(Reading Time: 3.5 minutes)
"More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness." (Ong 77, Orality and Literacy)
So what was the Written era like? How did a burgeoning literate culture engage with the world differently than an oral culture. How did it gather and manage information?
The emergence of writing and literacy was slow because written content could not be reproduced on a large scale. Each "scripture" was reproduced by hand. So literacy's effects occurred gradually. Although the Written Age dawned around 3400 BC, the Greeks really brought it to the fore by adding vowels. Their culture proliferated by writing and demonstrates this revolutionary expansion.
So what was the nature of the Written Age at the height of its dominance? Let's return to the three questions guiding our exploration of each media age.
How is information gathered?
The ear-eye homeostasis recalibrates in the Written Age, with the eye encroaching on the ear's turf. The eye becomes a means of hearing. Sound becomes visible in alphabetic writing. In these sounds are ideas and information that only the ear had previously processed.
Still, during the Written Age, most written "text" was read aloud to a larger group. It was processed by the ears of the whole community. Because writing was a relatively cramped means of spreading a message, it was read aloud to a larger group and assimilated per the old oral methods and values.
This was a carry over from the Oral Age. It speaks to the residual dominance of oral culture and how slow the transition to writing and literacy was.
How is information managed?
Because some information was locked away inside written language, educated elites were required to unlock this information. With the slow transition, the locus of power slowly shifted from the community to the experts—that is, from where information was shared to where information was stored by a select minority. Communities relied on those who could unlock the vaults of information stored in hieroglyphs or, later, alphabets. The experts unlocked written texts by learning to read, thus becoming literate.
Because the oral cosmology regarded sounds (that is, words) as having power, it's easy to see why the authority of the written word—of scriptures—increased. Oral man already held that words as sounds were powerful, creative, ethereal forces in the world. This reverence for the word would have carried through to written representations of these sounds (what we call "words"). The written word—as symbol—would have been seen similarly as powerful and creative. But by contrast, the written word was not fleeting, it was stored. Thus, scriptures were a sort of "stored power."
Further, because word was synonymous with event, the written word was a "contained event." It was event bound up in a page. This was none other than a sort of history. Neil Postman echoes this reality. In his own book, he writes, "A book is all history. Everything about it takes one back in time. . . . The book promotes a sense of a coherent and usable past. . . . [H]istory . . . is not only a world but a living world. It is the present that is shadowy" (Amusing Ourselves to Death 136).
The written word was thus treated with reverence and awe and wonder. The writings were sacred in some sense. Thus, in writing, religious belief had a natural place to be. With the mysticism surrounding both word and god, the written word became the primary keeper for sacred knowledge. It was the birth of doctrine: Orthodoxy was defined by what was written. Religion was moved outside the community and into the inspired scriptures (Fallon).