The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Information and Knowledge in Oral Culture

(Reading Time: 5 minutes)

Electronic culture is a mashup of old media. In order to understand how this is the case, we need to understand the contents of the mashup. In the same way, to truly grasp hipster culture, understanding its sources is essential. Old media are contents of mashed electronic media. Thus understanding the nature of old media is the first step to understanding present media.

There are basically four eras in the history of media: oral, written, typographic, and electronic. These are broadly accepted as defining technological eras. Each has distinct features that I want to recount.

We could look at these eras from a thousands angles. I want to limit this by answering three questions about each media age. (1) How is information gathered? (2) How is information managed? (3) How does this shape epistemology? In other words, how does this shape the way people in their respective eras know and understand the world (specifically, with respect to words)?

After tracing each era, I will explain how the Electronic Age mashes up all that came before, recontextualizing it, and ultimately transforming it through fundamental shifts.

One more note: The eyes and ears are the primary senses for gathering and managing information. These senses figure prominently in the development of each era of media history. But they gather and manage information in vastly different ways. This is because sight is intrinsically divisive, while hearing is inherently collective. Vision dissects, and hearing collects (Ong, 71). These differences are fundamental in the distinctions between each era.

Okay, let's take a look at each era and its characteristics.

Oral Age (before 3400 BC)

How is information gathered?

In an oral culture, sight and hearing are unified. These two senses establish an equilibrium. Both eyes and ears gather information. These are the tools, and no further education is needed to do the gathering.

But even as information is gathered, it commingles with the imagination in creating reality. For example, understanding weather was not merely a matter of observation. Imagination was brought in like a consultant to offer an explanation for the weather—the explanation itself was an untested hypothesis. These explanations often involved gods or unseen powers (Fallon). And perhaps, in other cases, individuals did test their hypotheses, but the knowledge gleaned from them was not retained. That's because of the way that information is managed in an oral culture.

How is information managed?

Information is shared. Managing and maintaining information depends on sharing it. A community develops around the shared information. The community becomes the storehouse of the information. The politics of shared information are relatively simple because everyone depends on others for information, and all individuals have access to the same people, or information. There is an equilibrium of power, and information is not a source of power in any significant way.

Because information is shared, communal, and unrecorded, methods must be developed for remembering and recalling this information. What form do these methods take? Narrative. However, in this sort of narrative, plot and story arch don't factor in as much as they have in more recent times. Instead, the narrative has an episodic structure, as in epic poetry (Ong, 138-9). This could be likened in some ways to the episodic structure of modern TV series, many of which don't have a strong narrative arch; each episode can stand alone and even be rearranged chronologically.

How does this shape epistemology?

Word as event. Sounds, in an oral culture, inhabit the same sphere as other experiences, whether that's wind and rain, hunting animals, or building a fire. The sound world included rustling leaves, howling wolves, laughter, and words. In oral culture though, words aren't "words." They are sounds. And as sounds, words are events, as evanescent as any experience. The Hebrew word dabar means both "word" and "event" (Ong, 32).

Because words (that is, sounds) are events and experiences just like wind or sex, words are seen to have great power just like events and experiences. They are also creative and ethereal (Fallon). Thus, just like weather is attributed to gods, words have supernatural relevance. Incantations become important. As Peter Fallon said, words are used to "invoke as well as evoke."

The evanescence of word as event also means that everything is present. Of course, the past existed, but because there is no record of it, the past is subsumed in the present. It is always recounted in the present. To an oral culture everything is present. A recent National Geographic article remarks at the present-ness of the Hadza, one of the last nomadic tribes in western Africa. "They live a remarkably present-tense existence." This explains why.

Finally, all thought is presentational. "Presentational thought takes place without the intermediation of [written] words" (Fallon). Presentational thought requires no intentional education. A child acquires language without education and that is enough to grasp presentational thought. (Fallon juxtaposes "presentational thought" with "propositional thought" described later.) The link between word as (present) event and thought as presentational is probably not entirely coincidental.

Around 3400 BC, image-based writing—or ideographs—such as Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mesopotamian cuneiform began to appear. In this early writing stage, one image represented one object or concept. Words as we think of them didn't exist. It wasn't until around 2000 BC that anything like an alphabet appeared. (Chinese retains an ideographic writing system. This distinction between ideographic and alphabetic language may help explain the vast differences between East and West cultures, worldviews, and their development.)

Your mom taught you well