The Greater Divide: Language Technology in the Technologized Classroom
Walter Ong’s “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought” differentiates, defines, and disarticulates orality and literacy along a spectrum spanning the functional to the contemplative. It situates writing as a technology that engages language in uniquely distanced and paradoxically intimate ways. Ong’s oral linguistic approach argues against the reductivist tendencies of some theorists who claim that writing is an evolutionary step toward more sophisticated intelligence and, by extension, universal species transformation, which Michael Rose accuses “modernization theorists” (349). What Ong presents instead is a sensitive study of literacy as a disruptive “product” that accomplishes rhetorical goals distinctive from and in different ways than oral speech. Language, the point at which speech and writing intersect, does not privilege either communication method but rather cooperates with and is manipulated by the appropriate medium for the occasion. It is the relationship of writing to language that helps distinguish that purpose. To illustrate this connection, Ong outlines thirteen instances in which writing “divides and distances” (36). Through the further distancing lens of technology, I will focus on the complex interplay of mediation, separation, and location of Ong’s theory in online education.
As a student of online writing instruction, I appreciate that Ong includes computers in his description of innovative tools that separate. In fact, he acknowledges the computer as “the ultimate (thus far) separation of the knower and the known (the subject of discourse)” (45). It is the “limitlessly complex structures of mechanically articulated ‘bits’” of which I often ponder as I consider the virtual agents that amplify the division between writer and audience, writer and context, and writer and self (45). While Ong draws a parallel between writing and computers, he also admits that the computer embodies “separative power” (45) that “finalize[s] in the computer world” (47). When such a perspective is applied to online learning management systems, the delivery theories that accompany virtual education, and the tools that articulate instructional practice, teaching writing suddenly becomes a process of negotiating “vaster distances” of disjunctive parts (48). Even as I write this, I mediate my composition through language, through two software programs (Word and Word Press), through Blackboard, and through the internet. I am, essentially, five or more degrees separated from any point of immediate interaction. I wonder how such distances impact our students’ perceptions of audience and contribute to their understanding of discourse.
Maybe, on the other hand, the internet does in fact bring “unity,” as Ong suggests (48). I recently read in an online learning theory text, for example, that the Net Generation prefers texting over speech (Harasim 105). This may, the author argued, predispose them to writing as “a means to improve our ideas and discourse” (105). I’m just not sure text messaging is entirely comparable to traditional written text, given its reliance on abbreviations and integration of visual emoticons, modern day hieroglyphics. In any event, the idea prompts me to consider a couple of questions:
Q1: Does this shift of privileging the written word over the spoken word signal closing the distance gap Ong ascribes to writing? Or, does this distancing further illustrate the compounding and exacerbating potential of technology on orality?
These questions are further complicated by recent integrative online learning tools such as synchronous virtual lectures, video and voice recording options, and conferencing software for student-to-teacher and student-to-student collaboration. These tools diversify the mode and media of delivery, not to mention conflate oral and written delivery, and compel me to ask the following additional questions:
Q2: Do these methods signal reclamation of orality in primarily static and text-based spaces?
Q3: Would Ong consider these oral methods a tertiary orality which manifests in the virtual nesting dolls of technology?
I’m curious what Ong would think about new new media and the hodgepodge of media now available on the internet.
Harasim, Linda. Learning Theory and Online Technologies. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.