social dynamics of communication technology

Social Dyamics of Communication Technology: writer-audience relationships, trade-offs, and more

This was a set of prompts and my responses to a class discussion in Social Dynamics of Communication Technology (COML 509) in grad school. It involves Walter Ong’s chapter “Writing Restructures Consciousness” from Orality and Literacy, writer-audience relationships, Hemingway’s short story “Big Two-Hearted River”, technological trade-offs, and technology transforming our consciousness. As a preface to this, I’d like to say I think it’s highly relevant to engaging in social media and the Internet.

What does Ong mean when he says “writing is a technology”?

When I read “Yet writing (and especially alphabetic writing) is a technology, calling for the use of tools and other equipment” it made it so much clearer to me why Ong considers writing and the alphabet technologies; they require external aid, things outside of us in order to do/use them. (Ong, 1982, p 81) No one was born with the alphabet or a pen as a part of us, much like instrumentalists are not born holding a clarinet, piano, drumstick, or whatever instrument. (I’m sure all the musicians’ mothers are very thankful for that fact!) We were born with the ability to speak, but we created alphabets to help structure that speech and the visual recording of it, or as Ong put it “The process of putting spoken language into writing is governed by consciously contrived, articulable rules.”

Ong says that writing requires a “constructed audience.” What does this mean?

When you’re writing, you never know what frame of mind or mood the reader will be in and that is why Ong says writing requires a constructed audience. As we discussed from Thurlow, our personalities are dynamic, so from one moment to the next we’re the same but not the same. You can do your best to predict who your audience might be and what contexts readers might be in when they receive the information, but there will always be some amount of uncertainty, no matter how intimate the relations, which is what I feel Ong was addressing in stating “Even in writing to a close friend I have to fictionalise a mood for him, to which he is expected to conform.” (Ong, 1982, p 102) He also mentions that it also requires a constructed author (or authors) on the part of the audience, because you have to try to pull emotions, the writer’s intentions, mood, etc. from the symbols on the page. We rarely have the author present to ask “So, what were you thinking? What did you mean by this? What sequence of thoughts or events inspired this?” I really like his point about the personal diary and writing to a fictionalized self, too, because as much as we may think we know ourselves, we really don’t know who we will be in the future. I’ve looked back on some things I’ve written in the past (personal writings, assignments, etc.) and thought “Did I really write that?” As I grow, I feel in some ways disconnected from that person knowing that person wasn’t sure who I would be now and I feel so removed from that point in time. Sometimes I forget what inspired me to write something and what I meant by it, even though it may have been very clear and undeniable in that moment when I was first recording it. Even in writing to self, there’s uncertainty. For the most part, we have to make a bunch of educated guesses, which basically sums up the writer-audience relationship to me.

Exactly what is a quirky 17th century essay doing in a course entitled The Social Dynamics of Communication Technology?  For that matter, how about Hemingway.  It’s hard to imagine him engaging in on-line chat.

In explaining why he thought students were likely to suffer depression, Burton says, “Other men look to their tools; a painter will wash his pencils; a smith will look to his anvil, forge […] only scholars neglect that instrument (their brain and spirits I mean) which they daily use, and by which they range all over the world, which by much study is consumed. He also says “How many poor scholars have lost their wits or become dizzards, neglecting all worldly affairs and their own health, esse and bene esse [being and well-being], to gain knowledge for which, after all their pans, in this world’s esteem they are accounted ridiculous and silly fools, idiots, asses, and (as oft as they are) rejected, contemned, derided, doting, and mad!” (Burton, 2001, p 301-303) Then he goes on to say these scholars can’t accomplish simple things that basically any common person or idiot might be able to do such as ride a horse. This relates back to McKibben’s writings, in my opinion, in that it addresses a decline in skills and abilities part of presumed common knowledge. The uncompromising quest for knowledge, no doubt affected by every age’s contemporary technologies, contributes to this possibility of losing humanity or ability to relate to others. It’s sort of like the stereotypical nerd that can calculate Pi to umpteen places or do complex scientific experiments or write code for computers but is at a loss when trying to communicate with peers or the opposite sex. I think that’s why this piece is included in the course. Once again, we’re addressing the trade-off. It happened in the 17th centruy in its own way just as it happens today. Hemingway, on the other hand, represents that fundamental “missing information” of McKibben’s. Nick’s experience fits the spirit of what McKibben called “this broadcast that has gone on since the start of time.” He exhibits a competence in knowing how the grasshoppers would behave and where he could find them, how to prepare his rod, and to wet his hand before touching the trout so it wouldn’t get a fungus. He didn’t get that knowledge from TV or a book; he got it through living. That whole experience of communion with nature that he experienced when he fished the swamp gave him that fundamental information that often we allow technology to supplant.

Other thoughts:

“Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word.” (Ong, 1982, p 82) I was with him on the first part, but at the end when he says “never more than when they affect the word” I was less in agreement. Really, I think it is when technologies affect thought and action that they are most transformative, and words can be a part of that action. Maybe I’m getting too abstract here, but we don’t always think in words. As babies we start off in what is known as pre-verbal state yet they act and express, and even as we age thoughts and feelings precede the words that are meant to represent them. We just choose words very often to express those thoughts. I don’t think the word is the sole highest priority for technology to transform our consciousness.