Sunday, April 14, 2024

Ong - orality, literacy and new technologies?

Walter J. Ong (1912-2023) was a US scholar on literacy, orality and the evolution of consciousness. A professor of English at Saint Louis University and Jesuit priest, his research focused on the differences between oral and literate cultures and how these affect human cognition and societies. His Masters thesis was supervised by Marshall McLuhan.

His most famous work, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982), explores how the shift from spoken to written communication has shaped cultural practices and thought processes.  

Orality and Literacy

Ong explored the differences between oral and literate cultures and the cognitive and social impacts of oral forms of communication arguing that oral and literate cultures have deeply different ways of thinking and communicating. 

Oral cultures rely on memory, repetition, and communal participation that rely heavily on memory and communal storytelling, using formulaic structures to aid memorisation. Knowledge is often considered communal, alive within the collective memory and shared discourse of the community. 

This contrasts with literate cultures, where knowledge tends to be seen as more static and owned by the individual, often stored in documents and books. Literate cultures develop abstract and analytical modes of thinking, facilitated by the individual's interaction with text, using abstraction, analysis, and individual reflection. 

In other words, oral cultures view knowledge as a communal, shared resource, contrasting with the more private, owned, individualised nature of knowledge in literate cultures.

Technology changes consciousness

Writing, as a technology, literally reshapes human consciousness. The technology of the word moves our thinking into another way of thinking and expression by enabling abstract thinking and complex organisation. It separates the knower from the known and allows information to be stored and analysed externally, which changes how individuals process information and conceptualise knowledge.

Secondary orality

With the advent of electronic communication, such as television and radio, Ong identifies a new second form of orality or ‘secondary orality’ that depends on writing and print for its existence but resembles primary orality in its focus on communal participation. It mimics the participatory and communal aspects of primary orality. As the content becomes participatory and ephemeral.


Critics point to a form of technological determinism, overlooking human agency and complexity. They think his dichotomy between oral and literate cultures oversimplifies the complexity of human communication and overlooks the nuances within cultures. There is also the worry that his dichotomy splits the world into primitive and advanced - not respecting the depth and value of oral traditions by comparing them directly to literate cultures, which are represented, if not explicitly, as more advanced or capable. Some prefer a broader discussion, less causal, beyond the simple binary opposition.

New technologies – beyond orality and literacy

New forms of digital communication, tend to blur the lines between orality and literacy. The rigid dichotomy gives way to a more multimodal world.

Social media

Simple orality and literacy may not fully apply to social media which facilitate dynamic, two-way communication that allows for instant feedback and interaction. This blurs the lines between Ong's oral and literate distinctions. Social media has fully integrated text, images, audio and video, transcending traditional oral or literate categories by combining elements of both. The context in social media is also fluid. It can rapidly change and is shaped by both the creators and those who respond. Interestingly, it also melds public and private spheres, allowing personal conversations to be displayed publicly, which challenges Ong's framework focused on more distinct public (oral) and private (literate) forms of communication.

Computer games

Ong's theories primarily consider passive receipt of information (either spoken or written). In contrast, computer games require active engagement and decision-making from players, introducing dynamics beyond traditional communication theories. Computer games combine text, sound, and visual elements that challenge Ong's dichotomy between oral and literate cultures. These games also create immersive experiences that integrate multiple modes of communication, which Ong's framework doesn't address. They allow players to influence the narrative or outcome, which contrasts with the static nature of written texts and the fixed oral traditions Ong discusses. This agency is a central aspect of gaming. Modern gaming is also heavily community-oriented, often involving multiplayer scenarios and online interactions that blend oral and literate characteristics in ways that are not anticipated by Ong's categories.

Mixed realty and VR

To focus on the distinctions between oral and literate cultures, may not fully encapsulate the complexities of mixed reality (MR) and virtual reality (VR). MR and VR integrate multiple sensory modalities (visual, auditory, tactile) that go beyond traditional oral or literate forms, creating immersive experiences that are beyond simple oracy and literacy. They also allow for high levels of user interaction and control, which contrast with the more passive reception of information in traditional oral and literate cultures. MR and VR can manipulate spatial and temporal perceptions, offering experiences that traditional oral or literate forms cannot, such as navigating any forms of three-dimensional space with complex interactions enabled by head and eye tracking, gesture, tactile, embodiment and voice control. This moves us way beyond Ong’s more traditional view of technology.

Artificial intelligence

AI technologies often combine text, speech, and visual elements simultaneously, the integration of modalities, challenging Ong's clear separation between orality and literacy. AI systems like chatbots interact dynamically with users, adapting their responses based on input, which differs from the more traditional, static modes of communication. Algorithmic AI does not fit neatly into oral or literate categories, as these systems can generate, interpret, and respond to both spoken and written information in ways that go beyond human cognitive processes.


These new technologies suggest that while Ong's ideas provide foundational insights into the evolution of communication, the specific characteristics of new technologies such as computer games, social media, AI and multimodal technologies require new additional frameworks to fully understand their impact on communication and cognition.


Ong, W. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. Routledge.

No comments: