kitchen table math, the sequel: Walter Ong predicts Powerpoint in 1970

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Walter Ong predicts Powerpoint in 1970

I've been thinking about talking versus writing, and about how thinking-in-writing is different from thinking-in-speech, and I'd forgotten that I'd pulled this article by Walter Ong a couple of years ago.

Ong's argument is that although thinking-in-speech is different from thinking-in-writing, the invention of the alphabet changes the nature of thinking. People develop new ways of thinking, which depend upon writing, and they transfer their new habits back to the medium of oral speech.

Then thinking changes again with the invention of print.

And again, with the invention of electronic communication.

(Ed told me something interesting re: the invention of print. There is a school of thought that nations don't come into being until the invention of print. Without print  -- print per se, not just writing -- you can't have countries.)

Ong's argument makes sense to me, but I'm wondering whether it can be true of students who've essentially never read serious expository prose.

What happens if all you do in 13 years of formal education is sort through packets and Google things?

I don't know the answer to that, and this passage from Ong doesn't address the question, but I'm posting it because I think it's cool.
The effects of [the invention of] print on narrative have never been worked out, but they were massive. Early narrative can be beautifully organized, but so far as I know, nowhere in the world before print was there any lengthy narrative with the tight sequential plotting (build-up, climax, denouement) which has matured everywhere since print, perhaps most typically in the detective story, although such tight plotting has been known outside narrative, in drama, for some two thousand years. There is no narration in drama, but actors. With print, but not without it, James Joyce could produce Finnegans Wake. It is humanly impossible to produce two handwritten copies of Finnegans Wake which are exactly the same. In this large book, as you know, thousands of words have their own idiosyncratic spellings. Every single letter has to be supervised individually. This means, of course, that the final composition of the work--as of most works in print today--is done in the printer's proofs. (Balzac used to strike out whole galleys and rewrite everything on the other side of the proof sheets--an extreme example which, in my friendship for publishers and printers, I do not recommend any of you follow.) But once you know the sort of things that can be put into print, the feeling for such things influences your writing, even such things as your personal. correspondence. You can tell that Alexander Pope's letters were written by a man who knew the printed book and that Cicero's were not. Cicero's sound far more oratorical, for one thing, and the audience is felt in a different way....

And so in the present and the future, when we live with the electronic media. These have not wiped out anything, but simply complicated everything endlessly. We still talk face-to-face and write and print. The electronic media have massively reinforced print.


And so the future is already here. We have entered into a world of communication which we are only beginning to understand. Aristotle said that in his day the Greeks had no word for "literature." (If they had no word for it, don't ask me how he said that.) Today we have no word for this new thing. I would suggest that it might be called a "presentation."

The End of the Age of Literacy by Walter J Ong, S.J.
St. Louis University
Revision of April 10, 1972
Original draft completed November 1960 (taped for Opinion Institute, Omaha, Nebraska, developed out of article done for St. Louis Post-Dispatch and published April 4, 1959)


Anonymous said...

Can you elaborate on what you mean by 'print' and 'nation'?

-Mark Roulo

MagisterGreen said...

I'd wager the concept of the modern nation-state (post-Westphalia?) couldn't come into being without print (Gutenberg-style movable type). It's an interesting idea.

"A picture is worth a thousand words." Well, as I tell my students, it's only worth a thousand words if you have a thousand words to give it. Doing 13 years of formal education through packets and Google is likely to result in something less.

Catherine Johnson said...

Doing 13 years of formal education through packets and Google is likely to result in something less.

I'm laughing!

That's sure what I think - !

Catherine Johnson said...

Hey Mark - Yes, I was planning to follow up on that but didn't want to put it inside a post since I don't want to spend time fact-checking.

I'll ask Ed the historian's name again (have forgotten), but as I recall, the argument is that before print, but after writing, all education was done in Latin -- and had to be done in Latin because without the printing press the task of reproducing knowledge in many different languages was too onerous.

After print, all of a sudden, everyone could print & publish manuscripts and translations in any language at all --- and this was the fundamental requirement for nations to become established.

I find that absolutely fascinating-----