Saturday, November 20, 2010

The shift away from Oral Tradition to Technology of Writing

The study of Ong, Plato and Homer together allow our thoughts to converge on the practice of oration as compared to the technology of writing, and the effect oration has had on civilizations past and present, and equally important what ill-effects have occurred as civilization moves away from honoring oration. 
Uni-dimensional writing
 Walter J. Ong, S.J. brought some wonderful insights to the study of oration, I find the most profound of those insights to be that “sight isolates, sound incorporates”.  In stating this, Ong breaks down the main attributes of these two senses as they relate to the technology of writing.  Sight is what is required (or touch if you consider braille) in order to communicate through the technology of writing which is uni-dimensional in nature and monochronic, or linear, in appearance to the consciousness. Take a moment to read the  visual depiction of multiple translations of “Thank you” and note for yourself how your eyes move over the words in a sequence.  Hearing is what allows us to multi-dimensionally experience the world, in that the wrap-around sense of hearing embeds rhythm, melody and resulting memory into our very being, as this “My Thank You Song” video by Guillermo Echevarria demonstrates.  If you consider that vision is a sense that requires slicing of the world into small digestible sections, or the “dissecting sense” per Ong, you can see where he is going with the idea that auditory is a “unifying sense” in that one is required to synthesize all the sounds coming in all at once without being able to section it into smaller slices.  We know, for instance, that memorization of passages or complex concepts is made easier through song or storytelling.

Misuse of Technology, or not ready for technology?
Plato seems to agree with the perspective that writing is a uni-dimensional mode of communication, as compared to speech, when he pens a dubious view of the new technology in Socrates’ dialogue with Phaedrus—in fact we feel almost a disdain for writing in the following exchange, “I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence.”  In this Socrates also shares that he fears that technologies and new discoveries (writing) may become viral and spread to those who are not ready for it nor understand it, and thus may misuse it.  Interestingly, this same concern for the “misuse” of the newest discoveries is a cycle we see throughout history, and I hypothesize this is a result of a age-old and general feeling of superiority and hubris by man.  Those that “have” consider those that “have not” to be inferior and, thus, have the opinion that the “have nots” would be unable to comprehend or make use of the newest innovations in an appropriate and approved way.     
Theseus son of Aegeus
In fact, the fear about the misuse of writing is indeed rampant in the oratory cultures as well, as oration is indeed prone to misuse and misunderstanding.  As revealed by Ong, the orator, in the act of reciting the stories, changes the content based on the audience, his own mood and even the political events of the day.  Just because an orator says he used some verse as before doesn’t mean he used it word-for-word as we would interpret from a literal, verbatim-focused society.  So rather than subordinating to the parent verse, an orator uses an additive technique that enhances the story and thereby changes it, even if the change is slight.  To moderate this potential misunderstanding, aggregative methods are incorporated into oration that allow for clarity from the reader’s point of view.  For example, to ensure the reader understands who a character is, name-triggering phrases such as “godlike Plyphemus, Theseus son of Aegeus, or dread son of Saturn” are used to ensure the reader is tracking with the story line in the Iliad.  When these phrases are regularly sprinkled about in the text, this may sound repetitive to the reader of the written word, which rewards the concise writer who uses sparse word choice in their story.  However, when hearing the entire Book 1 of the Iliad, these repetitive structures are key to helping the reader follow along. 
 We see this repetitive nature of oration as key to modern day success of public speakers, a recent examples of this strategy is from President Barak Obama’s presidential inauguration speech sprinkled liberally with the phrase Yes we can!”   
Oratory, or storytelling, by elders
Although we see some traces of the oratory tradition in modern day, the loss of oration as a tradition in the culture of the United States has had negative effects on a specific population— that of our elders which belong both to the silent generation (1927-45) as well as the baby boomer generation (1946-64).  Elders of communities that prized oration used to hold the collective’s past in their minds, reinforcing their place of importance and honor in the community as they shared their memories through stories and parables.  Their specialty was the relating of parables based on the past so the young could use the messages and morals of the story to solve modern-day issues. These communities position their elders in positions of honor and power in their family home.  Homer reinforces this respect for elders in the words spoken by the smooth-tongued Nestor, the facile speaker of the Pylians, who was presiding over his third generation of Pylosians, “I am older than either of you; therefore be guided by me.  Moreover I have been the familiar friend of men even greater than you are, and they did not disregard my counsels…Not a man now living could withstand them, but they heard my words, and were persuaded by them.”  Nestor commanded respect as a cultural norm and by clearly outlining where he was positioned in the political hierarchy and his demonstrated powerful influence over others.
Comparatively, the US culture, in which I live, has an aging population where almost 13% is aged 65 or older, a percentage that is estimated to grow to almost 20% by the year 2030.   To care for this growing percentage of the population, one in four households provides care to a relative or friend aged 50 or older (  This means that 75% of the aging population in the US is or will be cared for in assisting living communities, where they are taken out of the key influential positions and made to feel tangential and removed from the younger generations.  This separation diminishes the opportunity for knowledge sharing between generations, and the oral tradition of telling stories about “when they were young” and the lessons those stories may teach are decreased significantly.
In order to preserve this historic knowledge-base, one that is not recorded in the technology of writing, rather shared mostly in the oral tradition, we will need to find alternative means of connecting generations and bridging the gaps between those members of the silent/baby boomer generations and members of the younger generations.  Whereas this relationship is fairly automatic in the 25% of US multi-generational homes, this gap-bridging structure is not present in the balance of homes in the US—thus the need to expand alternative models such as “Connecting Elders to Kids” by Junior Achievement and KAETA (Kids and Elders Through Arts) or this unique program in Kankakee, Illinois which brings four generations together regularly as community outreach.

Homer.  (800 B.C.E.)  The Iliad, Book 1.
Ong, W.  (2002).  Orality and Literacy; Chapter 3.  Routledge, NY.

Plato.  (370 B.C.E.).  Phaedrus.

The Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy.  “Facts on Aging.”  Retrieved from

US Government Administration on Aging, Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Misrepresentation of Facts

            I do indeed subscribe to the realities as laid out by our Session Three scholars, that of a US society that is pummeled from all sides by corporations and news organization with an agenda driven by capitalism, and very rarely is that agenda beneficial to us.
Maldive Islands, Indian Ocean
McKibben frames this awareness of the misrepresentation of facts by media beautifully when he states, “Our society is moving steadily from natural sources of information toward electronic ones…so we need to understand the two extremes.  One is the target of our drift.  The other an anchor that might tug us gently back, a source of information that once spoke clearly to us and now hardly even whispers...Information ecology is now heralded as an adequate replacement to the natural ecology.  TV masks and drowns out the information that used to be provided by the physical world.  (McKibben, Daybreak). Continuing this vein of questioning, he follows that up with “Can we, blessed with technology but also with nature, get it right?” (5 AM).  By this rhetorical question, McKibben is asking if we can somehow align what nature has mandated as requirements for survival with the new reality of a an age known as the “knowledge age” where knowledge trumps skills and physical competencies.
Frozen Food VS Food Source
These skills and competencies were instilled in humanity to manage the limitations that we have had to deal with since civilization started—how to find enough food to feed the community, how to keep ourselves warm, what water sources were potable.  Considering these limitations, McKibben uses his experiment of watching 24 hours of televised cable channels to compare microwavable mini-burgers to the actual production of that same food 150 years ago.  The process of raising the beef, understanding the requirements and realities of both agricultural and livestock farming, gaining the competencies of butchering, baking  and preserving were skills that were required in order to enjoy a dinner of hamburgers.  In stark contrast, our present day process required to put hamburgers on the table for dinner includes only two necessities—money and a visit to the store where we see a seemingly endless supply of burgers, buns and condiments.  Imagine if we had to raise & grind the wheat, kneed the dough by hand and bake it on the hearth?  Would you let one of those pieces of bread start to mold?  Would you mindlessly throw it out with the garbage?  As McLuhan states, “content of a medium is like the juicy meat piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind” (1994) which is to say the medium does its best to distract and placate us, even snickering with us at the absurdity of the medium, while simultaneously sliding messaging into our subconscious with the goal of affecting our conscious decisions for their financial gain.

Considering these limited resources, I’m extremely disappointed with the experience Dena Kleiman shared with the New York Times about her trip to southern Chile.  According to her story, she had always fantasized about eating her own catch; in essence feeding herself through her own hunter-gatherer experience.  However, in the act of consuming her own catch, she was struck with the violence and guilt of it all, and left the fish uneaten.  What a tremendous waste of a limited resource and, in what many other cultures of the world would relate as well, what a violation of the natural order.  The rationale used by hunting cultures is to hunt for subsistence, and in so doing, honor all parts of the animal that sacrificed their life for the existence of their own culture.  Dena failed to honor the animal she lured out from the depths of the southern Chilean river by refusing to eat the very animal she killed, and in so doing, reminded us all how disconnected we are from the source of our food.  Another view of this same disconnect principle is presented to us in the movie Food Inc where the exposed process of agribusiness has decimated any warm and friendly concept of farming that the average American holds in their mind.
This disconnect then brings us to Chomsky, who holds that when people have access to information and curiosity you can no longer require them to submit to the rule of law without unbridled participation.  This unbridled participation hinges upon a society that presents facts, then provides a forum for dialogue and discussion.  As we saw in Outfoxed, one news source with enough financial backing can channel the entire ecosystem of “news” and create the reality its financial backer’s want the public to see.   As McKibben relates, “Most of the time, though, the information that TV has to offer is not spelled out in such tidy little factlets.  It is at least a little hidden in the fabric of movies and newscasts and commercials and reruns.  Not so hidden that you need to hire a team of deconstruction contractors to analyze it all—just hidden enough that the messages are passed over, absorbed through the eyes without trigger in the entire brain” (McKibben, Daybreak). 
With this overarching concern for the individual’s attention to the messaging and content, responsibility rests on citizens to develop avenues of voice that are publicly funded (e.g. Public Radio International) and to take individual leadership in their own consumption of the media and respond with unbridled passion when the blatant and/or subversive misrepresentation of facts does occur.

Greenwald, R.  (2004).  Outfoxed; Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. 
Herman & Chomsky, N..  (1988). A Propaganda Model from Manufacturing Consent.  Pantheon, NY.
McKibben, B.  (1993). Daybreak from The Age of Missing Information.  Penguin Books, NY
McKibben, B. (1993).  5:00 A.M. from The Age of Missing Information.  Penguin Books, NY
McLuhan, M.  (1994).  Understanding Media; the extensions of man.  Gingko Press, CA.

What is fact in today's world?

Neil Postman (1931-2003)
I was helping my 12-year-old son do research for his geneology project.  His research topic was to review a ten-year period of his grandfather's life and see those events from his grandfather's perspective.  Of course this is using the phenomonological approach to communication, which I enthusiastically shared with him.  His blank stare told me everything - he didn't get it nor was it a need to know for his paper.  Anyway, in looking for references to this ten-year timeframe, my son just used the search engine Google and referenced any site that came up.  When I observed this behavior, we had a chat about fact or fiction.  His view on fact was if it was published on the internet or in a book, it was fact.  As Postman writes, "Technology imperiously commandeers our most important terminology...and redefines [it]" (1993, pp. 8) My son's definition didn't jive with my definition, and was certainly an opportunity to carefully define this terminology with him.  Whew, what a wonderfully teachable moment and a perfect segway into this topic.

Jawaharlal Nehru & Gandhi
Classmate Barbara had a wonderful perspective, "a fact is a fact until it isn't a fact".  Famous Indian statesman Jawaharlal Nehru said, "Facts are facts and will not disappear on account of your likes."   So what makes a fact a fact?  IMHO (fun CMD word) a fact is a finding that is established and proven through data points and empirical evidence; something that is in actual existence and not based simply on someone's opinion or conjecture.   What makes it continue as a fact after it is established as a fact?  Again, IMHO, a fact must be continually and objectively proven in order to retain its credibility as a fact.  What conditions have to be met before the fact is no longer a fact and, using Nehru's term, disappears?  Once again IMHO, a fact that cannot be objectively defended against challenge, is proven wrong through empirical evidence or not in actual existence any longer is not a fact.  "Outfoxed; Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism" movie pointed out the gross negligence of the media mogel in how he and his organization pushed their version of the facts in the form of commentary, then used the platform of "just the facts" to constantly blur the line between fact and personal/corporate viewpoint.  Seemingly the goal of the organization is to muddy the water of fact just enough to create doubt in the public's mind, with the goal of preventing the other side from winning.  Read more about this expose here

With regard to the possibility of creating community on the internet, I believe community is more alive than ever as the population of the world gets more comfortable with the ever-improving platform of the internet, and as socioeconomic conditions allow for a wider base of participation.  Just an example, at a halloween party 2 weeks ago, an old friend approached me and asked if I knew anyone in London.  Of course, I know a few, so answered to the affirmative.  A few more interesting minutes later, we realized that my friend in London, England and my friend standing in front of me in Redmon, WA USA shared the same sperm donor.  I believe that at no other time in history have we been able to have donor identity transparently visible to both parties, and have access to the database that allowed both of my friends to make the connection.  Of course the social network that connects us all was the final link to complete the circle of friendship and bring me into the picture.  I have enjoyed reading other's postings on how an online community has enriched their lives as well. 

Postman, Neil.  (1993).  Technopoly; The Surrender of Culture to Technology.  Vintage Books, NY.
OutFoxed; Rupert Mudocks War on Journalism

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Reflections on CMD in Ben Affleck’s character monologue from the movie “Clerks” (1994)

In character, Affleck uses some examples of computer mediated discourse (CMD) lingo as defined by Herring to be the study of which languages are being used on the net, and even more interestingly, how these languages are being used (Thurlow, 2004).  Examples of CMD terminology, or netspeak, used in this movie include “buzz” and “net-nerds”, and the usage of these terms leaves the two subjects that Affleck’s character is addressing with puzzled looks on their faces.  Clearly they were not part of the very group that Affleck was disparaging, although Affleck seemed to be a card-carrying member himself. 

Thurlow, C., Lengel, L., Tomic, A.  (2004)  Computer Mediated Communication; Social Interaction and the Internet.  Sage Publications, London.

Reflections on internet-based relationships in the movie "You've Got Mail" (1998)

It was interesting to revisit the opening up of Meg Ryan’s character to a stranger online.  I can’t help but reflect back twelve years ago when 90% of the internet user population was located in richer, more industrialized countries which accounted for only 15% of the world’s population (Thurlow, 2004).  Compare that statistic to 12 years later, 2010, when internet usage in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region of the world made up almost 42% of the internet user population of the world.  Interestingly, countries that have the second (India) and fourth (Indonesia) largest populations in the world have very low penetration rates of internet usage at 7% and 12% respectively.  With this additional growth potential in APAC, I hypothesize the balance will surely shift in the near future to over 50% of the worldwide online presence being represented by the Asia-Pacific region, lead by China.
Had this geographic diversity been represented when “You’ve got mail” was filmed in 1998, would Meg’s character have felt as comfortable sharing with a complete stranger?  According to German sociologist Ferdinand Tรถnnies, Gemeinschaft, or small and intimate communities, when combined with locality, or sharing a common geographical setting, creates space for intimate sharing and relationship development (Thurlow, 2004).  In 1998, the western-centric spread of internet technology assured Meg’s character that she shared a common socioeconomic community, since 90% of the users on the internet were from richer and more industrialized nations.  Would she have made the same choices, considering the complex cultural and linguistic mix that is now tapping the internet?

Miniwatts Marketing Group.  (2000-2010).  Retrieved from
Thurlow, C., Lengel, L., Tomic, A.  (2004)  Computer Mediated Communication; Social Interaction and the Internet.  Sage Publications, London.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Computer Mediated Communication is Virally Mythic

Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) has reached every corner of the world, but according to, only 29% of the world’s population has internet access as of June 2010.  When seen through the lens of Postman’s Faustian Bargain, “for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage” (1998).  As this relates to the topic at hand, Postman advocates that we give equal weight to 71% of the world’s population who have no access to the internet.  The aggressive adoption of the internet has far-reaching effect, and surely more effects are still to be discovered.  In this paper, I seek to frame the impact of the viral spread of the internet on one generation of the world’s youth, specifically the generational group born between 1981 and 2000 called the Millennials (Keener, 2009).  Within this framework I hope to highlight the disadvantages of CMC taking on mythic proportions for this specific generation.
            To frame this discovery, let us take a brief walk back to a time the Millennials have limited or no experience with.  Imagine a time before Skype®, the revolutionary free voice over telephony protocol that allows video and voice calls.  Reflect on a time when the concept of instant messaging (IM), of which ICQ® was the groundbreaker, wasn't even a murmur in business much less a day-to-day imperative.  Walk back in time when the daily business revenue reports had to be sent by postal service with a wax seal on the back of the envelope to ensure no tampering had occurred.  Perhaps you recall a time when international calls were so expensive one could only afford to call once a month for 10 minutes to loved ones.  Consider that at one point the act of sending an email was a new buzz in business and a revolutionary idea taking much prep time—computers would crash, email clients would fail, a dial-up connection would break off in the midst of sending, or attachments to the email acted as a lead weight to the process—all potentially resulting in a failed send. 
While this reflection seems to bring forth a memory of long ago, dear reader, you have a clear picture of my first international assignment in Germany from 1991-1995. 
Fast forward to the present as my international assignment just ended, a full eighteen years after I first worked in a foreign country.  In this current time, the millennial generation includes teens, new hires just entering the workforce and mid-level employees just reaching the age of thirty.  On this last international assignment, my only difficulty with keeping up with family was the timing of the call due to a 12.5 hour time difference.  In business, IM and text messaging were required business communication tools, phone calls using VOIP technology were free and 90% clear of disruption, and video conferencing was a choice to be used at any time.
The millennial generation has always has these technologies to draw from; they were early adopters and indeed more proficient at their computers than their parents.  This perspective lends itself to apathy for the meaning, intention and danger represented by CMC, with the focus mostly toward the usability of CMC.  With this imbalance of perspective, CMC has taken on mythic proportions and has become in some ways unquestionable. As an example, two female co-workers from the millennial generation were shocked to have their Facebook® records subpoenaed by the courts in order to provide proof of their emotional trauma due to sexual discrimination, as evidenced in a court case against Simply Storage Management LLC (McKinney, 2010). 
The millennial generation members that have access to the internet know very little of a world without CMC from first-hand experience, thus have the impression that the internet has always been and will continue to always be a core of their communities in some form.  As in Postman’s reference to his students’ misconception that the alphabet has always been, the internet can be mistaken for an overarching fundamental of life. 
With this life experience, it is easy for the millennials to unquestionably follow as the water in a river follows the creek bed.  To move them from this single mindedness into a more critical line of questioning it is not as simple as inspiring the student to look for reliable sources on the internet.  It is unquestionably difficult to raise the level of discussion out of the tactical discussion of “how” to use the internet into the more strategic discussion of why to use it, for whom is it used and ultimately for what purpose always remembering that the internet is a “product of human creativity and hubris” (Postman, 1998). 
To get to this strategic level, questions such as the following should be raised regularly by the millennials: Is the internet to be used to further epistemological understanding of the world?  Is the purpose for use of the internet to engage at the phenomenological level of communication and view the world from each other’s perspective? How can we consider those left behind by CMC, the 71% of the world’s population that is not connected to the internet?  
We, as mentors, managers and parents to this generation, can and must provide the framework for this discussion along with policies to guide the use of this technology known as CMC in order to counter the mythic status that the internet has attained in the past twenty years.    


Keeter, S and Taylor, P.  (2009, December 11).  The Millennials.  Retrieved from

McKinney, C.  (2010, August 10).  Court Orders Plaintiff to Turn Over Pictures and Messages from Facebook. Retrieved from

Postman, N.  (1998, March 27).  Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change.  Denver, CO.