Reanimating the Logos: Computers and Electronic Orality

Delivered at the CCCC, Atlanta, March, 1987


Marshall McLuhan was an optimist. He believed that the integration of computers and electronic communications networks would serve as an extension of the human nervous system, and would bring us by a commodius vicus of recirculation to the Global Village.

But Marshall McLuhan was an optimist. Professor Neil Postman, who created the Media Ecology program, where I am a student, is somewhat more cautious. By way of explaining just what it is "media ecologists" do, I once heard him relate the following aphorism:

"How many Media Ecologists does it take to change a light bulb?"

"The answer," he said, "Is three. One to change the bulb, one to study the effects of the new technology, and one to mourn the passing of the candle." In Education, these days, it seeems as if we are all Media Ecologists.

But I'm here to talk about writing, not candles, and why we, as teachers of writing, should be concerned with the theory of media.

Because although McLuhan, as you have heard, was an optimist, there was one thing of which he was pessimistically certain: The Medium is the Message. No media are passive vessels for information, any more than our students are passive jars into which we can pour knowledge. Media are translators, active shapers of the messages they carry.

Media are environments. The world, as you are experiencing it right now, the "environment" you perceive, is brought to your consciousness through the natural media of sense. (Some of you, like myself, employ primitive amplifying technologies – glasses – to enhance some aspects of reality and primitive numbing technologies – clothes – to diminish others.)

The constraints of these media are the limits of our world. We heard Miriam Chaplain, in the opening address yesterday, refer to Whorf's conviction that words control the possibilities for experience. But words themselves are not their own cause: something brought them into being, something which, I think, was the environment of the natural media of sense.

Parenthetically, this is one of the hazards of writing a paper title a year before you deliver it. Last March, I was convinced that computers were returning us to an "electronic orality;" that they were bringing back the qualitites Walter Ong and others ascribe to preliterate cultures. Now, I am not so sure. And here is why.

The senses that humans evolved with, out of which arose the consciousness that generated words, were constrained and conditioned by a specific set of physical conditions. Because of all sorts of biochemical factors, we see in a certain range, we hear in a certain range, and our skin responds to certain classes of stimuli.

To put it bluntly: Our notion of an "I," of our unique way of Being-in-Time, is shaped by these natural media of sense. We know something of the constraints that go into making such an I: the problem of being a rather defenseless primate lays a strong burden on the evolving perceptual consciousness, a burden to be minimally accurate, but imaginative.

Our predecessors, the reptiles, were cold-blooded, and had to operate during the day, with concurrent reliance on vision. But their vision, if current reptiles are any guide, was extremely crude. It probably consisted of relatively simple feature detectors. Moving spots are food, large moving shadows are predators. Such media give rise to a style of processing – one could hardly call it thought – which is rigidly associative. Langer might say purely signalic.

Early mammals were very different, for being warm-blooded, they carved an evolutionary niche for themselves in the cooler darkness, a move that probably accounts for the fact that we think symbolically today. The reason: they had to rely on smell. Rather than the terminating judgement of sight, smell is a suggestion. "Smell," says Robert Jastrow, "Does not depict the object itself, it only gives a hint or trace of its presence." In short, olfactory images are more recursive and metaphoric than visual images. They suggest rather than define.

In order to make sense of – where making sense really meant surviving – making sense of these images required the evolution of a new quality of consciousness, a consciousness which was less linear, less eyebound, less fragmentary. A consciousness which did not react signallically to stimuli as "symptoms" of things, but rather was capable of symbolizing.

It is this capacity for symbolic thought that seems to be our most uniquely human, a capacity reflected in cave art, tool use, and social organization 80,000 years ago.

Where signalic thought allowed our predecessors to see what was, symbolic thought gave us ways to imagine what was Not.

It is this kind of consciousness, that McLuhan, in Understanding Media, labels the Unified Sensorium: a kind of ideal, natural balance, a "ratio-nality" among the senses. Even language McLuhan regards as a shift off-center. All technologies become the environment for succeeding technology. The environment of symbolic thought, the pure constitutive, pattern-seeking, problem solving Force of consciousness becomes the ground against which language arose.

The Word is a truly awesome technology. It enables and constrains perception. Not accidently, as Walter Ong points out, Eve and Adam's power trip involves Naming: for to give something a name is to fix it, to cut it out of the "buzzing, blooming confusion" of experience and render it stable. Indeed, interpreting experience, C.I. Lewis said, is really "a search...for things worth naming." For "things" which allow us to make the most use of the Givens of experience.

Observation is thus a kind of tacit essentialism. We do not think of ourselves as imputing podiumness; we believe that this is a podium.

Of course, this is exactly what we need to survive in a civilization. We need a language which we all share, and which serves as a recognizable set of boundaries, boundaries which are a priori of experience and arbitrary. Naturally, thought loses some of its powerful four-dimensional nature when it becomes stuck in language. But it gains a repeatability that characterizes oral cultures and sets the stage for writing.

Literacy further reifies and objectifies the once-fluid thought process. Plato's world of Forms is a cool, silent, impersonal, abstract space removed from the lifeworld, and, says Ong, this is the world of reason stored in Print.

It is this World of "Western Textuality," as Clive called it – courtesy of Guteneberg – that gives us Protestantism, nationalism, and capitalism. Well, okay, it didn't give us all that, real people made real choices in history that added up to the same thing. But they were dealt a stacked deck: the only way to combat the influence of media is to become aware of them as environments, which is about as difficult as fish becoming aware of water, or humans becoming aware of the atmosphere.

The bottom line, however, is the same. The model of reason stored in the Book created persistent beliefs about education and writing. When the Word is printed and immutable, you tend to believe there is a Right answer. Also, blinded to the Process of the book's creating, you experience yourself as a passive, unequal partner in the Author-reader relationship. The Text is monolithic. Anyone who doubts this need only attempt to pick a fight with Aristotle and note the academic response…

Now, if I had writtten this paper a year ago, I would have said that computers have changed all that. This is what I would have said:

The computer is an environment, and like all environments, subjects us to certain constraints which will shape the consciousness of those within that environment.

One of the most significant differences in symbolic form between print and computers is the ephemerality of text. When writing with a word processor, one has a powerful sense of fluidity, of changeability. There is much more of a sense of process: Like Ong's description of speech, electronic writing "comes into existence just as it is going out of existence." In a kind of visual analog of speech, text scrolls up out of your "hearing" into nothingness. But it is retrievable, for we have externalized our capacity for memory as well as our capacity for speech.

It prevents the co:presence of pages and retrieves the evanescence of orality. It forces us to a more recursive vision of text by collapsing "drafts" into an ongoing modification of the "text-as-experienced," as if we were modifying our spoken discourse in response to the Other.

The computer, however, does even more for us as writers; it is a medium of communication, and allows us to share our work with a group of significant readers. It has helped implement the idea of the student centered classroom, especially in networked lab setting where people read and respond to each other's writing and the "teacher" is really, to use Murray's phrase, a "senior learner."

This is a radical recontextualization of the Word, and resembles nothing so much as the best features of orality fused with the attractive features of literacy: a medium which connects us with the lifeworld relevance of the spoken word, but with the potential for discursive logic and recursive modification of print.

Last year, I would have called this "Electronic Orality." In fact, I did. Now, I'm not so sure. I've begun to suspect that "Electronic Orality" might be a kind of descriptor perilously akin to "horseless carriage" in its ability to capture any of the qualities of the thing named. For the computer as a medium is not just "orality" plus "electronic comunication," nor is it any additive series of technologies. It is a uniquely new medium, with unique constraints. Writing on computers is not like writing has ever been before.

The only reason this has not become apparent is the limited level of the technology. It is like trying to imagine the radar-assisted cockpit of the modern car from looking at the dashboard of a Model T. Or perhaps more to the point, trying to extrapolate the social and linguistic rules for this very occasion from the first linguistic behavior of the first protohuman.

I take symbol manipulation to be primary, and I believe that humans are predisposed to do it. All other technologies are unique transformations of this phenomenon. Speech is not expressed thought. Writing is not inscribed speech. Computerized text is not recontextualized writing. But what I suspect I have begun to see is a pattern, a pattern that involves recursion.

Every technology has inherent limits. The technology of associational sight evolves to a certain point, then provides itself as environmental stimulus for its successor, symbolic olfaction. The technology of the printed word evolves to a certain point, (the development of the computer itself – the most perfect utilization of the Word's propensity for selection and control) it then provides itself as stimulus for its successor.

The future of what we call "writing" will be more akin to multimedia performance art. Already, iconic computers like the Macintosh have enabled writers to integrate text, graphics and sound in what may well be the prototype of the art of the future: Interactive Fiction.

In true Interactive Fiction, there is no "Text." The reader, in the act of making choices, actualizes elements out of a web of virtual happenings. For now, we experience that as paragraphs of description. We tell the machine to make our character open the right hand door, and receive a prose description of what lies beyond. But this is purely a limitation of the current technology.

With high-speed processors and laser-disks, coupled with fiber-optic cables and cheap "scholar's workstations," we can expect to see radical shifts in what it means to "write" an "essay." Bell Labs calls it "telesophy," by analogy to "telephony," the electronic transmission of Knowledge, and though extreme, I feel that name captures something of what we can expect.

Because, as McLuhan the optimist said, the technologies of electronic communication, in the act of converging, are mirroring the cognitive process that created them. Each specific technology is the extension out into the world of some aspect of the human sensory apparatus; therefore, the ongoing fusion of media into a multisensory global information network is the attempt to project and assemble, in the Real World, the Unified Sensorium.

As a sort of postscript [and message to the fish] I'd like to mention briefly my process in composing this talk. I found it impossible to write this paper on the computer.

In fact, in the end, as you can see, I cranked it out on a legal pad, in several sessions, over the past few days. And it was somewhere in the process that an important warning struck me:

I had been talking with Jay Bolter, the author of Turing's Man, about his writing process. He's been developing a writing program called Storyspace, which is an integration of outline processors, electronic notecard, and text and graphics editors into a fluid path-space like a hypertext system.

He said that he frequently feels constrained when it comes time to put something on paper, because Storyspace allows a much vaster set of connections among ideas – a set which suggests, but does not define the reader's (or even the writer's own) experience of a text. Jay was quite candid about the dual feelings he had: computer textual spaces seem to be much more like the way we think, and much more comfortable to work inside, but Reality being what it is, you eventually have to lay your ideas out, or down, in a line or arrow.

Those familiar with any software package will know what I mean by an opening screen: the first thing you see when you run a program, which frequently contains copyright notices or other abusive messages. In Storyspace, the opening screen says, "along the riverrun." This is a mobius closure of Finnegans Wake of a sort not possible with printed or spoken texts.

If you regard the Wake, as McLuhan did, as the most full evolution of the printed word, these new spaces in which its successor will evolve are not reanimating, but rather recoursing, in a way that suggests it takes no media ecologists to change a light bulb, but rather, it is light bulbs that change media ecologists.