Back to Oral Culture: The World of Hypertext

Robert Fowler has penetrating observations about What Hypertext Can Teach Us About the Bible, and confirms some of my own ideas which have been brewing for years. In a series of posts I will be using Fowler as a springboard for drawing out certain comparisons between hypertext and oral/biblical culture. Do computers make us more like the ancients after all?

Let’s begin with his seven-point summary, From Orality to Literacy to Hypertext: Back to the Future?, based on Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy.

1. Orality is evanescent, not permanent. “Hypertext returns us to fluid, shifting, open-ended, evanescent communication of an oral culture.”

2. Orality is additive rather than subordinative; aggregative rather than analytic. “Hypertext resurrects the associative, non-linear, non-hierarchical organization of information of orality.”

3. Orality is close to the human lifeworld. “Hypertext returns us to an immediate, hands-on approach to communication and to other dealings with the world around us… and to a classical, rhetorical model of education and social existence generally.”

4. Orality is agonistically toned. “On the Internet, the phenomenon of ‘flaming’ — heaping bitter invective upon one’s interlocutors — is wide-spread.”

5. Orality is empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced. “In hypertext, as in orality, the distinction between author and reader once again melts away in the midst of the collaborative effort of navigating the hypertextual network.”

6. Orality knits persons together into community. “Hypertext, like the spoken word, knits people together into community.”

7. Orality is homeostatic. “With the resurgence of ephemeral communication, hypertext culture begins to undergo a constant, slow, and unconscious metamorphosis, like oral culture.”

These are all important (be sure to read Fowler’s web-page for full explanations), but (4) is of particular interest to me. The internet is a perfect medium for conflict-based communication, mirroring in many ways the challenge-riposte phenomenon seen in honor-shame cultures. Chat rooms are “halls of flame”, list-serves and blogs the battlegrounds for our contests of wit and intellectual superiority. The web is saturated with an “art of invective” which surely does the biblical writers proud.

The other six points are closely related to one another and best summarized in (6) and (7). They underscore a community-based culture open to change (if slow and unconscious), against the tendencies of a print culture to “freeze” traditions and thereby facilitate a hunger for dramatic (but artificial) changes involving fads and in-vogue paradigms. Fowler thinks the electronic age may return us to a “vibrant” communal culture rooted in more heritage and tradition.

It’s possible. Watching my work environment evolve hypertextually over the past decade has been interesting. Today patrons visit their public library for “an experience” as much as to “check out a book”. Teens come for social networking (Myspace, chat rooms, etc.) more than anything else. You don’t tell people to “hush” in a library as much as in times past, because of their increased communal dimension. Functions, concerts, exhibits, films, and special programs have become as important as circulation. The hypertext culture is definitely leaving its mark.

In the next post we will examine the phenomenon of internet flaming in more detail, compare it to the challenge-riposte strategies of three particular oral cultures, and then assess whether or not flaming can sometimes actually be a good thing.

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