excerpt from Walter J. Ong, “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought,” from The Linguistics of Literacy, eds. Pamela Downing, Susan Lima, Michael Noonan (Philadelphia: J Benjamins, 1992), pp. 293-319.

Make certain to define these words as you read; .

There is a place at the bottom of the page to write your definitions.

Literacy is imperious. [1]  It tends to [grab] supreme power by taking itself as normative [2] for human expression and thought. . . . .  The term “illiterate [3] itself suggests that persons belonging to the class it designates are deviants, defined by something they lack . . . . [T]he deviancy [4] of illiterates tends to be thought of as lack of a simple mechanical skill.  Illiterates should learn writing as they learned to tie their shoe-laces or to drive a car.  Such views of writing as simply a mechanical skill . . . block our understanding of what is human if only because they block understanding of what natural human mental processes are before writing takes possession of consciousness.
. . . .  The fact that we do not commonly feel the influence of writing on our thoughts shows that we have interiorized [5]
the technology of writing so deeply that without tremendous effort we cannot separate it from ourselves or even recognize its presence and influence.  If functionally literate [6] persons . . . . are asked to think of the word “nevertheless” for two minutes, 120 seconds, without ever allowing any letters at all to enter their imaginations, they cannot [do it].
. . . .
To the extent that it makes all of a word appear present at once, writing falsifies.  Recalling sounded words is like recalling a bar of music, a melody, a sequence in time.  A word is an event, a happening, not a thing, as letters make it appear to be.  So is thought. . . . 
. . . . Primary oral culture [Ong calls our culture a “secondary “oral culture, because TV, radio, and film are based on images and sound rather than writing] also keeps its thinking close to the human life world, personalizing things and issues, and storing knowledge in stories.  Categories are unstable mnemonically [7]
.  Stories you can remember. . . .   Everybody, or almost everybody, must repeat and repeat and repeat the truths that have come down from the ancestors.  Otherwise these truths will escape, and culture will be back on square one, where it started before the ancestors got the truths from their ancestors. . . .
In downgrading writing, Plato was thinking of writing as an external, alien technology, as many people today think of the computer.  Because we have today so deeply interiorized writing, made it so much a part of ourselves, as Plato’s age had not yet made it fully a part of itself, we find it difficult to consider writing to be a technology as we commonly assume printing and the computer to be.  Yet writing is a technology, calling for the use of tools and other equipment, styli or brushes or pens . . . .
One weakness in Plato’s position is that he put these misgivings about writing into writing, just as . . . one weakness in anticomputer positions is that they are articulated [8]
in articles and books printed from tapes composed on computer terminals.  The law at work here is: once the word is technologized, there is no really effective way to criticize its condition without the aid of the technology you are criticizing.  The complaints about these three inventions are all the same because writing and print and the computer are all ways of technologizing the word. . . .
Writing, in the strict sense of the word, . . . was a very late development in human history.  The first script, or true writing, that we know was developed among the Sumerians in Mesopotamia only around the year 3500 BC, less than 6,000 years ago.  The alphabet, which was invented only once [all alphabets derive from an original Semitic alphabet], came into existence [as recently in human history as] 1500 BC.  Speech is ancient [humans have been around for 30,000 years, and Ong presumes that humans naturally and immediately spoke to each other].  Writing is brand new.
To say that writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it.  Like other artificial creations and indeed more than any other, writing is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials.  Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word.  Such transformations of consciousness can be uplifting, at the same time that they are in a sense alienating.  By distancing thought, alienating it from its original habitat in sounded words, writing raises consciousness.



[1] imperious:
normative:
illiterate:
deviancy:
to interiorize:
to be functionally literate:
mnemonic:

to articulate:

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