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Stephen L. Talbott

In this paper I attempt to clarify some questions having to do with technological determinism. I will discuss the questions in the context of Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy. (1)

The Question

How are we to understand it when Ong speaks of the "analytic reflectiveness implemented by writing" (p. 137; emphasis added)? Is writing an independent agency, capable of acting unilaterally upon the human being from without? Is it a physical cause, reliably producing its preordained effect?

Or consider this statement:

The most spectacular and intrusive of the recent technological transformations of the word, television, manifests perhaps most clearly, and certainly most massively and deeply, the breaking up of the closed systems associated with the verbal art forms generated by writing and print. Television blurs the fictional with the real on a scale previously inconceivable. It does so not through deliberate choices made by executives, directors, writers, technicians, performers, or viewers, but rather of its very nature. (Ong, 1977: p. 315)
Does television really have a fixed nature, independent of the choices of those who bring it into being as a complex weave of human activities? What sort of a nature would this be? That of a physical object? A natural force? When, citing this remark by Ong, Roger Silverstone acknowledges the case "for seeing television as...a compelling technology that must...affect cultural forms and content" (Silverstone: p. 150), is he saying anything more than that culture must affect culture?

In this brief paper I can do little more than wave my arms summarily at a proposed set of principles for guiding us through the mine fields of technological determinism.

Determinism As a Function of Human Nature

When television first appeared, it tended to mimick radio, illustrating the general principle that new technologies often begin their lives by imitating the old. But, with time, we began to take hold of part -- perhaps a very tiny part -- of its range of expressive possibilities.

Did I state that correctly? Did we really take hold of television -- or, as Ong seems to say, did it take hold of us? Remember that, according to Ong, television achieves certain results independent of the "choices made by executives, directors, writers, technicians, performers, or viewers." The results are "of television's very nature."

But surely this is not true. What else could have determined the results, if not precisely the choices all those people made? And, of course, they don't all make the same choices. Some viewers, for example, mostly watch public television, while others spend their time with MTV. Some watch a great deal of television, and others very little. Some watch critically, and others sit there like sponges.

But, actually, I omitted the operative word in Ong's claim. He says that television achieves its results independent of our deliberate choices. This is clearly true, at least in substantial part. But it need not mean that television acts upon us from without in the manner of physical cause and effect. It may just mean, for example, that we are not fully aware of the ways in which we have participated in making television what it is. In other words, we may not be aware of our own natures.

This brings me to the first of my principles:

The seemingly inevitable results of new, technologically mediated forms of expression can be seen as reflecting the "givenness" or "fixedness" of human nature.
That is, because we are what we are -- or so far as we are what we are -- the expressive uses we make of the media of communication are somewhat predictable. Leveraging ourselves upon this fact, perhaps we can overcome the contradiction between the idea that television has taken hold of us and the idea that we have taken hold of television. If we have taken hold of television, and if we have done so according to a fixed human nature whose use of any medium is a foregone conclusion, then it seems equally true to say that the medium has taken hold of us.

But this still feels like technological determinism -- a fact owing to the emphasis upon a fixed human nature. Which brings me to my second principle:

While each of us has a given nature at any particular time, and while it may even be possible to take a statistical sum of those natures as "human nature," nothing about our natures is absolutely fixed and unchanging.
This is where technological determinism falls out of the picture altogether. As I have written elsewhere (Talbott, 1996), in the very act of pursuing our studies about the effects of communication technologies, we broaden our own understanding. This understanding, in turn, changes our relation to the technologies. So I might have stated the second principle this way:
To the extent we explore the truth of the first principle (about how the "inevitable" results of technology reflect our given natures), to that extent we falsify the principle by changing our own natures.
So far as we are what we are -- so far as our natures are given and resistant to change -- we are subject to the determinations of our technologies, which are at the same time the determinations of our own natures. (This mutuality should not surprise us. You might say that to the degree our natures are fixed, we ourselves are pieces of technology.) So far, on the other hand, as we are free to work on our natures, we are not subject to determination from withhout. And we work on our natures in part by becoming aware of what has previously determined us. So, of all people, media ecologists, who pursue exactly such awareness, should not flirt with a hard-and-fast technological determinism.

The Conversations of Consciousness

Television, in all its manifestations, is as complex a web of cultural expressions as you could possibly ask for. Certainly these expressions can powerfully affect us -- but not in the manner of physical cause and effect. Stick a probe into someone's brain and you can make his leg twitch, or produce feelings unbidden. Strike his eyeball and he will see flashes of light. The role of such physical causes upon our consciousness is pathological, and is not what we are usually referring to when we speak about the evolution of culture or consciousness.

But there is another way we can be affected, and that is by engaging in conversation. We don't cause things to happen within each other in the material sense; rather we persuade one another. We help each other to see. My third principle, then, is this:

Technologically based media (such as television) affect us, but the effects that count do not constitute technological determinism in the sense of physical cause and effect. Rather, we are engaged in a cultural conversation, where what counts above all is the impact of meaning upon meaning.
And this immediately calls for a fourth principle:
The impact of meaning upon meaning can occur without our being fully conscious of it.
Certainly Freud, whatever the value of his large, theoretical constructions, helped us to see that unconscious meanings can indeed be at work within us. It is an open question, then, when Postman talks about the machine having ideas of its own and working its will upon us, often contrary to all our (conscious) expectations -- it is an open question how much those ideas and that will are the working out of our own meanings, unconscious though they be.

I would like to sketch a radical answer to this open question -- namely, the answer that says all the effects of any given technology must be understood -- can only conceivably be understood -- in terms of an ongoing cultural conversation, a conversation of meanings. As we will see, however, these meanings need not all be conscious, and, in fact, need not al be our own in a personal sense.

The Study of Consciousness

My fifth principle is the heart of my positive message:
If we want to pursue media ecology studies, or the history of culture, or the evolution of consciousness, we must take up a position wholly within consciousness itself. We must talk about the changing contours of consciousness, and the conversations, conscious or unconscious, through which it evolves.
Things, including technological products and media of communication, have no meaning for our studies until we have learned to see their interiors -- that is, until we have assimilated them to the conversations of human consciousness.

Here I certainly must supply some elaboration and illustration, and I would like to do so by considering briefly the development of literacy, which Ong spoke of as "implementing" analytical reflectiveness. Exactly what is implementing what? Is something altering consciousness from without, or do we see instead a movement of consciousness that can only be understood from within consciousness itself?

Consider what Havelock says about the Greeks:

The Greek tongue (of Homer's time)...cannot frame words to express that "I" am one thing and the tradition is another....The Greek ego in order to achieve that kind of cultural experience which after Plato becomes possible and then normal...must separate itself out and by an effort of sheer will must rally itself to the point where it can say "I am I, an autonomous little universe of my own, able to speak, think and act in independence of what I happen to remember." (Havelock: pp. 199-200)
A Herculean labor indeed! But where does this rallying of self, this effort of sheer will, fit into the picture of alphabetic characters restructuring human consciousness? I suggest that the activity of consciousness itself, to which Havelock points, is the primary story, and the talk about alphabets and literacy is nonsense until it is made part of this primary story. I can best illustrate what I mean by offering mini-commentaries on a few of Ong's remarks. First I will just turn some of those remarks on their heads, making questions of them.

* "Chirographic and typographic folk tend to think of names as labels, written or printed tags imaginatively affixed to an object named. Oral folk have no sense of a name as a tag, for they have no idea of a name as something that can be seen" (p. 33).

But does literacy produce a mind that can see words as labels, or does it take a mind that has become capable of seeing words as labels to begin to grasp literacy? And how would we decide between these two possibilities?

* "It takes only a moderate degree of literacy to make a tremendous difference in thought processes" (p. 50).

Or, should we say, it requires a tremendous change in thought processes to achieve even a moderate degree of literacy?

* "Since in a primary oral culture conceptualized knowledge that is not repeated aloud soon vanishes, oral societies must invest great energy in saying over and over again what has been learned arduously over the ages. This need establishes a highly traditional or conservative set of mind that with good reason inhibits intellectual experimentation" (p. 41).

But does orality produce a conservative mind uninterested in experimentation, or is it that a conservative mind not yet capable of observing itself, for which the idea of experimentation holds no meaning, is naturally content with oral expression?

* "By separating the knower from the known...writing makes possible increasingly articulate introspectivity" (p. 105).

Or is it that the increasing separation of the knower from the known, and a growing power of introspection, are what first make writing possible?

* And lastly: "The democratizing quality of the alphabet can be seen in South Korea" (p. 93).

In this case Ong himself supplies the reversal on the very next page, where he says, "Only in the twentieth century, with the greater democratization of Korea, did the alphabet achieve its present (still less than total) ascendancy."

Well, I hope it may be occurring to you that these are more or less artificial antitheses. It's hard to rule out either member of the various pairs. And, in fact, as soon as we realize that we are talking in all cases about movements wholly within consciousness, then determinism falls out of the picture, and we find that the apparent antitheses present us with nonconflicting, complementary movements.

Ong speaks, for example, of the "interiorization" of writing and print, which makes possible new kinds of thinking (pp. 9, 43, 173). If we wanted, we could ask, as before, "Does interiorized writing lead to a new kind of thinking, or does a new kind of thinking get exteriorized in writing?" But the answer in this case is clear. Yes, a new kind of thinking gets interiorized through reading and writing. But interior always precedes exterior. That is, writing itself is first of all the exteriorization of an interior before ever it could provide material for subsequent interiorization. This is why writing can affect us profoundly.

This is critically important. What we interiorize when we read and write is already an interior. Teach someone to write characters without understanding -- or even to read without understanding (as in reading a foreign language) -- and you will not have enabled him to interiorize literacy, because you will not have provided him with an interior he can engage in conversation. (2)

So when Ong tells us that "philosophical thinking" cannot be carried on by the unaided human mind but only by the human mind that has familiarized itself with and deeply interiorized the technology of writing (p. 173), we can offer the not very traumatic, though decisively important re-phrasing, "...only by the mind that has exercised itself upon its own literate expressions."

Similarly, Ong describes how "the shift from oral, mnemonic formulas to writing "freed the mind for more original, more abstract thought" (p. 24). Our slight re-wording could render this as follows: "The mind gained by degrees enough freedom and self-awareness to abstract the word from the continuous flow of meaning and to conceive the project of writing it down as an objective `thing.' The newly detached word (as an ever-renewed and strengthened inner achievement) then provided endless, repetitive exercise in this project of freedom. The exercise remains what it began as: an inner gesture of consciousness to separate itself from the outer signifier of consciousness, and to practice (in increasing freedom) the recombining of signifier and meaning."

Literacy, writing, and print refer to extensive cultural complexes. Like all cultural expressions, they originate in human consciousness. As to terms like "paper" and "ink," in their existence as mere physical materials they have no meaning for our inquiry at all. Only when they are made into expressions of the human interior do they gain relevance. Just as the air is taken hold of by the intentional human vocal apparatus and formed into speech suffused with meaning, so, too, pen and paper can be taken hold of intentionally by our bodies so that our movements and markings are invested with meanings flowing from our interiors. The two media may have many differences, but they both consist of an outer, sense-perceptible medium through which an inner meaning can be grasped. Without the inner aspect, they give us nothing to talk about if our subject is culture or the evolution of human consciousness. Even as to history in the broadest sense, R. G. Collingwood was able to write, "All history is the history of ideas."

The Evolution of Consciousness

In my last few minutes I would like to sketch the barest outlines of an evolution of consciousness as it might look in its own terms, without the imagined intrusion of alien causal factors extrinsic to consciousness.

When we contemplate the earliest light of history, what we see looks very much like man's slow emergence as a distinct individual from antecedent unities. The early Greeks could not speak of bodies or material things without also speaking of inner, soul qualities. Conversely, they could not speak of gods or soul qualities without also speaking of material embodiment. Matter and spirit had not yet pulled apart into the starkly opposed concepts of our day. Similarly, speaking of primitive societies, Francis Cornford remarks that we must "give up thinking of the individual as having any separate existence over against society, and rather conceive him as completely immersed in one continuous social mentality" (p. 47). And the word itself was originally an inner/outer unity, where outer, sense-perceptible sound and inner meaning were inseparable.

History can be seen from one point of view as the fragmentation of these unities. Here Owen Barfield introduces the crucial notion of polarity (Barfield, 1967). The unities do not break up into absolute opposites, but into polar opposities, where each pole can only exist by virtue of, and in dependence upon, the other. (There is no such thing as a magnetic north pole without a south pole. The tiniest sliver cut off from the north end of a magnet would still contain both a north and south pole.) So the object recedes to its place "out there" only to the degree that, and only because, the subject is gathered "in here," and vice versa. But the antecedent unity of the polarity, like that of the magnet, is never wholly lost, so that we get into trouble when we start thinking, as science finally did, that the object out there can be conceived in absolute terms, independently of the observer in here.

The error gets even worse when we begin to imagine that this impossible objective-matter-as-such precedes and is the origin of consciousness. Barfield somewhere remarks that to ask about the origin of language is rather like asking about the origin of origin. We were uttered by language on the way toward finally interiorizing the word and learning to utter it from within our now separate selves. This is, of course, good theology of the sort Ong would appreciate, for "In the beginning was the Word...." But the notion is by no means restricted to the Judeo-Christian tradition.

So when Ong says that oral peoples "consider words to have great power" (p. 32), we have to agree. It's not just that they were considered to have great power; they did have great power. The creative word, reverberating through the world as a whole, resonated within the consciousness of the human being, creating and shaping that inner space within which eventually the word could be spoken anew, this time as the free expression of the human individual.

Likewise, if, as Ong says, oral compositions deal with "heavy," outsized, monumental characters (p. 70), we have to agree -- not in the first instance because this was a requirement for memory, as he suggests, but because the word reverberating through the world is a creative, archetypal word. It is the word of the gods, from whom all peoples felt themselves descended. At first, all history is cosmic history, and all activity is divine activity.

The gradual polarization of these earlier unities gave us the increasingly sharp distinctions between the sacred and profane, subject and object, self and world, word and thing, meaning and reference, poetic and prosaic, knower and known. Certainly literacy played a huge role in these various splittings. But I hope you will agree that this role cannot consist of the effect of a "technology," conceived as a material cause, upon consciousness. Every word spoken, heard, written, or read is first of all a gesture of consciousness before it can affect anything.

What may have predisposed us to think of material determination is the fact that clearly the individual, say, in Greece of the craft literacy period, did not understand and choose the directions of his own inner evolution. This is not surprising; the individual was not yet there to choose his own coming into being as an individual! But this does not mean he was being molded by technology in any material, causal sense. After all, what worked upon him from without was the word. This working has a lot to do with what Havelock was pointing at when he spoke of the rallying of the self and the sheer effort of will through which alone the individual "I" could come into being (Havelock: pp. 199-200). The rallying could not be masterminded by a self that didn't yet exist. Only slowly did the collective mentality of the tribe, the ensouled reality of the world, the reality that encompassed both man and gods, polarize into the familiar tension that we know between self and other.

The possibility of talking about technological determinism in the physical cause-and-effect sense only arose with the extreme polarization of consciousness between observed object and observing subject. Only today could we have come up with such an idea. But we must not forget the antecedent unity that can never wholly be lost. There is no object affecting us that does not exist by virtue of consciousness. We meet ourselves, whether collectively or individually, whether unconsciously or consciously, in every human artifact, and even in the things of the world.

According to Thomas J. Farrell, "The presence and growth of human interiority is arguably the most distinctive theme in all of Ong's work" (Farrell: p. 29). All I am really saying is that any study of the evolution of consciousness or of the social impact of technology must begin and end with this interiority. There is simply nothing else to talk about.

Thank you.

This paper was read on May 17, 1997, at a seminar on the work of Walter Ong. The seminar was conducted by the Department of Communications and Media Studies, Fordham University, New York city.


1. All citations from Ong's work will be from this book unless otherwise indicated.
2. Actually, it would probably be impossible to teach these skills without providing some meanings, and these would constitute an interior for the student to engage and be engaged by.


Barfield, Owen. Speaker's Meaning. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.

Gronbeck, Bruce E, Thomas J. Farrell, and Paul A. Soukup, Media, Consciousness, and Culture. Newbury Park: Sage, 1991.

Farrell, Thomas J. "An Overview of Walter J. Ong's Work." In Gronbeck, Farrell, and Soukup, 1991.

Havelock, E. A. Preface to Plato. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Ong, Walter J. Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy. London: Routledge, 1982.

Silverstone, Roger. "Television, Rhetoric, and the Return of the Unconscious in Secondary Oral Culture." In Gronbeck, Farrell, and Soukup, 1991.

Talbott, Stephen L. "Media Ecology: Taking Account of the Knower." Media Ecology. Paper presented to the 1996 annual conference of the New York Speech Communication Association conference. Revised version published in Media Ecology (forthcoming).

Steve Talbott :: On Being Determinedly Literate

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