Orality, Literacy, Hyper-Literacy

Walter Ong calls only spoken word impacted by literate culture ‘secondary orality’ (things like audio recordings, broadcasts, memorized speeches, and habits of thought formed from literacy applied to speech such as speaking in paragraphs). The secondary folk-meaning of ‘secondary orality’ — extemporaneous, informal, and expressionistic text — he calls ‘secondary literacy’.

If you consider a spectrum between orality and literacy with books on one end and homeric poetry on the other, this makes sense.

The secondary folk-meaning implies a totally different way of approaching the subject, and one that I think opens new possibilities. Specifically: in Ong’s view, ‘secondary’ just means incorporating elements of the opposite end to create a hybrid; however, if we consider the orality-literacy spectrum as extending out on the literate end indefinitely, we can call both ‘secondary orality’ because both are oral-literate hybrids. (I suspect the spectrum extends further in both directions than Ong believed. Toki pona is a more oral language than could exist in a pre-literate society, for example.)

When you go more-literate-than-literate you get hypertext, and that is therefore an appropriate name. Hyper-literacy differs from literacy in precisely the same ways as literacy differs from orality. Everything is forever; rather than linear, space is multidimensional and yet the multidimensionality of this space is still clearly defined, as opposed to the fuzzy spacial nature of orality. In rudimentary hypertext systems like the web & gopher, we explode the essay into a tangle of footnotes, but each footnote is capable of being followed. In more advanced systems we do the same with pull quotes and revisions.

We have a priest model of hyper-literacy, though: many can read it but it is written mostly by professionals. Hopefully this will break apart as tools for manipulating the more nuanced features of hypertext become more common. The web, by being ‘good enough’ and most people’s first experience of hypertext, has set us back at least 20 years here.

The only large group that writes and edits hypertext with these features at a scale that might set them up for hyper-literacy is Wikipedia editors so we should look at them for possible examples of how hyper-literacy will affect society as a whole. Wikipedia editors are demographically and psychographically skewed at least as much as medieval scholastic scholars ever were, and we can expect them to represent our fully hyper-literate descendants about as much as Duns Scotus represents the average victorian reader of penny-dreadfuls or the average 1930s pulp author.

(Adapted from a thread: https://niu.moe/@enkiv2/99316232536600118)

Written by

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net

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