized merely to establish what the relationships and common historical sequences of these terms are - then other research will be offered which, in effect, deconstructs the nature of this sequence, both temporally and spatially (cross-culturally).

 

Channel/Medium Mode Innovation/Result
Primary Orality speech language
Literacy writing writing
Alphabetic Literacy "" phonetic writing
Silent Literacy "" silent, private reading
Print Literacy movable type mass literacy
Teleliteracy - Phase 1 electronic, audio-visual mass communication
Teleliteracy - Phase 2 multi-modal nonlinearity

 

Human communication begins with primary orality - the ability to speak with others. Human linguistic competence begins with a series of evolutionary changes both in the structure of the brain (Broca's Area) and the larynx, palate, et al. which result in more complex abilities of vocalization. Most physical anthropologists agree that these changes in our hominid ancestors, along with upright posture and tool-making, were part and parcel of what made homo sapiens unique within the animal kingdom and different from its primate cousins. While chimps and great apes have been taught to sign, they could never match the vocal complexity of humans. (Salzmann, 1993.)

No one is certain of this, but humanlike speech probably has existed for 300,000 years or more among our hominid ancestors, growing from simple grunts and other forms of onomatopoeia, to the development of distinct spoken languages with grammar, morphology, and syntax, as we know them today. (Ibid., 1993.) Aside from orality, the only other form of human communication which existed until relatively recently (on the scale of biological evolution) was simple image-making, which we know from the Lascaux and other cave paintings to have existed for a very long time as well. For most of human prehistory, which is most of our time on the planet, there was only orality.

However, around 5000 years ago in the Near East (and, later, elsewhere), an important event occurred. It is significant that at that point, what paleontologists call the Neolithic or Stone Age era had already ended many millennia ago, and humans had successfully negotiated an Ice Age, the agricultural 'revolution', the domestication of plants and animals, the shifting from hunter-gathering to settling in villages, and the beginnings of metallurgy, all without any change in their communicational 'technology' of primary orality. All these things were accomplished through speech (along with its nonverbal adjuncts) and the oral transmission of knowledge.

That event was what we would call the 'birth of writing.' It began in Mesopotamia primarily as an adjunct to the bureaucratic needs of state-level civilization: recordkeeping, taxation, and accounting. Images or logographic picture-writing were used in an arbitrary or abstract way to record and describe information. The importance of that innovation cannot be understated. Whereas previously a farmer might record having five cows by drawing five pictures of cows, now he could use some sort of graphic symbol to symbolize the concepts "five" and "cow." That latter symbol didn't even have to resemble a cow, and as time passed, resemblance became less and less of an element of importance.

Writing transformed the world of orality because now information could be communicated without the other party having to be within earshot. People now had access to an external form of information storage, other than the memory of elders, and a form of communication that was portable. Two points should be emphasized, however. The early logographic systems (such as Sumerian cuneiform or Egyptian hieroglyphs) were highly complex and required years of scribal training to master; thus they were only accessible to elites rather than the majority of the population. Second, they were non-phonetic, and so had only a completely arbitrary relationship to the phonemes that made up oral language, although the pictographs might connect to certain concepts or objects. (Langer, 1987.)

What Havelock called the "Greek Revolution" occurred around 700 BCE, and it is as significant in some ways as the birth of writing itself. (1986: 98.) What basically happened is that the Greeks of that time took the Phoenician alphabetic system - itself an important innovation, because it was a "phonetic" system that mapped graphic units to the phonemes of speech, thus allowing a small number of 20-plus graphic units to represent all possible vocalizations - and added vowels. Looking back on this, that might not seem so important. There are many written languages today, such as Hebrew, that make little or no use of vowels. However, the use of vowels in writing facilitates faster language-learning, because it eliminates phonemic guess-work and makes context less important in sounding out a word. Greek vowels made the written Greek language an iota more accessible to the populace, although it did not create mass literacy.

What is interesting is that up until this point, literacy was still deeply implicated in orality for one simple reason. Written documents were still read out loud and vocalized. Things were written down in order to be reproduced as speech at a later point. Silent reading was next to impossible because the Greeks and most ancients used scriptura continnua - no spaces, no punctuation. It was unknown to learned people such as St. Augustine. These graphic units were invented by European monks during the period that we now call the "Dark Ages," around 600 CE, in the British Isles. Again, spaces and punctuation seem like a small, almost meaningless innovation, but they allowed people to read silently and privately to themselves, without even sub-vocalizing. What modern people today know as "reading" did not exist before this time. Those small marks made a very big difference.

Reading and writing, thus, existed in the European Middle Ages, but they remained restricted activities, largely limited to the clergy and the medieval 'schoolmen' who tirelessly copied and re-copied Aristotle. The peasantry and most of the populace still lived by orality, although they did have what Illich calls "lay literacy," (in Olson & Torrance 1991: 102) which was an awareness of the existence and importance of books and deference to the authority of written documents, even if they themselves could not read them. Some had "sub-literacy," which was the ability to read a church inscription or two, without full mastery of written Latin or written forms of their own vernacular. Literacy remained an elite privilege, and until 1500 CE, most likely not more than 10% of the populace in Europe could read or write.

What changed then, of course, was the arrival of Gutenberg's printing press and movable type. Until Gutenberg's invention, the only way to reproduce text was copying by hand, a laborious task left mainly to monks in their monasteries. The printing press made books a mass commodity, and for precisely that reason, literacy became a mass phenomenon. Standardized typefaces made reading an easier activity, because readers no longer had to deal with the idiosyncrasies of another person's handwriting. The errors so frequently made by scribal copyists were eliminated, and thus thousands of people could have access to the same, presumably error-free "standard edition" of a text. (Provenzo, 1986.)

Books thus became reproducible at fantastic rates, but they still never became "mass communication" in the sense that the most extreme democratically minded people today use that term, for one simple reason: you still had to learn to read or write, something that required some degree of formal training. Compulsory public education might force everyone to undergo that training, but not everyone could necessarily complete it. The birth of true "mass communication" occurred around 1900 CE with the arrival of the first electronic medium - radio; the transmission of orality or audio through space on waves of electromagnetic energy.

The subsequent electronic media - sound film, television - added sight to sound, providing people with a form of mediated audio-visual communication that required no formal training to comprehend. (Barring brain defects, most children acquire most of the skills of orality without any schooling by around age three to five - to the delight of Noam Chomsky and other linguists.) As a form of human communication, the electronic broadcast media carried the human voice and visual communication far beyond where books could go, for one simple reason. Economically, once people have the receiving equipment, it costs the broadcaster only the money necessary to transmit the signal. For everyone to read the same book, that book has to be reproduced for each and every person. That can be difficult on a planet of five billion people.

As Marshall McLuhan and others recognized, there was something qualitatively different about this form of electronic communication. It was changing the cultural "galaxy" of Western print civilization. (1989: 34) It had some of the elements of the old orality, particularly the projection of the human voice, so Ong dubbed it "secondary orality," and he and McLuhan theorized that it would resurrect some of the features and qualities of oral civilizations. There would be a return to tribalism, a revival of charismatic authority, and so forth. (1982: 5) Still, the problem with this term is that it ignores the more important use of the visual by film and television, which also incorporate (electronically displayed) print text.

What to call this electronic communication system - or, more properly, the system of encoding and decoding that makes use of it, is still being argued by communications scholars. Some doubt any system in fact exists because they assume only existing systems are brought into play. So the listening skills used in comprehending radio are the same as those used in listening to other people's speech. (Because nonverbal cues are missing, this is simply wrong. The skill clearly is different.) This ignores the fact that although we can watch and understand television at age five on, there still is an intertextuality, a formatting or structure, and other aspects of the medium that are not mastered until later of life - a form of training that is done through exposure to the medium itself.

Some use the term "visual literacy," but really, that term is as applicable to the comprehension of graphic design, painting, and other visual arts, as it is to electronic images. Others use the term "mass media literacy", but there are many kinds of printed mass media, such as newspapers and magazines, that are not electronic or broadcasted. The term "literacy" is problematic in being used this way in itself - almost in the same way that the term "oral literature" is problematic. Watching television is not the same as reading just as reading is not the same as listening. But because I think "telecomprehension" (the decoding of telecommunicated information) is too much of a mouthful, I will use "teleliteracy" to describe this new communication system.

In my exploration of "teleliteracy," I am willfully ignoring the electronic technologies of interpersonal communication - the telegraph, telephone, fax, electronic mail, and so forth - but only in the same way that most scholars use "orality" to refer to group performances of singing, poetry, etc. or group conversations rather than private whispering or talking to oneself, and "literacy" to refer to books, pamphlets, and other printed media intended to be read by large audiences rather than private letters intended for one other person or a personal diary. I think interpersonal communication needs to be studied on different grounds than "media studies," precisely for the reason that the University of Florida separates its Department of (individual) Communication Processes and Disorders from its Department of (group) Communication Research.

Likewise, with "teleliteracy" I am exclusively focusing on the technologies of transmission and delivery of electronic information, and not the related technologies of electronic storage and playback, such as video tape, audio casettes, compact discs, floppy disks, et al. I believe the existence of these technologies is important but there is some suggestion that their function is transitional; certainly the storage technology evolves and changes far more rapidly than the transmission technology. While I think there are a number of sociological processes these technologies invoke, particularly in the realm of ethnomusicology where the distinction between "live" and "studio" performance becomes critical, their deployment and use is not as central to the sociocultural changes that I am identifying as "teleliteracy."

And just as literacy went through several phases as described above (alphabetic, silent, print), I think the still young phenomenon of teleliteracy is already itself entering its second phase! The primary innovation causing these transitions is the invention of the electronic computer or what others are now calling the "digital revolution" (shift from analog to digital media). More importantly, it is what the computer makes possible that is transforming the nature of electronic media and how they are used. What is happening since circa 1965 CE is a whole constellation of changes that are having sweeping effects on "teleliteracy" even as communication scholars are still struggling to figure out what it is.

 

The Second Phase of Teleliteracy

 

Technology Old Mode New Mode
hypertext linear access interactive, nonlinear access
"DIY revolution": desktop publishing, home video, etc. home media consumption home media production
internetworks one-to-many broadcasting many-to-many netcasting/ narrowcasting
multimedia audiovisual & unimodal convergence; multi-modal
"digitalization" passive, dumb active, smart

 

A brief description of these changes and what they mean: hypertext, developed by Ted Nelson and others in the 60s, changes the nature of media access because it makes it non-sequential. You can read a book or watch a TV show at any point and stop watching at any point, but the meaning of the narrative is usually dependent on progressing from the beginning to the end. And the story is always the same regardless of however many times it is retold. Hypertext stories are interactive narratives, because their branching outcome is dependent on the choices of the reader/viewer, who can begin or end at any one of any number of possible points. "Interactive television," if and when it comes to exist, is an outgrowth of the logic and technology of hypertext.

The "DIY revolution" refers to, itself, a constellation of technologies, including desktop publishing, home video, and amateur radio. Before the existence of these technologies, everyone might have been "literate" in the consumption or reception of electronic media. But it was far too expensive and complicated for private individuals to be involved in their generation. Now these technologies allow large numbers of the "masses" to participate in the creation or production of electronic media. Instead of being merely symbolic decoders, they are now involved in the encoding process of the communication system as well. Like orality and literacy, "teleliteracy" is quickly becoming a two-way street, although it was not originally.

By the development of internetworks, I refer to such things as LANs, WANs, BBSes, packet-switched networks, and the Internet itself. Also, the changes in the telephone network (which has heretofore been left out of the story) itself which make many of these things possible. What internetworks make possible is the theoretical antithesis of broadcasting or mass communication: one can now send to a media stream to one, two, or as many individuals as request it. Instead of the viewer passively receiving the information, they now actively request it. Originally used only for interpersonal communication (electronic mail, now voice), the high-bandwidth internetworks are now being used to transmit video, in effect creating the birth of "video dialtone" and possibly a whole new way of transmitting and experiencing electronic media.

By multimedia, I refer to the technology of combining and seamlessly incorporating sound, music, computer graphics and animation, video, and text, as for example on the World Wide Web or on CD-ROMs. Multimedia, like television, is still audio-visual; until the advent of virtual reality, it is not likely to engage touch, or the senses of taste or smell. However, analog low-definition television does not integrate graphics or text well, due to its low resolution. So multimedia, unlike television, is multi-modal, allowing a person to read about, say, the Venus of Milo, while listening to a narrator discuss it and while viewing it from all possible angles. The technology of multimedia means the future of "teleliteracy" is likely to be multi-modal and to involve the simultaneous processing of multiple streams of information.

The ultimate impact of what could be called the "analog-digital shift" is to change the nature of teleliterate experience to where it will be radically different from either orality or literacy. In almost every prior form of human communication, the sender of the message has been active, and the receiver of the message has been passive. The orator speaks, the audience listens. The author writes, the reader reads. The broadcaster transmits, the viewer/listener receives on their set. In each case, the receiving party is "dumb" and has no control over the content of the message originated by the sending party. But with digital media, the receiving party can exercise control over content, through filters . In the second phase of teleliteracy, the nature of human communication itself is changing, to where content is mutually negotiated through a mediated system.

 

Origins of the Toronto School

 

It is obvious to communication scholars that this system - upon which they can't agree on naming - of "teleliteracy," in both its first and second phase, is causing changes in Western civilization, and probably elsewhere. But what the nature of those changes are - socio-cultural, cognitive/psychological, and political-economic - are uncertain. The Toronto School witnessed only its first phase, and they concluded that it was creating sweeping changes. What they decided was that perhaps the best way to get a handle on those changes was to examine what happens when orality gives way to literacy - to step back to look closely at a different communications 'revolution.' And a new line of inquiry on Homer (the poet, not the Simpson) was opening the door. The watershed year was 1963.

Scholars (primarily classical philologists) had been arguing for a long time over the curious nature of the Odyssey and the Iliad, and about the identity of their poet-author, Homer. As far back as the 18th century, people were already commenting on their apparent difference from later Greek texts. There was this strange, redundant use of formulaic descriptions of protagonists and objects. Some had argued that Homer was an illiterate bard and that these texts had, in fact, been orally composed, and orally transmitted, until they were written down long after the poet's death. The clinching proof came when classicists Parry and Lord found that the same type of Homeric compositional "style" could be found in use among poetic singers in modern Yugoslavia (Macedonia, technically).

What Parry and Lord discovered, in fact, among these modern-day bards was that oral composition as practiced by Homer seemed still to be in effect. They discovered, as they put it, "a lost country of orality," where the natives used a very curious mnemonic technique. (1971: 45) If a narrative is not written down, how does the teller recall it? As it turns out, things like verse, musical rhythm, poetic meter, formulaic couplets, and redundancy are not mere "flourishes" to the narrative: they make the consistent retelling of it possible. Through a combination of this stylized redundancy, and visualistic recall (what Yates calls the Art of Memory) (1966: 4), every singer could produce the Odyssey anew for an audience (whose co-participation facilitated the process) without ever having seen a written copy and only having heard it from their tutor.

Walter Ong built upon the work of Parry and Lord, to develop his own theory that literacy represented a "technologizing of the word." (1982: 7) In many ways, Ong's work represents a lament for the lost world of orality, because, he, like Innis and McLuhan, saw print as draining literature of much of its color and dynamism, and writing as taking away from some of the spontaneity and variety of oralism. He saw prose as stealing away the appreciation of poesy. On the other hand, living in a literate culture, filled with appreciation of the literature that a university provides, Ong also could not but help and celebrate the liberating power of the written word, and how it moved people from an 'acoustic' space, bound firmly by community tradition and group norms, to a 'visual' space where the individuated ego could take a detached "god's eye" view of things. The Greek alphabet freed the intellect from the tyranny of chattering, innuendo, rumor, and complaint.

Havelock calls 1963 a watershed year because during that same time period, he released his Preface to Plato, in which he discusses the dramatic differences he discovered between Socratic and pre-Socratic thought. He found it rather surprising that the pre-Socratic thinkers' words could only be found in tiny pieces of verse scattered about. And he wondered why Plato expressed such deep hostility toward poets and musicians. He developed the theory that, in fact, Plato and the pre-Socratics occupied different sides of the "oral-literate divide" in Greece. (1986: 75) The pre-Socratics were pre-alphabetic oralists and lived in an "oral mode," composing their eloquent cosmologies in verse; Plato was post-alphabet, committted to the culture of prose, and determined to advance it by turning people away from the temptations of poesy.

It was Havelock's theory that led later scholars to speculate that the adoption of "alphabetic technology" in Greece might have been the instrumental factor in so many elements of the "Greek Revolution" -- the litany that all have learned from Western Civ class: the adoption of representative democracy over Oriental oligarchy, the Socratic rejection of religious mythology in favor of secular investigation of nature, and the Platonic use of abstraction over concrete particularism. In short, it was theorized that writing caused a whole series of social and cognitive changes in Greece, and laid the foundation for future developments in Western civilization. (Thomas, 1992.) Was there any evidence that these types of changes occurred in any other cultural context? Did sweeping social change necessarily accompany communicational change? Was that change necessarily produced by cognitive change?

This gauntlet was taken up by yet another duo in 1963 -- by Goody and Watt. Watt had been interned in a Japanese prisoner camp and had "participant observation" of what happened to a community that became suddenly and starkly deprived of the means of writing. Jack Goody, an anthropologist, had been studying primarily oral African tribes that were only just recently becoming affected by Islamic literacy, and was documenting the effects of that impact. The pair wrote an article on the "consequences of literacy," suggesting the survival of modern orality, and concluding that a model for the oral-literate relationship could be determined from what people like Havelock and Parry were suggesting about the changes that occurred in ancient Greece. The experience of literacy might lead to the "domestication of the savage mind." (1977: 3)

There is a final pre-codon to much of this debate, and it comes out of Russian research in the Stalinist era. Largely because this research occurred in the Soviet Union, it was ignored by Western researchers until the mid-1960s. The Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky had developed a theory that all human beings possessed the same basic psychological processes and abilities (generalization, etc.) but that the use of different symbolic systems would affect the "functional organization" of those processes. (1986: 34) In essence, adopting different symbolic systems could transform intellectual processes. He felt that literate and nonliterate people possessed fundamentally different systems of memory and cognitive organization. Using new signs changed mental activity just as using a new tractor required new physical behavior.

In order to test Vygotsky's theories, researcher Alexander Luria spent two years during the 1930s with villagers in Uzbekistan and Kirghizia. Luria was perhaps the first person to realize that his data might be more valid if he studied literate and nonliterate peasants who lived in the same village under the same relative social conditions. Sure enough, Luria found some striking differences between the literates and nonliterates. His nonliterate peasants would not identify geometric shapes as such, preferring to call them concrete objects: a circle was a wheel, a square a table, and so forth. Further, when asked to solve a logic problem or do a grammatical exercise, they always gave concrete answers that arose out of their own individual experience. (1982: 22)

For example: Q. (Luria) Mr. X is in the northern Ukraine. All the bears up there have white fur. He shoots a bear. What color is it? A. (peasant) Hmmm, most of the bears I have hunted there were black. It must have been black. Q. Today I drive. Three days ago I drove. Today I ride. Yesterday I... A. Well, yesterday, I went to town and picked up some food. Q. Mr. X has five logs for his fire. He gives two logs to Mr. Y. How many logs does Mr. X have? A. Mr. X must have four logs, because I need that many to start a fire in my fireplace. Q. Saw, hatchet, pliers, log. What doesn't belong? (Luria expected them to identify the log because it was not in the category of "a tool.") A. It must be those pliers, because I only use saws and hatchets on my logs. Perplexed by answers like these, Luria concluded that his oralist illiterate peasants lacked any facility for abstraction, generalization, or decontextualization.

He also found that the illiterates had a strange facility of memorization. When asked to recall a particular detail, it would never be presented in itself. The peasants would often "replay" that memory within the context of a larger narrative, accompany it by certain gestures and movements that Luria termed "verbomotor," and visualize it as being framed within a certain chain of visual elements. Q. What did I tell you yesterday? A. (rocking back and forth) oh yes, you walk in, you shut the door, you walk by the stove and the rug, you sit over there, I sat down over here, you took out your pencil, you told me you were going to ask me some questions. Based on results like this, Luria felt Vygotsky's theories were fairly well confirmed.

 

The Debate Shifts to Africa

 

Goody's research in Africa led him to several interesting, if controversial, conclusions, building on the work of Luria and the "Toronto School," which he summarized in Domestication of the Savage Mind and The Interface Between the Written and the Oral. One of the things that he discovered was, quite apparently, oral societies were pre-logical. What he meant was that they lacked the formal sorts of logical operations found in literate societies - in particular, the form of the syllogism. Goody was criticized for suggesting that preliterate or oralist cultures lacked deductive logic; he responded to his critics by pointing out the more specific point that the format of the syllogism depends on explicit graphical recording and juxtaposing of propositions. In particular, oralist societies lacked the modus tollens logical proposition, which Goody felt was the basis of the Western skeptical, scientific way of thinking. ("If A, then B; but not B, so therefore, not A.") (1987: 205)

He also suggested that, while oralist cultures possessed their own ethnotaxonomies, they could not come up with complex hierarchical categorical systems, since they lacked the means to create tables, matrices, genealogies, and other tabular representations which could be ordered and re-ordered. Further, he claimed the kind of intellectual process of puzzle-solving found in 'normal' Kuhnian science originated out of the literate fascination with crossword puzzles: which, as he points out, is no 20th century parlor game, but instead an activity (the acrostic) that spans millennia in literate societies. Oralist cultures, lacking these kinds of activities, were not as capable in arranging and rearranging conceptual data through visual representations.

Most importantly, oralist societies might have simple arithmetic, but they lacked even multiplication tables, and very likely couldn't even count very high (no place value), let alone develop systems such as algebra, geometry, or calculus. The exceptions were those that developed "externalist" aids such as the African warri counting-board, the Chinese abacus, or the Inca quipu, which recorded numerical information through the manipulation of objects. (The modern computer, or "calculating machine," is the proud descendant of such "externalist" devices.) Once again, such things often restricted what we might today consider "basic mathematics" to a fairly small segment of the population.

Essentially, Goody argued, what literacy introduces is the ability to manipulate language in a visuo-spatial way. One can juxtapose concepts and propositions and test if they fit; if they don't, they can be placed in other arrangements. In the evanescent, uncaptured world of oral language, opportunities for this kind of recombination and juxtaposition of ideas do not exist. There can be no real cumulation of knowledge because people cannot take hold of and test the authoritative propositions of others or build upon them. For these reasons, he offered, what we know as Western science could not take hold in a nonliterate culture. In cultures like Vedic India, classical China, or Mesopotamia, where writing was present but oralism was still the primary force, science would inevitably remain stunted. In fact, suggested Goody, it would never have gotten beyond the weak false starts of ancient Greece in the Western world if it were not for the printing press.

Although Goody was cautious in his pronouncements about his findings, others following his lead were less so. Writing, literacy, and printing were suddenly being advanced as prime causal explanations for Western religious freedom, the industrial revolution, the scientific revolution, the origins of democracy and political freedom, the formation of trans-tribal social organization, capitalism, constitutional government, and just about anything else that demonstrated the alpha and omega of Western alphabetic superiority. It didn't help that Goody wrote things like this: "Cognitively, as well as sociologically, writing underpins 'civilization,' the culture of cities." Too bad, then, for the barbarians who will never write - they will forever be uncooked, rural, stuck in the evolutionary suburbs, moving their lips if they ever do learn to read.

Many did not like the linear universalist model proposed by Goody, because, well, like earlier theories of cultural evolutionism, it proposed a sequence of changes in other societies which would precisely mirror changes that had supposedly already occurred in the Western world. For that reason, it fit too nicely into modernization theory and the like. It is exactly this model that I present in the earlier part of this paper, and it is subject to the inevitable "BUT"s of historical particularism. Does every culture have to adopt alphabetic writing to develop science? (China still hasn't, but they launch space rockets.) Could a society reach mass literacy without the printing press? (Presumably, if it was small enough and the script simple enough.) Could oralists develop representative-democratic systems? (Apparently, in some cases, they had.)

Many anthropologists reacted angrily to Goody's conceptions of literacy. What he was doing, they felt, was making the majority of the people who have ever lived in the world (aliterates, nonliterates, preliterates, partial literates, or illiterates, however you wanted to look at it) inferior. He was making the beloved oral indigenous societies of many anthropologists second-class citizens, cognitive children, or mental weaklings, lacking in reason and logic. "Oral literature" - the folklore, myths, stories, and other things that the Levi-Strausses of the world were so diligently collecting - now sounded like, well, defective products. It was the demon of unilinear evolution, culminating in Western triumphalism, back out of the box again. What Goody was suggesting was politically incorrect, based on the norms of 1970s anthropology, plain and simple. And many felt his ideas were leading to a dangerous overreliance on literacy training in international development programs.

Counter-arguments fell along several lines. Most simply could not see how literacy could possibly have changed very much of human cognition, considering how long humans have been speaking in the oral mode, and for how short they have been writing. On the scale of biological human evolution, literacy was a very recent, upstart arrival. (Tannen, 1982.) Many emphasized the achievements of oralist cultures, including the Incas, who lacked writing but still built state-level societies. Most importantly, anthropologists like Sweeney looking at societies such as the Malay were quick to point out that the idea that literacy replaced orality was simply misguided: in fact, in these cases, while literacy transformed the way people spoke, their oral practices also quickly became embedded in their practices of writing. (1987: 12)

It did not make sense to say that literacy replaced orality -- something anyone would obviously concede, since writing did not put an end to speaking -- but, argued Sweeney, more importantly, writing in Malaysia did not even become the dominant mode as it had in Greece, supplanting the usage of orality in all possible domains. Further, many of the schematic structures of Malay "oral literature" survived fully into their "literate literature." What Sweeney and others were suggesting is that, depending on historical circumstances, writing did not always take the place of oralism in all possible social domains at the same rate. This is what fascinated Scribner and Cole about the Vai people of Liberia. In the Psychology of Literacy, the duo argued against some of Goody and Watt's ideas, suggesting the cognitive developments he analyzed may have been related more to formal education than to the technology of writing-in-itself. (1981: 17)

Scribner and Cole chose the Vai because their self-developed writing system, while used for commercial and personal affairs, was a) not used in the extensive bureaucratic or managerial way that writing was in many other state-level civilizations and b) not learned through any type of formal schooling. They found multiple types of literacy among the Vai -- some had training in English-language schools, others knew the Vai script, others knew Arabic writing, and a small handful had formal Islamic training, having learned detailed Quranic hermeneutics. Not surprisingly, they found that those who were trained in English grammar schools tested far better in every possible cognitive domain (categorizing, memory, logical reasoning, encoding/decoding, semantic integration, and verbal explanation) than those who had the other forms of literacy.

Vai literates did not perform much better than Vai illiterates in most cognitive domains, except, as they emphasized, in skills that were particular to the types of literate activities in which they were engaged. Vai literates were better at word and syllable integration. Vai merchants were clearly better at accounting than non-merchants. Generalized cognitive competency did not seem to differ; only those tasks which were practice-specific to literacy itself did. Scribner and Cole concluded from their Vai research that what Goody and others had observed as intellectual differences between literate and nonliterate populations might have been the effects of formal schooling proper, rather than just merely the effects of learning to write.

 

Finnegan's Wake

 

Ruth Finnegan, a long time collector of oral arts and traditions, weighed in on the debate in 1988. Interestingly, she writes that the precise reason she became involved in it was because some of the "technological determinism" arguments that she was seeing as coming into being surrounding the third term that I call "teleliteracy" -- but which she refers to only as "IT" (information technology, or "the conjunction of microcomputers and telecommunications") -- were "reinventing the wheel" by not bothering to look at the literature surrounding the social impacts of other earlier communication-technology developments, namely writing and print. (1988: 8) She indicated that many of the overtly evolutionist, deterministic arguments about what effects "IT" would have on our society reminded her too much of other overtly deterministic arguments regarding literacy and its impacts on oral societies. She frames the ultimate goal of her argument around the general refutation of strict technological determinism, but highlights "literacy-tech" as a specific example to illuminate ways of future research on "IT." (1988: 178) (all following items lacking specific cites because they come from Ibid.)

It could be simply stated that, contra Ong, Goody, and the Toronto School, Finnegan denies the existence of any Great Divide between orality and literacy, and left at that. But Finnegan's argument is fairly nuanced, and deserves some further examination. Finnegan suggests there are really two species of literacy-orality theories: the "strong theory," which suggests literacy is a necessary condition of certain social phenomena, of a rather sweeping nature (democratization, modernization, scientific skepticism), and the "weak theory," which suggests that literacy is a sufficient condition for allowing oral cultures to realize certain kinds of more narrowly defined practices, although whether or not those possibilities are deployed depends on a culture's particular history and conditions. Finnegan sought to refute the strong theory and to offer some slight endorsement to the weak theory -- with reservations.

Her counterarguments to the "Great Divide" or strong theories involved a number of empirical examples. The Limba of Sierra Leone were shown to possess a sense of detachment, inter-referentiality, and objectification toward their own language and oral literature genres -- the kinds of qualities that are not supposed to be found in oral societies. She noted several examples of African oral literature genres whose works involve tropes, allusions, metonymy, and other techniques which easily match the complexity of written literature. Turning to the South Pacific, she observed that Fijian poets did not adhere strictly to the Parry-Lord method of spontaneous formulaic oral composition; in many cases, they did the exact opposite, by using prior memorization and rehearsal, and maintaining the goal of total accuracy or fidelity to earlier versions.

Among the Maori, she documented a tremendous interrelation between oral and written practices, with many "oral" poets relying on note pads and pencils as an aid to "oral" composition, and utilizing a large amount of appropriated written material (especially the Bible) in their oral performances. Turning to ethnomusicology and the composition-performance relationship, she noted that in many "modern" musical genres (jazz being the most well-known one) that supposedly rely on the written musical score, the reliance on improvisation was heavy, possibly outweighing the use of written musical notes or previously written lyrics. She contrasted the "composition-in-performance" mode of jazz with the "prior composition through performance" mode of rock n' roll and the "prior composition for performance" mode of classical orchestras.

Summing up, in her conclusion, Finnegan offered only tepid endorsement for certain concessions to the "weak theory." She refuted the idea that writing was a necessary component of bureaucratization, of cumulation of information (it could, but it wouldn't if no one used archives or libraries), of individualism (many pre-industrial, pre-literate societies are highly competitive), of rational, skeptical, or detached scientific inquiry, of secularization, of modernization or innovation (writing often reinforces tradition), of economic development, or of democratic participation. She hinted that literacy might have had what some would identify as negative social impacts - increased social stratification in France since the 16th century, for example, or the reliance of the medieval schoolmen on authoritative texts rather than empirically based experience hindering the growth of science.

Ultimately, she said, literacy could lead to greater objectivity or greater mystification; greater centralization or decentralization of power; greater self-expression or greater repression. It depended on the uses to which writing was put in a particular society, and who had control over the means of literate expression. It could produce positive cognitive changes in people, but not merely as a medium in-itself; combined with various kinds of schooling and formal training, it could, possibly. In an odd way, her comments about writing reflect what many computer hackers have said about computing: the effects it will have on society depend on who controls the technology, who is allowed to understand how it works, and who decides where and how it will be used. Some of us, I suppose, heard what Finnegan was saying before we actually heard her say it.

 

The Literacy-Orality Debate in the 1990s

 

This is where the literacy-orality debate stood, in the 70s and 80s, left at a polarized impasse. Some felt literacy made a minimal impact on oral societies. Some felt it made changes only in specific social domains of interaction. Others continued to argue that it caused sweeping cognitive changes, and grand sociocultural transformations. The UN continued to fund literacy programs in the developing world, even as the developed world began fretting over the growing problem of its own internal "functional illiteracy." At least within the domain of applied anthropology, people remained convinced that literacy certainly couldn't hurt, even if its level of weal was debatable.

Jonathan Boyarin and his brother, Daniel Boyarin, tried to refocus the debate in the 90s by proposing their "ethnography of reading." Essentially, they argued, anthropologists like Goody had talked way too much about printing, and didn't look more closely at the way that reading functioned within various social contexts. The Boyarin brothers, being raised within the Orthodox Jewish tradition, were familiar with the deep textuality of their religion, as one of those of the "Peoples of the Book," as well as its reliance on the Oral Tradition in the form of commentaries, midrash , and so forth. D. Boyarin was particularly incensed with the way that anthropologists like Dennis Tedlock indicted the "logocentric textual religions of Judaeo-Christianity" with oppressing the "dialogic oral cultures of humanity." (1993: 213)

That kind of opposition didn't sit well with the Boyarins, who knew from their participant observation in Talmudic study that the Jewish religion is an endless series of oral arguments, dialogues, and disputations. Reading the Torah was not some private, silent monastic activity; it usually occurred either in the midst of communal observance (accompanied by "verbomotor" performance) or during a session in schul where the rabbi and his students would engage in enough back-and-forth argument, gossip, and kibitzing to make any one interested in "oral literature" have reams to write down. Unlike what Tedlock suggested, Jews did not see their central text as frozen in time; it was only in reading it aloud and arguing over its interpretation that text came to life.

Essentially, the Boyarin's edited volume tries to look at reading as a culturally situated activity, and to remind people through its various chapters, featuring research by different ethnographers, that there are as many different ways of reading as there are writing or printing, and that reading is not only an individual's encounter with the text: it is a social, group-based encounter. Merely pointing to reading as a "technology" is not enough; how, when, and with whom people read during the epoch of literacy is determined by class, gender, and many other historical variables. Most importantly, the social act of reading, the various authors suggest, deploys the resources of both literacy and orality, and cannot be seen as part of a monolithic edifice of "Western literate civilization."

Another book that tried to revive and breath life into the debate was Olson and Torrance's edited volume, titled, simply, Literacy and Orality. Various authors present arguments pro and con vis-a-vis "the divide." Feldman argues that oral genres of storytelling are as complex, diverse, and subject to interpretation as literate genres of writing. (In Olson & Torrance 1991: 47.) Denny makes the argument that the main variable that changes over the history of human communication is decontextualization. Literates tend to think in more decontextualized ways than oralists because the transmission of writing often involves communication with persons that often lack and sort of shared context with the writer; so messages must be self-contained. (Ibid.: 66)

Bruner and Weisser trace the Western private self to the development of the genre of autobiography, suggesting the self (with a conscience that records and reflects on previous actions) as we know it could not exist in an oral society. (Ibid.: 129) Olson argues that literacy gives rise to objectivity, because only literates are able to make the conceptual separation between the given text and its interpretation; in oral communication, these are bound together. Later, he also suggests that literacy promotes abstract thinking, because it is a "metalinguistic" activity - it utilizes language to discuss language. (Ibid.: 251) Kittay argues that literacy liberates a person from speaking from a particular perspective, and thus need not be situated, geographically, temporally, or otherwise, in the way that speaking must be. (Ibid.: 165)

Narasimhan frames literacy as a "spatial" mode of representation, grouping it with sculpture or imagemaking, and contrasting it with "spatiotemporal" (dance, drama, animation) or "temporal" (proverbs, poems, music) information transmission. The divergences between European and Indian experience, he suggests, arise from the fact that Europe opted for the advantages of the spatial modality, while India preferred the temporal modality. (Ibid.: 177) Scholes and Willis suggest that on many of Chomsky's tests of oral linguistic competence - phoneme deletion, morphological separation, and syntactic transition - literates perform far better than illiterates. This raises, for them, the question as to why Chomsky and other linguists look at writing as a secondary activity, completely irrelevant to oral performance. And why everybody else keeps on conceptually separating literacy and orality. (Ibid.: 215)

All in all, these are interesting contributions to the debate, none really answering the question of the "literacy hypothesis" with any certainty. Olson himself is pretty certain that science as we know it would be impossible without the increased cognitive abilities of abstraction, decontextualization, and objectification that literacy makes possible. Other contributors to the volume are not so assured. But all in all, most weigh in with Olson.

 

Tuning the Dial Back to Where We Started

 

So, now, with the literacy-orality debate left where it is, we now turn back to the Toronto School and "teleliteracy." Accepting provisionally that literacy makes social and cognitive changes in the world of oral people, we return to the question that may have started all the investigation in the first place: what does teleliteracy do to the social and cognitive world of literate people? Innis, Ong, and McLuhan were the most clear in dealing with the Gutenberg revolution. Their discussion of how print facilitated so many of the seminal changes in Europe, including the development of artistic perspective, and the growth of the Protestant Reformation, is concise and sensible. It's in dealing with the electronic media that they become confusing.

Innis, it is said, started out as an economist, but became concerned with the world of print when he saw his native Canadian forests being turned into grist for the paper mills of the U.S. newspaper industry. He did not like those dark Satanic mills, so he railed against how print impoverished the sensory experience of reading and promoted a shallowness of thinking. (1964: 31) McLuhan's near-metaphysical typologies of media into "hot" and "cool," linear and nonlinear, "high-touch" and "low-touch" leave most people scratching their heads. His use of koans like, "The Medium is the Massage," didn't help. Not surprisingly, McLuhan was most lucid on television, where his message seemed to embrace the medium. His predictions, like the disappearance of baseball, did not all meet the test of time.

Of the three, Ong made the strongest case for electronic media representing a return of orality - not the original 'primary orality' of preliterates, but a "secondary orality" that resembled it. Listening to the radio propaganda of all sides during WW II, Ong realized that the reach of the radio transformed the classical power of the voice of the rhetor into the modern power of the propagandist. (1982: 41) As people would tune to their radios collectively in awe and horror of a program like War of the Worlds, Ong saw that the medium could command more attention and more belief than any bardic storyteller. Live music and performance could now be brought to millions, instead of just hundreds in a park or concert hall. Roosevelt's soothing "Fireside Chats" captivated a nation and enjoined it to collective action, "speech acts" which worked on millions of subjects.

Scheunemann is one of the people most critical of "secondary orality," because he doesn't quite like Ong and McLuhan's simple separations of eye and ear. (1996: 163) In his edited volume, Scheunemann invites scholars who demonstrate the importance of visualization in oral performance, of sound in television and film, of how the "shells" of earlier oral and literate structures appear in cinema, of how the verbal and the non-verbal integrate in film, and how storytelling and image creation combine seamlessly in presidential debates. The oral world involves the eye and the literate world still engages the ear. The message of this volume seems to be that media have been, and always will be audiovisual, and simple separations of the senses often confuse the issue.

Ong, I think, never fully grasped the significance of television, or how the moving image may have had more impact on people than the transmitted word. He was more focused on the radio. Most of the current people studying "teleliteracy" and its effects have looked more at television. There has been research on how the content of television may cause violence, conspicuous consumption, dissolution of community, or acculturation of ethnic minorities. Most current research suggests that direct effects on adult behavior by violent, pornographic, or other content (the "imitation hypothesis") are minimal. (Gauntlett, 1995.) Bianculli and others - from whom I take the word "teleliteracy" - have urged scholars toward "taking television seriously," which really means addressing its content on the same terms as film or literature. (1992: 138) But it's an even smaller handful who have followed in the vein of the Toronto School in looking at what changes this new medium or channel of communication is creating, apart from its content.

Most of the current argument regarding teleliteracy is what its effect on literacy is. Some, like Palmer, suggest that educational television in the developing world is making great milestones toward promoting literacy. (1993: 117) But the majority, like Sanders and Marc, see TV as acidic, eating away at literacy, threatening the very premise of liberal arts education and the humanities. Marc throws up his hands, suggesting that his students are more likely to know how to complete the theme song from Gilligan's Island than how to finish a Shakespearean couplet. (1995: 55) TV, he proclaims, is eroding long-term social memory and substituting Disney fictions. It is creating a world of "subliterates" who might be able to read but find it a lot more boring than an episode of Deep Space Nine. Attention spans of students have melted down to the level of the MTV clip and the sound bite.

Meyrowitz suggests that television and the electronic media is not necessarily "attacking" print literacy, but he does indicate that it has a corrosive effect on some of the social structures created by print media. (1985: 63) In essence postulating a Great Divide between literate and teleliterate civilization, Meyrowitz's basic argument revolves around the fact that television removes the intrinsic connection between social situations and physical space. Oral communities often restricted different kinds of communication on the basis of hierarchies of race, age, gender, and so forth; they also made clear delimitations between the public and private spheres, and limited certain kinds of information transmission to specific physical spaces (the agora, the school, etc.) Print separated society into "textual communities" that were based on reading and interpreting different specialized genres of text and print discourse. But TV forces everyone in a teleliterate society to share the same "information space" regardless of filiation or affiliation.

Meyrowitz observes that whereas print mainly provides the communicative (denotative) function of language, video and television brings the 'expressive' function (through voice inflection, nonverbal behavior, and emotional display) to the forefront. Thus, in terms of the theory of Ervin Goffman, people communicating through TV must focus more on the "backstage" aspects of their roles -- rather than the "front stage" ones they normally play in print. Further, TV blurs public and private behaviors, because it collapses the distance between public and private space: the TV studio is neither, and the formally "non-porous" private sphere of the home is penetrated by constant public electronic chatter. In print, people normally avoid private, personal disclosures; on TV, avoiding them is almost impossible, and as Meyrowitz notes, there are whole genres (talk shows) dedicating to facilitating them. Reading and writing are connected to certain specific spaces (libraries, universities) and the rules that govern them; TV's sphere is everywhere and nowhere.

He points out that people use different criteria to determine the veracity of claims in print and television -- something that seems so obvious as to need no mention. (But he adds that the actor who played Dr. Marcus Welby on TV used to get thousands of letters requesting medical advice.) Because this is what they normally do in face-to-face personal interactions, suggests Meyrowitz, when people watch politicians or other figures on TV, they tend to attach more importance to the expressive (nonverbal) dimension than the communicative (verbal) dimension. Teleliterate people aren't more stupid, he says, just more inclined to transfer their "real-life" oral-evaluative habits to television because, unlike print, it so thorughly tries to simulate rather than abstractly present real life. Unlike print, it does not primarily utilize the discursive mode.

The social behavior of teleliterate people, suggests Meyrowitz, is likely to be confused because the connections between social situations and physical space are the key to appropriate Goffmanian "role-switching"; the loss of those connections forces people to invent new roles. In a print society, it is possible to have differentiated knowledge communities, each learning from different sources about what constitutes appropriate behavior: men reading men's magazines, children reading comic books, etc. But in a teleliterate society, everyone watches everything, with just the press of the remote: women watch the men's sport network ESPN, men watch the women's network Lifetime, children watch the Playboy Network. He predicts the return of the social world of hunter-gathering (1985: 315) (perhaps Ong's "secondary orality" in a different guise) with its relatively undifferentiated social spheres and informal morays, lack of a sense of "place," and blending of work and play.

However, it is Sanders who most builds upon the theories of the Toronto School, and who tries to elucidate a theory from that frame of what the impacts of television on cognition and social behavior are. He starts with the argument that I've eluded to before: that the disciplined, reflective, self-accounting Western self is the product of literature, of silent reading, and of the private experience with texts. Literacy elevates a person out of "group thinking" and into self-centered, abstract perception. It engages the imagination by allowing the person to construct what logicians call contrafactuals . It confers objectivity, neutrality, and the ability to consider things from outside the give-and-take of the everyday, sensory world. However, suggests Sanders, television is anti-literacy. Worse, it even erodes orality, and he thinks both are necessary for the development of healthy children. (1994: 108)

Sanders suggests that instead of the normal "make-believe" collaborative dialogue of childhood orality, fostering imagination and creativity, children are instead subjected to the mind-numbing monologue of TV. Then, on top of that, instead of the self-reflection and coherence granted through literacy, these "televidiots" are only given a channel-surfing onrush of discordant images bombarding their sensorium. (Violence to them seems no more real than the thousands of bullets spewed by the A-Team, which never seem to kill anyone.) What is the end result, suggests Sanders? A generation of children without selves, without consciences, without a sense of the future. They become gangbangers with automatic weapons, and then society sees the results on the 6 o'clock news every day.

I suspect I am oversimplifying Sander's argument, but his bottom line is that "teleliteracy" does mean the death of print culture, and that means the death of alphabetically rooted Western civilization, which means successive generations of killer zombies on our streets mowing each other down with machine guns. (While Sanders claims literacy did not end orality, he somehow offers the idea that teleliteracy will end literacy - the death of text, print, the author, the humanities, etc. - which means the death of the Western self.) He doesn't see any possible positive social or cognitive impact. As far as Sanders is concerned, school is the last bastion of literacy, and he sees little advantage in TVs, computers, or laserdiscs in the halls of education. Let in the enemy, and the whole edifice will fall.

There are some educational thinkers that disagree. Sinatra argues that "primary visual literacy" (simply understanding how to visually decode the physical world) is the foundation of every other form of literacy in life - "oral literacy" (good oral communication), written literacy, representational visual literacy (the graphic arts), and 'technological literacy' (which he identifies primarily as the ability to use and program computers.) (1986: 28) Morris and Tchudi argue that "dynamic and critical literacy" goes far beyond the 3 "R's" (reading, writing, arithmetic) to include mastery of oral rhetoric, artistic and musical skills, and the savvy decoding of the messages of the electronic media. (1996: 15) Ulmer suggests that the best way of fomenting a critical 'literate' (distanced) approach toward electronic communication is to teach students how to use it to tell their own personal narratives or 'mystories'. (1989: 35)

In each case, none of these scholars are suggesting that teleliteracy requires schooling. Even two-year olds have some degree of teleliteracy because at that point they can already understand some television and know how to 'mug' for a camcorder. But for people to acquire the 'literate' (critical, abstract, reflective) approach to television requires that they understand the process (video) whereby moving images are made and its conventions; develop basic skills of visual and graphic communication; learn to deconstruct the ideological assumptions in images, photographs, and visual representations; understand the rhetorical power of expressive oral communication (through paralanguage and nonverbal channels); and have some basic technological comprehension of the electronic technology underlying the medium. (Adams, 1987.) Like any symbolic system, TV can be used naively and incompetently or with fluency and sophistication.

I think that, with some exceptions, Sanders, Meyrowitz, and Marc are fairly correct about the first phase of "teleliteracy." That is to say, the medium of television, with some exceptions (primarily 'educational television'), does eat away at higher cognitive processes in young people. (I don't think print literacy is going away, however, as a result of teleliteracy. "Functional illiteracy" in the U.S. today arises from other causes besides television.) Most studies suggest TV news is far less objective or in-depth than print coverage. (Messaris, 1994.) TV programs do not provide the kind of "information access" that books do, lacking such things as tables of contents, indices, and so forth. The consumers of television are not its watchers - they are the advertisers. So its format tends to reflect advertiser's wishes more than anyone else's. And TV is always forced to oversimplify arguments in the extreme and decontextualize them. Still, I accept Ulmer's argument that there could be a way of making and understanding television that doesn't deaden the cognitive faculties.

Does TV watching and teleliteracy weaken or strengthen the specific faculties of abstraction, categorization, and decontextualization? I don't think anyone's really addressed this question properly yet, and building upon the orality-literacy debate, it's worth answering. However, I think the main problem with Sanders and Marc's line of argument is that they fail to see the possibilities of the second phase of teleliteracy. Because the second phase of teleliteracy - which is best represented by networked hypermedia rather than television - promises to restore the dialogic features of orality and the reflective features of literacy to electronic media, thereby possibly reversing many of the potential negative effects of the first phase of teleliteracy.

It would be hard to make an argument that the first phase of teleliteracy contributed much to society or education, again with some exceptions. A recent sociological study suggested that TV played a large role in the decline of voluntarism and participation in community associations (bowling leagues, PTAs, charities, etc.) in U.S. society since the 1950s. (Tafler, 1995.) Television and radio did provide information to people, perhaps especially in the developing world, who had no other access to it previously. The question hinges on quality rather than quantity. Actually, the problem has been, both in terms of thoughtful fictions and thought-provoking nonfictions, TV's quantity of quality programming over the last 40 years has been spotty.

My argument would be that most of the negative effects of television accrue from the fact that it renders the TV watcher passive. Most of its flaws (its lack of picture resolution, its lack of quality programming, its appeal to the least common denominator) result from the fact that it is a mass medium. It doesn't invite TV viewers to use any higher mental faculties other than pressing the button on the remote. The capacity for generalization is nullified when most TV series shows fail to even attempt continuity. But to me, something like a CD-ROM or educational laserdisc is as different from broadcast TV as the printed word is from speech: a wholly new medium with new potentials. A second, more interesting phase of teleliteracy, that promises to take literate minds even further, building on the foundations of literacy.

The names promoting this ideal are suspiciously outside the academic community, and often suspiciously connected to Apple Computer, but I still think 'multimedia pioneers' like Alan Kay, Ted Nelson, and Douglas Engelbart, may have the best theoretical reflections on the possibilities of what lies ahead for our minds in a universe of "emerging media." Engelbart's vision of the computer as an "augmentation machine" providing prosthetic assistance for thought, instead of replacing it. Nelson's vision of a world where citation and intertextuality become passages you can effortlessly follow to their source. Kay's vision of a world where children (and other people) read deeper and richer, not less or shallower, text. (all cited in Nelson, 1987) A world where the integration of computer, telephone, and television leads to the intelligent analysis and synthesis of the audial, visual, and textual symbolic codes.

Will the teleliterate world have new institutions and practices alien to the previous worlds of orality and literacy? Will the shift from analog to digital media accelerate Marc's death of Western civilization, or begin a new process of evolution and transformation as revolutionary as the one described by Havelock in ancient Greece? What will the children of the World Wide Web, CD-ROMs, and digital interactive HDTV look like? I know only one thing, and that is that they will not be the killer zombies that Sanders fears. They could be like some of the hackers I have met on the Internet. Some of them may be living right now, at this moment, on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian reservation.

 

MODELS OF INTERACTION

 

Transition Theory Type Effects Consequences
orality -> literacy strong ("Great Divide") (Ong, Goody) necessary cultural & cognitive changes waning of orality
(700 BCE to present)

(printing press app. 1500 CE)

weak (Finnegan, Sweeney) sufficient for social & practice changes combination and integration with orality
literacy -> teleliteracy strong (Sanders, Meyrowitz) necessary (mostly negative) waning of print (return of orality?)
(1900 CE to present) weak (Sinatra) sufficient combination and integration with print
teleliteracy

phase I - > phase II

strong (Tafler) necessary waning of TV (growth of hypermedia)
(1965 CE to present) weak (Kay, Nelson, Engelbart) sufficient combination and integration with TV

 

I propose a potential theory to resolve the weak/strong impasse: the mesomorph theory (not too strong, not too weak.) This suggests the following:

  1. Changes in communication technology create certain social, cultural, technical, and cognitive changes that are potential, and whose level of actual effect is dependent on the nature, scope and level of implementation of the technology.
  2. No communication technology ever erases or eliminates an earlier existing communication technology, but it can alter the amount of usage of earlier channels and how dominant they are in peoples' socialization. (Today, we still have speech, oral recitation and presentation of documents, hand writing, non-phonetic writing, visual/graphic arts, printing, TV, and the Internet all coexisting.)
  3. No "Great Divide" ever exists because of communication technologies, although particular sociocultural divisions are likely to result from specific differences in how those technologies are put to use.
  4. Individuals who can master one communicational symbolic system are likely to excel in the others. Individuals who are masters of all of them will have great symbolic power in their society.

 

Bibliography