Brooding about “secondary orality’

Last night I referred to this article in the New Yorker, and promised to revert to it today. So here goes.

The central premise is worrisome for someone like me, brought up in a culture of reading: that it’s not just my biased perception, people really are reading less. Why worrisome? Because of the implications of such a state of affairs, implications that I hadn’t considered deeply enough.

Here are some excerpts from the article, let me try and encourage you to read the whole thing:

It can be amusing to read a magazine whose principles you despise, but it is almost unbearable to watch such a television show. And so, in a culture of secondary orality, we may be less likely to spend time with ideas we disagree with.

Self-doubt, therefore, becomes less likely. In fact, doubt of any kind is rarer. It is easy to notice inconsistencies in two written accounts placed side by side. With text, it is even easy to keep track of differing levels of authority behind different pieces of information. The trust that a reader grants to the New York Times, for example, may vary sentence by sentence. A comparison of two video reports, on the other hand, is cumbersome. Forced to choose between conflicting stories on television, the viewer falls back on hunches, or on what he believed before he started watching.

No effort of will is likely to make reading popular again. Children may be browbeaten, but adults resist interference with their pleasures. It may simply be the case that many Americans prefer to learn about the world and to entertain themselves with television and other streaming media, rather than with the printed word, and that it is taking a few generations for them to shed old habits like newspapers and novels.

In an oral culture, cliché and stereotype are valued, as accumulations of wisdom, and analysis is frowned upon, for putting those accumulations at risk. There’s no such concept as plagiarism, and redundancy is an asset that helps an audience follow a complex argument. Opponents in struggle are more memorable than calm and abstract investigations, so bards revel in name-calling and in “enthusiastic description of physical violence.”

As the scholars Jack Goody and Ian Watt observed, it is only in a literate culture that the past’s inconsistencies have to be accounted for, a process that encourages skepticism and forces history to diverge from myth.

We never had a television at home, and for sure that influenced my reading habits and those of my siblings. I don’t particularly like the idiot box; I tolerate it for period drama, sport and humour. Wherever possible, I’ve switched to the laptop or handheld device. Part of this switch was driven by my not liking broadcast media. But another part was this need to balance graphics with text. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but an endless diet of pictures alone creates modern cavemen.

When graphics entered the hitherto text-based world of computing, I loved it. Not by sacrificing text,  but by augmenting text with graphics. [When I speak at conferences, where listening aids are called for, I tend to use a mixture of words and graphics, a word or phrase supported by a picture or two.]

I’ve never experienced anything other than a literate culture, so I was fascinated by some of the observations of what an oral culture represented. My thanks to Halley Suitt again for pointing this article out to me, there is now something else for me to research and learn about.

Much of the article intrigued me; some of it fascinated me; and some of it worried me.

The most worrying thing, from my perspective, is the apparent increased risk of groupthink and herd instinct. I had never considered the secondary orality issue before. I think it’s so important that I’ll repeat the quote here:

It can be amusing to read a magazine whose principles you despise, but it is almost unbearable to watch such a television show. And so, in a culture of secondary orality, we may be less likely to spend time with ideas we disagree with.

The world has enough bigots and narrow-minded people and intolerant people already. I dread to think that we could be creating an environment where there will be more such people. If that is what TV 2.0 is likely to mean, then I guess I need to consider moving. To Mars maybe.

13 thoughts on “Brooding about “secondary orality’”

  1. In a purely oral culture, discourse by necessity must be simplified to a point where it can be passed on with relative ease and accuracy. This surely discourages dissent? It’s no accident I believe, that the flowering of Western knowledge, learning, understanding, whatever – was a direct result of the spread of the written word, as opposed to the oral histories that had prevailed before.

  2. Isn’t life all about communication!?! And isn’t it true that while we have incredible technologies to use for our communication we are somehow stuck?

    Where is the deep, meaningful communication really taking place? Where are these moments of truth and understanding beyond mental constructs and concepts – beyond the realm of political correctness?

    Written words – spoken words…they are all just transporting this much of meaning. The real meaning which brings value to “the other” is transported with the heart – and yes, it can speak… even without words!

  3. My 2p’s worth-

    TV 2.0 won’t be anything like the old TV of “The Royle Family” where people sat round staring at the screen with their fags and bacon sandwiches… it’s individualised, interactive and web-connected. The web is first in people’s lives, and TV is just an add-on.

    In other words, we are still reading, and comparing texts, in fact a lot more than before- on the web. Kids’ critical skills these days amaze me, and I think they come from learning how to steer their own unique courses through the information overload.

  4. Alice, that’s what I thought. The Pew research suggests otherwise, that we are not “still reading, and comparing texts”, without coming near ” a lot more than before”….

    Till I saw the article I was pretty relaxed about the trends, accepting that the youth of today were finding newer and different ways. Now I wonder whether I’m looking at a narrow segment of society…..

  5. Ironically, the article, and indeed this very blog posting, were “TLDR” – too long, didn’t read.
    (No trolling intended.)

  6. Thanks for this very insightful posting, JP (and Halley Suitt, and Caleb Crain of course)!
    I too, had never really thought about those implications – but it’s definitely an important issue.

    However, I tend to agree with Alice; while the stereotypical homo modernis* might be the popcorn-munching TV viewer, an increasing number of people today are using the web as their main source of information (for better or worse) – and that mainly means text-based media.
    (Whether blogs and social news sites can/should actually replace traditional MSM and journalism, that’s a very different issue though… )

    * yes, I just made that up – and yes, I hardly know any Latin (unfortunately)

  7. Ironic indeed. I guess one of the leading indicators of people’s disinterest in reading is the need for everything to be shorter and shorter, brief to the point of absurdity. Dinosaurs like me just don’t get that.

  8. @JP: That’s probably because of the oft-cited “information overload” (which is sort of a misnomer anyway); with all this information available at our fingertips, we feel like we need to know it all, so the time we can invest for each issue individually keeps decreasing…

  9. I do wonder if the vast amount of information available on the web has something do with the need to chop everything into neat little soundbites; the increasing size of the media’s echo chamber probably doesn’t help either.

    The sentence you quoted twice sent a bit of a chill down my spine, however, because I really do believe that although the new media should be bringing people closer together (and in some ways it does), it is actually making it easier to filter out dissenters and opposing viewpoints. The need to examine thoughts and ideas seems to have been forsaken in favor of catchphrases and a love of sensationalism.

    Perhaps it is just the activist/idealist in me, but I think that reading (actual books and literature) gives people the courage to examine their beliefs and question authority.

  10. It does say in that article that children’s reading skills improved with access to the internet, as I suspected (even when they were reading rubbish, apparently). I think that’s the key.

    We’re probably not dealing with a single culture here, but ensuring that “secondary orality” does not take over is important. Just letting the kids use wikipedia etc for school research is not enough- schools need to teach them how to be who they want to be and get what they want to get from the web, in an individually empowering way. Otherwise they are surely more likely to sit there absorbing images passively instead.

  11. Couldn’t agree more, Alice. There’s a deal of research about that makes this point. Reading rubbish is good, because reading is good. You can improve your filters and selections later.

    My family read comic books like they were going out of style. This will be the subject of another post, maybe later today.

Let me know what you think