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Electronic text 1: Return to orality

February 12, 2010

Image: North London graffito

What impact is the internet having on traditional literacy skills? Do hypertext, ‘horizontal reading’ and instant availability of information threaten the hegemony of linear, book-based learning?

In an [electronic] word, yes.

The invention of printing brought us texts which were authored, definitive, fixed and un-editable; texts which, though much more available than manuscripts, were still relatively difficult and expensive to publish and therefore were limited in availability; texts which could be individually owned and were both produced and (usually) consumed in private; texts whose unadorned and standardised typography suggested an unselfconscious, unmediated presentation of a single, positivist reality.

When text moved online, though, it acquired some very different characteristics. Online text is multimedia, interactive, dynamic – fluid rather than fixed. It calls attention to itself, to its mediated nature, and to the impossibility of a one, true version of reality. It can be edited, re-authored, ‘cut-and-pasted’. It resists ownership, can be distributed and copied endlessly, and can be written and read by many people almost simultaneously – making it a kind of communal resource. All these characteristics recall aspects of pre-literate, oral culture.

This new textual configuration – what Walter Ong calls ‘secondary orality’, and Richard Lanham ‘electronic orality’ – makes possible a new kind of interactive literacy, one in which texts share some of the features of the communal poetic performances of pre-literate societies, in which the listeners, through their memories, reactions and responses, are participants, co-authors of a constantly-evolving communal textual act. (I blogged about secondary orality in the context of wikis back in 2007, during H808.)

As electronic texts become more and more ubiquitous, this kind of electronic orality will likely become our culture’s default textual mode. Jay David Bolter writes that

The printed book .. seems destined to move to the margins of our literate culture. The issue is not whether print technology will completely disappear.. But the idea and the ideal of the book will change: print will no longer define the organisation and presentation of knowledge as it has for the past five centuries. This shift does not mean the end of literacy itself, but the literacy of print; for electronic literacy offers us a new kind of book and new ways to write and read. (Bolter J D, 1991)

The new textuality, in other words, demands a new literacy which re-embodies aspects of a pre-literate culture revolving around speech as ‘phatic communion’ – the conversation which takes place simply to keep human reality in being. As Richard Lanham puts it,

electronic text enfranchises the oral/rhetorical/dramatistic/semiological world in the same way that print did its literate/philosophical/positivist opposite. The oral world returns in a hyperliterate form. (Lanham R, 1993)


Bolter J D, 1991. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Lawrence Erlbaum, New Jersey & London. Available online at

Lanham R, 1993. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology and the Arts. University of Chicago Press, Chicago[

From → H800

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