Knowledge Science 5: Orality and Literacy

Walter Ong’s book “Orality and Literacy” is a very interesting book. It shows how thinking changes when an oral language becomes a written language.

To most of us — at least all those who are reading this — literacy is the way for us to think and express our thoughts. In the modern world — after Gutenberg — literacy is commonly equated to knowledge. But is that correct. Most knolwedge starts with experience. Experience is based on observations — on data — with words we start replacing experiences with their sybols and with writing we start expressing symbols and start equating our experiences to a collection of symbols. This does have some interesting advantages, but at the cost of moving farther and farther away from the world where most experiences take place.

Plato was against writing because he believed that when one goes from oral expression to written expression, one loses important content that comes from expressions from the expresser. And that is true. So the permanence is achieved at the cost of distance from expressibility. This is the cost we pay in any abstraction.

Considering that at one time, there was no choice — writing was the dominant mode of knowledge production, storage, and dissemination. But now that is no longer true. In such a changed world, it is important to understand the tradeoffs and study them to develop more complete knolwedge representation approaches that could be abstract as well as experiential. I think the issue is not text or oral, but when oral (or really experiential) is better than text (abstract) and when it is the other way. This understanding will help us use of right tools to capture right experiences and abstractions to advance knowledge.

I will only mention one quote from the book — there are too many great quotes and insights in this book. The following is my favorite:

Human communiction is never one way.Aways, it not only calls for response but is shaped in its very form and content by anticipated response.

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