In my seminar last night we discussed Walter Ong’s concepts of primary and secondary orality. Primary orality is the state of a society that has never known or developed literacy. The history of the group, lineages, myths, stories, and customs are all passed down orally from person to person, generation to generation. Religious belief, ritual, and everything relating to tribal identity depend on training and memory.
Secondary orality is the state of being illiterate, but knowing of literacy and its powers. Most of the population of medieval Europe existed in this state. When an individual in a state of primary orality encounters literacy for the first time, it appears magical, as if something inanimate can speak. Books such as Claude Levi Strauss’ Triste Tropique and Jack Goody’s Domestication of the Savage Mind contain such events. On the other hand, an illiterate person in a literate society knows much of what literacy can do, and is not so easily amazed.
Because much of our communications technology functions as a substitute for literacy, some argue that we are entering another period of secondary orality. The telephone substitutes for letter writing. The television substitutes for the newspaper. The DVD substitutes for the book. The video camera stands in for the diary. I believe that an illiterate person actually has more access to information than at any previous time in history.
One could argue that much has been lost with these substitutions. The Ken Burns documentary of the Civil War contains numerous letters home written by ordinary soldiers, letters that are as articulate and beautifully expressed as anything in literature. Not long after seeing this film I saw videos sent home by soldiers in the first Iraq war. They were waving, grinning, and shouting “Hi mom!” The contrast was great. However, video tape and literacy are just different communications and data storage technologies. Each can be used well, or poorly.
In class we talked about the possibility of creating a totally text free web interface with clickable icons that spoke aloud when the user rolled the mouse pointer over them. Some have argued that computer technology has actually increased the use of literacy, but this is really a matter of bandwidth. As bandwidth increases, the visual content increases. Images, audio, animations, and video all take up more storage and bandwidth than text. Once the bandwidth was there, along came YouTube. YouTube changed the way people use the internet. Text on the web is already decreasing.
When everything one needs to do to excel in society can be done without recourse to literacy, will the average person learn to read? I think not. In Proust and the Squid Maryanne Wolf argues that the brain was not designed to read. To read, the brain draws on pre-existing visual, auditory, and linguistic processing systems and coordinates them, sometimes rather inefficiently. It may be that rather than evolving to read, we are using technology to create modes of communication that are more natural for the brain as it exists. It will be fascinating to see what develops.