Ong and Heim on Digital Literacy & Transformation Theory

Heim, Michael. 1999 (orig. 1987). “The Theory of Transformative Technologies.” Electric Language, 2nd edition. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ong, Walter. 1982. “Some Theorems.” Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge.

Here are a couple articles/chapters and the questions I was asked related to them:

1. What do you think of the notion that language has structure? What might be some examples from digital texts that could be considered supporting examples? Or, if you prefer, argue the opposite.

I certainly support the idea that language has structure, and find it difficult to consider the opposing argument. The way we discuss language with its structure(s) of grammar, phoneme, sentence structure, etc. Even basic, informal conversation has some level of structure, such as the alternating of speakers and the logic that ties seemingly unrelated topics together.

All this is not to say that established structures do not break down at times and fail to serve the purpose for which they were created. For example, we commonly communicate effectively, albeit informally, in ways that break grammatical and/or sentence order structures.

Primary oral communication had different structures based on purpose. In some ways, these were broken far less often, out of the necessity that they not do so. For example, an epic tale was often a way to relay a historical event. In this way, it needed to have the rhythmic, ordered structure to be recalled most effectively and passed on to retain the tale most accurately. However, all this content was stored in memory, so there was more possibility for the structure to fail and the tale to become slightly altered.

Digital texts have structure in design, such as the familiar layout of a basic Web site or of a News site, which bases its layout o that of a newspaper. Additionally, one can see the structure based on line width and spacing, page length (ideally not much longer than 2 monitor screens), and so on.

2. Are there characteristics or examples of electronic communication or textual artifacts that suggest a sense of Ong’s notion of ‘intersubjectivity’ and of Heim’s notion that electronic text may provide an ‘altogether different psychic framework for human thought’?

There are characteristics of electronic communication that suggest Ong’s ‘intersubjectivity,’ but it does not appear so different from the same concept applied to live communicative interaction or writing a book/article. In these situations, we still have some audience in mind, whether live and present or just in mind. Of more interest, perhaps, is an example of the lack of such intersubjectivity.

Ong states that, “The media model is not [intersubjective].” However, while it may appear that this is not always the case, upon closer examination, the intersubjectivity is still there to some extent. To be sure, the highest percentage of human communication is created with a specific or general audience in mind (if not one physically present). There are also great benefits in knowing and/planning one’s audience. However, the blogcast/podcast can be more of an inner dialogue w/o any one in mind. I am my audience, so I am talking to me. Of course, in that situation, I am my audience, which supports the fact that there is an audience to which we are always speaking. Admittedly, I would not argue this point very far, but there are differences to be sure, such as what I expect in feedback and the fact that I may not have any intent beyond just transcribing thoughts: the rambling prose of so many bloggers.

There is some tie-in to this concept of intersubjectivity and Heim’s concept of the ‘altogether different psychic framework for human thought.’ For example, if we can acknowledge that one can, at times, write with virtually no audience in mind, then the other side to that is that a reader can experience that text and the interpreted meaning might be more open than any intended meaning of the writer.

More to the point, electronic writing does likely cause a different psychic framework of human thought in the way that we think about researching information (in the process of obtaining it and of the amount that is immediately available), of authorship and authority, and of how we communicate with virtually anyone at anytime.

3. In the theory of transformative technologies, both Heim and Ong suggest that each culture has different concepts of notions such as text, author, invention and delivery. What are the distinguishing characteristics of each of these notions (think in terms of oral, written, print and electronic culture?

In the primarily oral culture, the text (content) was not tangible; this caused the need for the rhythmic poems to help commit tales and information to memory. Therefore, there were no deep, analytical accounts of discussions beyond some historical tales. The author became the sole source of the information until/unless he (generally) passed on the tale to another individual who would commit it to memory. In terms of delivery, there had to be a live audience in the presence of the speaker/author.

The advent of writing/print separated the audience from the author/orator and placed the delivery method in the hands of the reader. In this way, the text could be experienced at anytime and there was no need for the author to be present. So, the author would have that intersubjectivity of the non-present audience in mind during invention, and the reader would have the inner voice as that narrator/orator during the delivery process, since the author is not present.

Electronic culture again transforms concepts of author, since it is often difficult to determine authorship of given content. Additionally, readers tend to care less about this point; it is the content that is of importance. So it ceases to be an issue of the medium vs. the message. Rather, it is the message vs. the authority.

4. One of Heim’s major claims is that “each new medium builds upon and extends the previous media” and suggests that a “residue” of previous technologies extends into new ones. This, in turn, might suggest how various hybrid technologies evolve. Can you cite a few examples of current hybrid technologies and identify their oral, written, print, and electronic traits?

Again, I must draw on my interest in/focus on digital orality. In part, my view is that with trends, such as podcasting, blogcasting, Skype, etc. we are creating a new form of orality. In many ways this draws on traditional (primary) orality, but also includes aspects of written, print, and electronic cultures.

Consider the example of the purely audio podcast. Clearly it is largely oral. However, behind the scenes most podcasts are scripted to some level, whether it be an informal outline (written?) or a structured, word-for-word script to be printed. The fact that it is all audio, comes back to traditional situations, such as the canon of delivery and the live orator-audience setting. However, half of delivery is about physical/visual presence, such as gesture and appearance, which is non-existent in the audio podcast.

We must also acknowledge that even the example of the podcast is far from solely oral. The creation of it requires much textual (and technical) ability, as does the ability to search for a podcast, obtain it, and listen to it.

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