Walter's Wireless World

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 21 December 2003

What would Walter Ong have thought about the current evolution of mobile media, or, What Would Jesus Moblog?

Last month, Howard Rheingold initiated an extraordinary discussion in this space about how Marshall McLuhan might have approached mobile media, and asking us to apply some of the great thinker’s Laws of Media to the wireless arena.

Well, that got me thinking about how some other great media theorists might have approached our fledgling wireless environment were they alive today. And although Walter Ong only passed away this past year (2003), he hadn’t quite gotten around to considering the impact of mobile media on our styles of communication - at least not in recorded form.

But given the breadth and depth of Ong’s media critique, it shouldn’t be too hard to infer a bit of where his line of inquiry would have taken him. A colleague of McLuhan’s, Ong went a bit further than his former teacher in substantiating their shared belief that new media technologies change the way we process information and understand our reality.

Ong’s big contribution - his equivalent of McLuhan’s ‘medium is the message,’ is his division of civilization into Oral and Literate stages. To Ong, the invention of writing pretty much changed everything - and not completely for the better. After all, Jesus, Buddha, and Socrates were not writers, but speakers. Their words were transcribed by later followers. What was it about the ideas of these great men that made them particularly suited for oral transmission? And would they have had as much success were they writers? Or mobloggers?

Ong elevated the pre-literate stage of civilization to a more noble era of Primary Orality. Compared with literate civilization, it retained a more holistic connection between the speaker and what was being said. It also allowed for more changing of opinions, since nothing was recorded, and nothing was permanent. Speech is real; its expression is physical, and its reception is physical. It is a living, real-time exchange between two human beings.

Literacy, on the other hand, brings the ability to store vast amounts of knowledge, and to transport it without its original creator. The written word exists apart from its writer in a cold, abstract, and permanent universe. It cannot be questioned because it is detached from the person who created it. On the other hand, this is why the written word opens up an interior universe. It is, as Ong puts it, “context-free” and capable of existing in one’s consciousness autonomously.

Where it gets interesting for us cell phone people is the fact that the written and spoken word do not exist completely apart from one another, either. Ong noted, “in all the wonderful worlds that writing opens, the spoken word still resides and lives. Written texts all have to be related somehow, directly or indirectly, to the world of sound, the natural habitat of language, to yield their meanings.”

Ong looked at most electronic media as a kind of “Secondary Orality” - in which people speak, but their words are coming from written scripts. For example, is radio really orality when the newscaster is simply reading someone else’s words? How could the scenes from Friends (or even a performance of Oedipus, for that matter) be true, Primary Orality when the person speaking is actually reciting someone else’s words?

Still, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, Ong thought that electronic media might ‘warm up’ the abstract frigidity of the literal media world. And while many saw the Internet as ample proof that Ong was wrong, those of us involved in online communities like the the Well and Electric Minds knew otherwise. The Internet provided us with the warmest of text-based experiences. As Ong predicted, even our text was often written in imitation of spoken language patterns.

So where does that leave the cell phone? At first glance, it seems to be a step forward for orality as it emerges in the formerly text-heavy interactive space. We can even attach a Bluetooth device to our heads and remain in conversation with people 24/7. But does this wireless conversation, abstracted from the reality of our breath and bodies, isolate us from the more primary oral reality in the physical universe around us all the time? Is a person who is walking on a crowded, orality-dense street but listening only to his cell phone more or less involved in oral society? It’s hard to say.

And what of the cell phone’s own evolution away from voice and towards texting? Is it becoming less of a boon to orality as it surrenders to the abstract language and asynchronous transmission SMS? Or is the cell phone now evolving beyond text altogether, towards digital photography and, increasingly, real-time full motion video?

Seems to me that the cell phone’s own evolution actually imitates or, better, recapitulates Ong’s stages of Orality, Literacy, and Secondary Orality. Except now, wireless handheld technology is actually attempting to make the leap past mere Secondary Orality - orality based on text - and into a new category - a virtual primary orality, where we behave as if we are communicating physically, even though what actually passes between us takes the form of entirely abstracted and reconstituted digital code.

Which is a long way of asking, what do you think? Are cell phones moving towards Orality, Literacy, Secondary Orality, or, as I’m starting to think, something else? And, just as important, do they open up the possibility for a new - or perhaps old - kind of communication to be rekindled? Could the human-to-human transmission on which the movements launched by Jesus, Buddha, and Socrates depended be realized wirelessly?

Special thanks to Professor Susan B. Barnes for her scholarly advice.