Is our society becoming post-literate?
Thousands of years have passed since our culture invented an alphabet to allow spoken words to be permanently recorded. This ‘great leap’ from orality to literacy had many consequences that will be discussed here. However, many other technologies have come into existence since the alphabet was invented and it has been suggested that we have moved beyond a stage of basic literacy into a new kind of ‘post-literacy’ or ‘secondary orality’ (Ong 1982), brought about by these new technologies. This essay will look at the differences between an oral culture and a literate one, describe the effects of literacy upon society, and look at technological breakthroughs, such as the Gutenberg press and more modern inventions such as television, telephone and computers, to see whether we are entering a new era in our progression from oral communication. I will try to examine if this supposed post-literacy, created by new means of communication, is a new stage in our development with profound effects on the structure of our society and look at how different life is with modern technology than life with simple literacy.
I will start by comparing orality and literacy to illustrate the deep implications of each. An oral culture is one in which all communication is by talking and listening. The fact that there is no means of writing anything down means that all values and morals of the given society are stored in the minds of the people. As cultural knowledge is so deeply embedded into stories and ritual the concept of knowledge actually existing as a separate entity is non-existent in an oral society. Walter Ong (1982) says that in these kinds of societies knowledge is performed through the telling of stories and the carrying out of rituals. There is no separation of the ‘knower from the known’ (Havelock 1976). The myths and folktales of the village storyteller do not have a script, this would be an oral version of literacy, they are recreated anew with each performance. There simply is no ‘text’ apart from each individual incarnation of each tale. The performer of a tale is combining an act of creation with an act of transmission. His primary work is to transmit the culture of the tribe, and in this act of transmission he must be conservative as changes in oral knowledge cannot be undone, for there are no old copies to go back to. Over time, however, subtle differences in the plot can be detected, a process Ong calls ‘homeostasis’ (Ong 1982).
This homeostasis comes about because of the nature of the way cultural knowledge is communicated. When a storyteller stands in front of a group of people he doesn’t stand and give a lecture, he tells a story using different words each time it is retold. There is a large degree of interaction between the storyteller and the people listening to what is being said. Gestures and the use of tone emphasise certain parts of the story. If the values that are held in high regard by the culture shift to suit changing circumstances, the heroes in the tale will acquire new characteristics or even cease to be heroes. In oral societies individual creativity is profoundly rhetorical, for it is the subtle interplay between teller and audience that shapes the tales to match the values of that audience.
Although there have been pictographic alphabets for many thousands of years, in ancient Egypt and the Mayans in Meso-America, these kinds of alphabets use symbols to represent things, people and events and many hundreds of pictures are needed to record a lot of information. It was the invention of the Greek alphabet in the fifth century BC that marks the beginnings of literate society in Europe. This is because the Greek alphabet uses twenty six meaningless symbols to reproduce the sounds of words on a page, meaning anything that can be spoken can be easily written down and recorded forever. According to some observers (Mcluhan 1962, Havelock 1976 and Ong 1982) the invention of the phonetic alphabet has incredibly significant effects on the creation and communication of knowledge in the society that possesses this tool. As things can now be written down and recorded forever the concept of authorship arises.
In oral cultures nobody is credited with the creation of stories, they belong to everybody and the storyteller is simply reperforming them for the group. In a literate society, however, the fixation of knowledge by print causes a separation of the ‘knower from the known’ (Havelock 1976) and gives the printed material a separate existence apart from the mind of the individual who created it. It is this abstraction of knowledge which is the most significant effect of literacy upon society. Literacy allowed the creation of new knowledge and ideas and is thus credited with the creation of academia by allowing things to be studied in depth. In literate societies the idea of interaction between the creator and audience is removed and knowledge is now created for its own sake, not to please the group. Literacy enabled a profound shift in human conscious, bringing about the linear, abstract forms of Western logic that we take for granted today but which were simply unthinkable without literacy as a means of preserving complicated original thought.
For Marshall Mcluhan, however, it was not simply the invention of the phonetic alphabet that was the major agent of change, it was the invention of the Gutenberg Press. Before the Gutenberg Press was invented manuscripts were hand-written by monks and read aloud to an audience of listeners. To Mcluhan this was still representative of an oral culture. The printing press, however, significantly changed this. As books could now be mass produced and distributed at speed they were widely available to the masses and not just an educated elite of readers. It was the printing press that finally ‘split apart thought and action’ (Mcluhan 1962, 22). Now that everybody had access to books an increase in silent reading took place which Mcluhan claims linearized our thought processes and offered the final separation of author and ownership. Transmission was now a mechanical act, performed by a machine. Originality, once a deadly danger to a society that had to struggle to maintain its equilibrium, could now be seen as more valuable than ownership.
Now that the printing press had been invented more and more documents were credited to a single source, the writer. The concept of authorship is so strong in our society that plagiarism is now an academic crime of heinous proportions and copyright laws were created to allow authors to be protected in law. In the Miller vs. Taylor decision of 1767 Mr Justice Aston commented, ‘I do not know, nor can I comprehend any property more emphatically a man’s own, nay, more incapable of being mistaken, than his literary works’ (Patterson 1968, 170). Typography has made the word a commodity. The old communal oral world has been split up into privately claimed freeholdings, ‘the drift toward greater individuality had been served well by print’ (Ong 1982, 131). It is literate, and especially print, that has created the notion of the self. In most oral societies there is absolutely no notion whatsoever of people existing as individuals with free will. In oral cultures decisions are made not on the basis of ‘what should I do? or ‘what is good for me? but ‘what do we need?
Mcluhan uses the metaphor of hot and cool to describe the various mediums of knowledge transmission. A hot medium is ‘one that extends a single sense with high definition. High definition means a complete filling in of data by the medium without intense audience participation…In a cool medium, the audience is an active constituent of the viewing.’ (Mcluhan, in Playboy Magazine, 1969). He uses this metaphor to explain why oral and literate cultures are so inherently different. In an oral culture, which Mcluhan would define as being ‘cool’, there is an intense interaction between the orator and the audience. As described above the audience actively participates in the creation process. Writing, then, for Mcluhan is a hot medium as there is very high definition of content and the reader is left to fill in very little.
It is approximately five hundred years now since the printing press was invented and all of these changes started to occur. Since then a whole array of new technological innovations have provided mankind with even more mediums through which to communicate information. The telephone, television and most recently computers and the Internet have made instantaneous global transmission of data a very real possibility. Mcluhan sees these new technologies as the agents of a process of ‘retribalization’ (Mcluhan 1962). The advent of the Gutenberg press started what Mcluhan terms ‘the detribalizing of man’ (Mcluhan (1962). The printing press made us all subordinate to the power of the written word. Mcluhan believes that the human experience is made up of an interplay between the five senses.
Literacy placed a great emphasis on the visual aspect of life and removed man from tribal communality into a state of civilised detachment. These new technologies have placed more emphasis on our other senses and have extended our nervous system to all corners of the world. Television, although we may at first think as a visual medium is actually described by Mcluhan as an extension of our tactile sense and it is this ‘that demands the greatest interplay of all the senses’ (Mcluhan, in Playboy Magazine, 1969). It was Mcluhan who first coined the now very famous term to describe the interconnectedness of the modern world, ‘the global village’ (Mcluhan 1964). This results from the network-like extension of new electronic media that ‘is enabling man to incorporate within himself the whole of mankind. The aloof and dissociated role of the literate man of the Western world is succumbing to the new, intense depth participation engendered by the electronic media and bringing us back in touch with our selves as well as one another’ (Mcluhan, in Playboy Magazine, 1969).
Mcluhan is so adamant that we have moved into a new era of human existence that in his interview in Playboy Magazine he says that the Gutenberg Galaxy, formed by the spread of print-led communication ‘is being eclipsed by the constellation of Marconi ‘ (Mcluhan, in Playboy Magazine, 1969). Under the effects of participatory electronic media, Mcluhan suggests that linear typographic man will again learn to ‘live mythically’ (Mcluhan 1964). The concept of ‘living mythically’ suggests far more than simply being interconnected, of being able to send messages to each other more quickly and easily. It means living in a form of consciousness in which knowledge does not exist outside the knower, embodied in a physical text, but instead is lived dramatically, communally performed as the myths of oral man were performed.
I believe a lot of what Mcluhan says is true. Defining the present and immediate future as the time of Marconi Man I think fairly describes the modern world. I think however his metaphors of ‘retribalization’ and ‘living mythically’ are slightly over the top but I do think that electronic media has, and will even further with the expansion of the internet, profoundly change the way we live and work. We are constantly being told how ‘the information revolution’ will extend its reach into every corner of our lives. Mcluhan is not the only writer who has compared today’s society with our oral past. Walter Ong describes a ‘secondary orality’ with a greater emphasis on a ‘participatory mystique, communal sense and the present moment’ (Ong 1982, 136). He does, however, concede that it is not going to be a total return to tribal existence but ‘a more deliberate and self-conscious orality’ (Ong 1982, 136). Hypertext, the method of publishing print online, may be seen as redefining the concept of authorship as ‘each reader takes a different physical path from node to node and thus metaphorically rewrites the text in the process of reading it ‘ (Slatin 1990). However, there is something glaringly obvious when talking about a return to a ‘secondary orality’ – text is still text, electronic or not. It is important not to see the current change as a circular movement back to a stage of orality but another ‘advancement’ into the future, although it is useful, as I have found in writing this essay, to use metaphors of primary orality to explain the change.
So, to conclude I would answer that, yes, we are becoming a ‘post-literate’ society, especially if you define a literate society as one whose primary means of communicating knowledge is the written document. If this is the definition then it is obvious that the written word is no longer the only way we communicate knowledge. In this essay I have been talking as if the spoken word is completely discarded once a phonetic alphabet is created but this is definitely not the case. The ‘grapevine’ and ‘word-of-mouth’ are terms still very much in use today, indicating that information is often communicated by spoken word. Children will always be taught how to read by a teacher in the classroom and who would think of letting a computer read a child a bedtime story. The upper classes of our society take great delight in going to a theatre with friends to watch a performance of plays that can communicate the meanings and values of our society, all the more emphatically because they are live. Reading, then, is always going to be with us, even if we do use other methods of communication to a greater extent. It is quite ironic that one of the biggest areas of ‘e-commerce’ is the sale of traditional paper books online.
Ong, W.J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: the technologizing of the word. London: Methuen
Mcluhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The making of typographic man. Toronto: Toronto University Press
Mcluhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: the extensions of man. Toronto: Toronto University Press
Slatin, J.M. (1990). Reading Hypertext: order and coherence in anew medium. College English, 52, 870-883
Patterson, L.R. (1968). Copyright in historical perspective. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press
Havelock, E. (1976). Origins of Western Literacy. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
Norden, E. (1969). Interview with Marshall Mcluhan, in Playboy Magazine.