Writing transformed human consciousness.
As Walter Ong observes in Orality and Literacy, the way we communicate — whether it be through voice, writing, or print — changes how we think and behave.
“Writing, in the strict sense of the word, the technology which has shaped and powered the intellectual activity of modern man, was a very late development in human history. Homo sapiens has been on earth perhaps some 50,000 years. The first script, or true writing, that we know, was developed among the Sumerians in Mesopotamia only around the year 3500 BC. Human beings had been drawing pictures for countless millennia before this.”
Through writing, humans escaped from the chains of memory, the significance of which is impossible to overestimate. Literacy is only about 6,000 years old, making it a relatively new phenomenon.
“Writing, in this ordinary sense, was and is the most momentous of all human technological inventions. It is not a mere appendage to speech. Because it moves speech from the oral– aural to a new sensory world, that of vision, it transforms speech and thought as well.”
The mind is determined by the medium.
Oral cultures are dependent on their memories. Knowledge that wasn’t repeated, disappeared. Since memory is fragile, repeating a message reinforced it. It follows that oral cultures used repetition to preserve their knowledge and remember their past.
“In the total absence of any writing, there is nothing outside the thinker, no text, to enable him or her to produce the same line of thought again or even to verify whether he or she has done so or not.”
Oral cultures remembered everything they needed to know, from how to hunt, to how to cook, to how to perform rituals. This begs the question: how did oral cultures remember so much?
“How could you ever call back to mind what you had so laboriously worked out? The only answer is: Think memorable thoughts. In a primary oral culture, to solve effectively the problem of retaining and retrieving carefully articulated thought, you have to do your thinking in mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence.”
Oral cultures invested considerable energy in repeating their knowledge and saying the same things over and over again. By compressing their wisdom, they remembered more of it. Oral cultures relied on proverbs, epic poetry, and stylized culture heroes (such as the wise Nestor, crafty Odysseus in The Odyssey) to guide their decisions.
“[The need to remember things] establishes a highly traditionalist or conservative set of mind that with good reason inhibits intellectual experimentation. Knowledge is hard to come by and precious, and society regards highly those wise old men and women who specialize in conserving it, who know and can tell the stories of the days of old. By storing knowledge outside the mind, writing and, even more, print downgrade the figures of the wise old man and the wise old woman, repeaters of the past, in favor of younger discoverers of something new.”
The Invention of Writing
Early writing freed humans from the limitations of memory.
At the time of its invention, writing was a controversial technology. Plato, for instance, argued that writing destroyed memory and that people who wrote forgot things.
Plato missed the mark. Counterintuitively, the ability to forget is a good thing. By allowing people to forget things, writing frees the mind from redundant tasks. Once it’s written down, an idea can exist forever. No longer does it need to be repeated. As a result, writing allows people to learn faster, share information, and grapple with more advanced ideas.
“Literacy, as will be seen, is absolutely necessary for the development not only of science but also of history, philosophy, explicative understanding of literature and of any art, and indeed for the explanation of language (including oral speech) itself.”
The Children of Writing
The alphabet influences the patterns of thought. Since the alphabet favors left-hemisphere activity in the brain, it fosters an abstract, analytic mindset.
Writing is associated with official documents, which gives authority to books and contracts. Through print, we can reproduce complex ideas, along with indefinitely complicated lists and charts with complete accuracy.
Speech, in contrast, is difficult to store. It is difficult to spread information accurately through speech. Think of “telephone,” the game we all used to play as children. By the time the message got to the far end of the chain, it was never the same. Pass a piece of paper with the same message from person to person and the message will never change.
Writing created history and logic, the foundation of mathematics. Since software is driven by logic — 0s and 1s — the computer you’re reading this on is a child of the written word.
Both science and literature were born out of the pursuit of rationality, truth, and facts — all of which were made possible by writing.
“An oral culture simply does not deal in such items as geometrical figures, abstract categorization, formally logical reasoning processes, definitions, or even comprehensive descriptions, or articulated self-analysis, all of which derive not simply from thought itself but from text-formed thought.”
The concept of rationality and absolute truth was best expressed by Walter Cronkite’s famous television line: “That’s the way it is.”
A New Way of Seeing
Writing paved the way for the Copernican revolution, the paradigm shift from a model of Earth as a stationary object at the center of the universe, to the heliocentric model with the Sun at the center of the Solar System. According to some scholars, the Copernican shift remains the single most important perspective shift in human history.
“The centering action of sound (the field of sound is not spread out before me but is all around me) affects man’s sense of the cosmos. For oral cultures, the cosmos is an ongoing event with man at its center. Man is the umbilicus mundi, the navel of the world. Only after print and the extensive experience with maps that print implemented would human beings, when they thought about the cosmos or universe or ‘world’, think primarily of something laid out before their eyes, as in a modern printed atlas, a vast surface or assemblage of surfaces (vision presents surfaces) ready to be ‘explored’.”
Having grown up around the written word, literate people — like you and I — cannot comprehend the experience of oral consciousness. Literacy transforms consciousness once and for all. Learning to read and write disables the oral mind; once the mind is introduced to text, the oral mindset disappears forever.
“We – readers of books such as this – are so literate that it is very difficult for us to conceive of an oral universe of communication or thought except as a variant of a literate universe.”
Writing Transforms Communication
Writing transformed the relationship between humans in communication. In oral communication, speaker and listener are always present to one another. It has a give-and-take nature. As speakers, take note of subtle feedback from listeners and use this feedback to inform dialogue. The oral song was shaped by interactions between singers and their audiences — same space; same time.
Writing, though, is permanent and final. Once published, the words cannot be changed. It’s definitive and final. The reader is absent when the writer writes and the writer is absent when the reader reads.
Writing and reading are solitary activities. As opposed to oral communication, the written word encourages introspection and illustrates the innner states of soul. Writing raises consciousness.
“The very reflectiveness of writing – enforced by the slowness of the writing process as compared to oral delivery as well as by the isolation of the writer as compared to the oral performer – encourages growth of consciousness out of the unconscious… Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but normally even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form. More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness.”
How did humans think prior to the invention of writing?
Literate cultures internalize emotions; oral cultures externalize them.
Unlike oral speech, the written word can be revised and reconsidered. If I write a sentence and I don’t like it, I can always change it. Not so with words. Once a word leaves your mouth, it’s impossible to take it back. As Denise Schmandt-Besserat once wrote:
“Speech, the universal way by which humans communicate and transmit experience, fades instantly: before a word is fully pronounced it has already vanished forever. Writing, the first technology to make the spoken word permanent, changed the human condition.”
Writing has a definite beginning, middle, and end, which encourages authors to think of their work as self-contained, discrete units, defined by closure. Oral epics had no plots. Strict plots and long narratives only arose with the development of writing. Even facts are a byproduct of the written word. In contrast, oral cultures memorized pithy parables and proverbs.
Oral communication is immediate and takes place in the present. Writing, on the other hand, comes from the past. Oral speech is acted out. It depends on context (enunciation, hand motions, facial expressions, etc.).
As opposed to orality, written words are asked to do more. While it is impossible to speak a word out loud without any inflection, writing concentrates on the meaning of words and only those words. Written communication is guided only by the words on the page. Besides subtle punctuation — question marks, commas, and exclamation points, intonation cannot be expressed through the written word.
“But written words sharpen analysis, for the individual words are called on to do more. To make yourself clear without gesture, without facial expression, without intonation, without a real hearer, you have to foresee circumspectly all possible meanings a statement may have for any possible reader in any possible situation, and you have to make your language work so as to come clear all by itself, with no existential context. The need for this exquisite circumspection makes writing the agonizing work it commonly is.”
Advancements in Writing
Paper was first manufactured in China during the 2nd century BC. It was diffused by the Arabs to the Middle East in the 8th century and didn’t make it to Europe until the 12th century. Invented in the 15th century, the alphabetic letterpress transformed religion, birthed the Enlightenment, and paved the way for the industrial revolution.
“Alphabet letterpress printing, in which each letter was cast on a separate piece of metal, or type, marked a psychological breakthrough of the first order. It embedded the word itself deeply in the manufacturing process and made it into a kind of commodity. The first assembly line, a technique of manufacture which in a series of set steps produces identical complex objects made up of replaceable parts, was not one which produced stoves or shoes or weaponry but one which produced the printed book…
Print made the Italian Renaissance a permanent European Renaissance, how it implemented the Protestant Reformation and reoriented Catholic religious practice, how it affected the development of modern capitalism, implemented western European exploration of the globe, changed family life and politics, diffused knowledge as never before, made universal literacy a serious objective, made possible the rise of modern sciences, and otherwise altered social and intellectual life.”
Writing inspires new ways of engaging with the world, from storytelling to conversation, many of which literate people cannot recognize.
“It would appear that the development of modern depth psychology parallels the development of the character in drama and the novel, both depending on the inward turning of the psyche produced by writing and intensified by print.”
The power of writing as a tool to store knowledge is exemplified by Friedrich Hayek’s famous line: “Civilization rests on the fact that we all benefit from knowledge which we do not possess.”
The Future of Communication
How does technology impact all this?
Electronic technologies will transform verbal expression and by extension, human consciousness. We’re entering an era of digital orality, which will be both like and unlike primary orality. Digital orality is informal, much like primary orality.
If writing allows humans to externalize their thoughts, the internet allows them to spread them across the globe:
“The “collective externalized mind, the mind we all share, the infinite oscillation of our collective consciousness interacting with itself, adding a fuller, richer dimension to what it means to be human.”
Digital life is, in many ways, a return to an oral manner of communication.
Think of text messages. On iMessage, our texts resemble oral speech more than they resemble traditional, long-form writing. Emojis, GIFs and other rich media are propping up in response to shift back to secondary orality. The dialogue is more conversational in tone than traditional written communication, and the rapid pace of texting conversations match the cadence oral storytelling.
This trend has accelerated with the facial communication inherent in Snapchat selfies. GIFs, a lanaguage of expression, bridge entertainment and communication. When it comes to communicating nuance or emotion, the human face is a miraculous instrument. Compared with simple text messages, rich media inventions allow people to communicate in a deeper, more efficient matter; to say more with less. With the internet, visual conversations are no longer constrained by the limits of time and space.
To kids, digital orality is not a second language – it’s second nature.
Digital orality is an emerging form of communications that will restructure human consciousness once again. To predict how communication will shape our future, study ancient oral cultures.