I’ve been working on a piece that draws on the work of Walter Ong, whom I’ve mentioned here more than few times. In fact, one of the earliest posts on this blog was a short overview of Orality and Literacy written for a grad school class. Ten or so years on, I’d say that Ong’s work remains among the most useful things I encountered while I was completing my course work.
Here’s a selection from that book, written in 1983 and focused on understanding the psychic and social consequences of literacy. These two paragraphs, though, are a more general reflection on technology, artificiality, and humanity.
To say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it. Like other artificial creations and indeed more than any other, it is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials. Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness and never more than when they affect the word. Such transformations can be uplifting. Writing heightens consciousness. Alienation from a natural milieu can be good for us and indeed is in many ways essential for full human life. To live and to understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance. This writing provides for consciousness as nothing else does.
Technologies are artificial, but – paradox again – artificiality is natural to human beings. Technology, properly interiorized, does not degrade human life but on the contrary enhances it. The modern orchestra, for example, is the result of high technology. A violin is an instrument, which is to say a tool. An organ is a huge machine, with sources of power—pumps, bellows, electric generators—totally outside its operator. Beethoven’s score for his Fifth Symphony consists of very careful directions to highly trained technicians, specifying exactly how to use their tools. Legato: do not take your finger off one key until you have hit the next. Staccato: hit the key and take your finger off immediately. And so on. As musicologists well know, it is pointless to object to electronic compositions such as Morton Subotnik’s The Wild Bull on the grounds that the sounds come out of a mechanical contrivance. What do you think the sounds of an organ come out of? Or the sounds of a violin or even of a whistle? The fact is that by using a mechanical contrivance, a violinist or an organist can express something poignantly human that cannot be expressed without the mechanical contrivance. To achieve such expression, of course, the violinist or organist has to have interiorized the technology, made the tool or machine a second nature, a psychological part of himself or herself. This calls for years of practice, learning how to make the tool do what it can do. Such shaping of a tool to oneself, learning a technological skill, is hardly dehumanizing. The use of a technology can enrich the human psyche, enlarge the human spirit, intensify its interior life. Writing is an even more deeply interiorized technology than instrumental musical performance is. But to understand what it is, which means to understand it in relation to its past, to orality, the fact that it is a technology must be honestly faced.
I’d only add that “technology” is doing too much work here unless we qualify the claims. “Technology, properly interiorized, does not degrade human life but on the contrary enhances it.” I’d say that claim, made with regards to technology in general, is at best sometimes true. Better, it seems to me, to say certain technologies, properly interiorized, will not degrade human life but on the contrary enhance it.