Archive for September, 2008

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It’s all about the Benjamin, baby

Wow, I’d totally forgotten the pleasure of complete immersion in cultural theory, where everything is inscribed and mediated and passed through a sieve of Freud and Marx and Arnheim and Adorno, and everyone is intimate with Faust and the Symbolists and those pesky Dadaists!

It’s strange to reread Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in art school. The last time I read it, it was in the context of a film class; the time before that, for Science, Technology, and Modernity (alongside “The Dynamo and the Virgin” from The Education of Henry Adams I believe). The temptation for me is to treat the text itself as a (mechanically reproduced) work of art, though I still find in its Germanic convolutions an aura that no amount of typesetting or photocopying can efface.

One of the things Benjamin doesn’t really discuss is a work of art’s interpretation. He places most of the value of the work within the work itself, not in the space between it and the artist or it and its audience. The things I’ve found important in the essay, the sentences I’ve underlined in the various copies I’ve read, have changed as I have, my context filling in meanings that are not nearly as prescribed as the captioned pictures he mentions.

For instance, on this reading, I considered for the first time the perspective of a prospective creator of art. Every one of my thoughts was tempered by my six years in China, where works of art (and of commerce) are manually reproduced, in the case of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers for instance, thousands of times per day by skilled painters who have memorized every brush stroke and photometrically analyzed and synthesized every color. What happens to authenticity in a climate of mass manual counterfitting? And to art in an age when its creation is directed by market research and sold abroad to collectors in New York? What kind of aura will time bestow on a canvas painted in a workshop in Shanghai to conform to an American collector’s idea of Asian-ness? It seems to me that much of the artness of a work of art resides in the perception of the beholder. Which is why repressive governments still devote much of their attention to “supervising” art.

And which is also why new technology changes our very conception of art: things perceived in new ways are perforce going to affect the way people think of them. It’s the argument Wolfgang Schivelbusch puts forward in The Railway Journey: perception is shaped by culture. Reading Benjamin, it occurs to me that photography is to art what the railway journey was to travel—an overcoming of physical constraints by technological means, a move from belonging within a landscape or a tradition to consuming it. Trains allowed people to move faster than they ever had before and Schivelbusch argues that the new form of gazing on a moving flattened landscape punctuated by telegraph poles rather than laboriously traversing it on foot or astride an animal whose exertions were clearly perceptible actually paved the way for their acceptance of film—a similar kind of spectating.

Citing Breton, Benjamin makes a very similar argument while pinpointing art’s value in its ability to in some ways predict the future, its aspiration to be something technically impossible, interpreted retroactively as a premonition by those looking back when it has become technically feasible. I especially like the idea that this premonition involves a kind of shocking disjunction that technology is able to smooth over. In the example he gives of Dadaism as film’s precursor, he says that the cuts and constant shocks of film made palatable the much more explicit shocks of the Dadaists. Whereas they relied on traditional means of creating an effect of shock and disjunction, the technology of film internalized the effect. It’s a very similar argument to Schivelbusch’s, though in this case montage plays the role of the locomotive.

Another thing that struck me on this reading was this idea of The Masses. The Internet has changed our perception of the mass from a roiling but faceless political and economic force to an interconnected network of individuals, tangled together into a web but knowable and discrete in a way its Benjaminian predecessor was not. Google’s success as an advertiser stems from its success negotiating the new mass of individuals, from its ability to deploy a distinct message to each unlikely to be ignored or misinterpreted. The constraint of meaning that Benjamin attributes to photo captions and film has reached its apex in the manipulations of marketing: brand promises and directed messaging and product placement. Ambiguity is no longer to be tolerated in vernacular communication. Bridge and I went to see a play this weekend about three mothers who all become pregnant by technological means. The playwright spoke after the performance and explained to us that the play had been altered from the original and tailored specifically for us, a New York audience, so that we’d be maximally receptive to its message. The man is writing about fertility treatments, so I guess this approach is understandable, but is this what is becoming of art in the era of mass customization?

If we stand with Benjamin, we are to demand from art “an aspect of reality that is free of all equipment.” But increasingly, our reality is the equipment, our media becomes our message. We’ve entered a kind of William Gibson universe, the logical evolution of the movement he ascribes to print, the creation of the inextricable author/reader/critic who some times produces and some times consumes written words, now multiplied a thousandfold. We’ve moved beyond the magician and the surgeon to a new kind of paradigm, a combination of the two that embraces both interpretation and representation, the documentary and the fantastical, Muybridge and Méliès. What before was a mechanical intermediary has now become a giant pulsating collaborative work itself. Painters paint alone in a workshop. Film is made industrially in a giant factory. But increasingly, what I would call contemporary art is made in an ambient and instantly ubiquitous non-space. Connections are made within great collections of information, classifying and redefining and changing shape. Because of technology, it’s possible that the lost aura of authenticity Benjamin describes was actually lost only to him and that we of changed perception and technology have regained it in the placeless instant slices of reality that are available to us at the speed of thought.

Lab 3: It’s electric!

NTS: The soldering irons in the lab suck.

I borrowed Aaron’s “12V” DC power supply, in quotes because it actually outputs 17V!

The voltage regulator, however, does it’s job and outputs pretty close to 5V.

With two LEDs in series and no resistor, I measured a voltage drop of 2.47V across one LED and an almost identical drop of 2.52V across the other. I’m assuming they didn’t burn out because each acts as a resistor for the other.

It was too hard to use the multimeter while holding down a push button, so I replaced it with a switch that would stay on or off without my intervention.

A mistake when wiring in series.

Though initially my LEDs lit up erratically as shown above, I realized that I had wired both pins of the second into ground and corrected the problem. The three LEDs then didn’t light up because they split 5V three ways and apparently 1.7V will not power an LED of this kind.

I measured the 4.97V across all three LEDs when wired in parallel but my voltage regulator overheated (smelled not good) and suddenly the voltage dropped to 3V (measured across the voltage regulator as well as the LEDs). I let it cool off and it resumed normal operation.

I had to twist wires around my meter probes because they wouldn’t fit in the board—this also made taking pictures much easier!

The pot did not increase and decrease voltage particularly smoothly. It jumped from 3V to maximum (4.7V or so) right at the end. I tried another pot and it behaved the same. I’m not sure why this is. It could because people perceive volume and other things that are traditionally controlled using potentiometers logarithmically. It could also have a purely physical explanation that has to do with the material out of which the resistive material in the pot’s innards. In any case, I’m not sure I’ve figured out this particular puzzle, but electronics in general is seeming a whole lot less puzzling.

When left to their devices…

We ambled from school down Broadway and then through Soho and Chinatown (returning via Astor Place on the subway) at lunchtime on a Wednesday. We stopped for lunch at an outdoor taquería halfway through the exercise with the intention to write up our hastily scribbled notes, but it ended up being the richest part of our safari. People when left to their devices…

WHAT: Man using ATM
WHEN & WHERE: 12 pm: Chase bank on the corner of Houston and Broadway
APPARENT INTENT: To get money out, probably for lunch
TIME TAKEN: About a minute
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Hands for swiping the card and interacting with the touchscreen, eyes for reading the screen

WHAT: Two men using a Blackberry and an iPhone while waiting for a table at La Esquina
WHEN & WHERE: 12.14 pm: La Esquina, Kenmare St.
APPARENT INTENT: Checking email to while away the wait and avoid awkward conversation; they appeared to be colleagues rather than friends
TIME TAKEN: About a minute
# OF PEOPLE INVOLVED: 2, though each was using his device separately

WHAT: A man strumming an iPhone running a guitar emulation app for the delight of his friends, one of whom was taking a picture of the scene on his own iPhone and another who was simply holding his
WHEN & WHERE: 12.29 pm: La Esquina, Kenmare St.
TIME TAKEN: 20 seconds
# OF PEOPLE INVOLVED: 1 strummer, 1 photographer, 1 appreciative observer
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Hands for strumming and photographing and grasping, sight for operating the camera and appreciating the sight gag, ears for hearing the sound of the shutter and the virtual guitar

WHAT: Waiter using an outdoor cash register
WHEN & WHERE: 12.44 pm: La Esquina, Kenmare St.
APPARENT INTENT: To enter a sale and get somebody’s check
TIME TAKEN: Several seconds-long bursts of action
# OF PEOPLE INVOLVED: 1 operator, around 20 or 30 people providing “data.”
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Hands for punching in numbers and making change, eyes for reading the display

WHAT: Two guys in helmets and harnesses getting lowered from a billboard in a wobbly cherry picker
WHEN & WHERE: 12.47 pm: Corner of Centre Market Place and Broome
APPARENT INTENT: To get down from the billboard where they’d just replaced an ad without dying
TIME TAKEN: Five minutes from when we arrived
# OF PEOPLE INVOLVED: 1 operator manning the controls from the ground, 2 guys dangling precariously at his mercy
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Manual dexterity for controlling the cherry picker, spatial perception, feet, balance, hearing to communicate from the ground to the billboard

WHAT: Courier using a fancy intercom system and calling on his phone from in front of an office building
WHEN & WHERE: 12.51 pm: Grand and Lafayette
APPARENT INTENT: To enter the building to make a delivery (when the doorbell didn’t work, he tried calling; eventually he went in the door when somebody came out)
TIME TAKEN: 50 seconds
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Fingers for punching the button, eyes for identifying the right one, speaking and hearing to communicate across the intercom (both users)

WHAT: A man taking a digital photo of his girlfriend standing beneath a street sign
WHEN & WHERE: 12.53 pm: Canal and Lafayette
APPARENT INTENT: To record a memory and proof of visiting a location
TIME TAKEN: 10 seconds
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Hands to operate the camera and eyes to frame the picture

WHAT: Man with luggage struggling with the card reader on a subway turnstile
WHEN & WHERE: 1.04 pm: Canal Street subway
APPARENT INTENT: To get through the turnstile and catch a train
TIME TAKEN: Around a minute
# OF PEOPLE INVOLVED: 1 initially until he was joined by a cop who helped him
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Hands for sliding card, ears for hearing card reader feedback, sight for looking at the display, voice for swearing

WHAT: A man playing an electric guitar and singing House of the Rising Sun
WHEN & WHERE: 1.15 pm: Astor Place subway
APPARENT INTENT: To entertain, to make some spare change, to enjoy himself, to make himself heard over loud trains
TIME TAKEN: We watched for 4 minutes
# OF PEOPLE INVOLVED: 1 plus an active audience of 3 and a passive audience of around 20
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Hands for playing and adjusting knobs, voice for singing, hearing

WHAT: Man refilling Metrocard
WHEN & WHERE: 1.19 pm: Astor Place subway
APPARENT INTENT: To add money to his Metrocard
TIME TAKEN: 20 seconds
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Hands and eyes for interacting with the touchscreen

WHAT: Alex setting off anti-theft alarm at Walgreen’s
WHEN & WHERE: 1.23 pm: Astor Place Walgreen’s
APPARENT INTENT: None (though taking something without paying was initially suspected)
TIME TAKEN: 1 minute
# OF PEOPLE INVOLVED: 1 plus the cashier that waved him through
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Ears for hearing the alarm

WHAT: Escalade pumping really loud hip-hop
WHEN & WHERE: 12.40 pm: Broadway right outside of Tisch
APPARENT INTENT: To draw attention, to feel skull vibrate, to share musical taste with others
TIME TAKEN: A minute or so before the light changed and he zoomed off
# OF PEOPLE INVOLVED: 1 driver, 2 passengers, and a block worth of pedestrians
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Hands for tuning the radio and turning up the volume, sight to see the display, hearing

In addition, there are a couple of technological interactions we quickly gave up recording on a case by case basis as they were ubiquitous.

The first was anything to do with talking on the phone. A good thirty percent of the people we passed on the street were either talking on their phones or looking at them intently or just holding them. Their intentions varied from killing time to checking the exact location of a meeting to catching up with a friend or colleague to complaining to just having something in their hands. The most interesting thing we noted was that people wearing watches routinely checked the time on their phones rather than on their wrists.

Phones were plentiful but digital music players were even more so. It seemed that anyone who was walking alone was wearing earbuds and bopping alone to a private beat. The primary intention in this case was to replace the harsh sounds of the city with a mellifluous soundtrack of choice, though we suspected an ulterior intention to signal that the wearer was not to be disturbed.

At every intersection we crossed, we and everyone else interacted with traffic lights. The traffic lights were interpreted by most pedestrians as a suggestion for caution when crossing rather than a steadfast directive. The motorists fortunately favored the latter interpretation. Interactions varied from quick glances to long hateful stares, and in one case, to a disproportionately hateful stream of invective.

A Viral Video

In Comm Lab today we had 30 minutes to make a video. Filippo, Ariel, and I all wanted to share filming responsibilities and do the whole video in one take, so we came up with a point of view and a transition technique that worked within both constraints:

Lab 2: Exploring Hidden Potentiometers or “Cinderfella”

After setting up the lab with no problems, I got started on my luv-o-meter. Constrained by the market (demand way outstripping supply at the bookstore), I bought a big square force sensing resistor. I’ve gone through a number of permutations regarding how to use it detailed below in no particular order.



A cylinder with a narrow opening at one end (possibly a bottle or the like) filled with foam and lined with silk with the sensor mounted somewhere within a finger’s reach of the opening. A number of LEDs indicate how “hot” or “cold” the user is depending on how close his/her finger comes to the sensor and how hard he’s pressing. Abandoned because of raised eyebrows.


Love Hertz

A brick-sized piece of foam with the sensor mounted in its center. When someone breaks up with the user, s/he hits the Love Hertz as hard as possible, which is not only extremely satisfying but also gauges the extent of the heartbreak as a function of the force of the hit and displays this information on an ascending scale of LEDs.
Possible variations: a leather-and-spike-clad version for the S&M crowd or a plush cushion with arms that measures hug strength.


THE WINNER: Cinderfella

Thinking about our reading over the last two weeks (and my increasingly apparent mechanical incompetence regardless of Norman’s insistences to the contrary), I decided that the interface itself is much more important than the device. I wanted to make something that was completely instinctive to use—with clear affordances and mappings, in the reading’s words—so I’m recreating Cinderella’s shoe. In a fairytale world, I would create a glass slipper out of acrylic and mount a microprocessor in the heel and LEDs along one of the straps to light up when there was a match and everyone lived happily ever after. Since I live in New York, I’m going to mount the sensor into a Converse All-Star and run wires to the processor and the LEDs which will be housed externally and we’ll all muddle along the best we can.

The idea is to mount the sensor right along the arch under a removable insole. If the person trying on the shoe’s foot is too big, then s/he’ll arch his/her foot to squeeze it into the shoe and not put enough pressure on the sensor. Red light. If the person’s foot is too small, his/her heel will put too much pressure on the sensor. Red light. Only someone whose foot actually fits in the shoe will provide the right amount of pressure to light the green light (and send a Google map of his/her exact location to the prince’s cell phone).

I’ve managed mostly through trial and error to figure out the right resistor value (4.7kΩ) to get my sensor to light up an LED using the code from the lab. I’ll probably have to tweak it some when I stick it in my shoe. I’ve mounted the sensor onto a little female adaptor and taped it up, but I fear that once it’s in the shoe it will come disconnected, so I’m going to redo the connection with glue and ensure it’s snug. Or I’m just going to wedge another chunk of wire into the socket so it fits snugly. Which seems to do the trick!

I placed the sensor in the shoe and tested it to find the right spot;

I added two LEDs to the lab setup and switched them to digital output and rewrote the code accordingly:

int shoePin = 0; // the sensor input
int sensorValue = 0; // the sensor value
int led1 = 4; // the 3 LEDs
int led2 = 6;
int led3 = 8;

void setup() {
  Serial.begin(9600); // serial connection for debugging
  pinMode(led1, OUTPUT); // set 3 LEDs to digital output
  pinMode(led2, OUTPUT);
  pinMode(led3, OUTPUT);

void loop() {
  sensorValue = analogRead(shoePin); // read the sensor value
  if(sensorValue<250 && sensorValue>120) {
    digitalWrite(led1, HIGH); // if sensor detects my weight
    digitalWrite(led2, HIGH); // turn on the LEDs
    digitalWrite(led3, HIGH);
  else {  // Otherwise keep them off
    digitalWrite(led1, LOW);
    digitalWrite(led2, LOW);
    digitalWrite(led3, LOW);
  Serial.println(sensorValue); // monitor the sensor

I built an enclosure for the Arduino and the LED’s,

and then wired the shoe to it

Finally, I tested to make sure that when the lights lit up, the hidden message in the box was displayed

A Migrating Headache

I installed and set up WordPress on my server because the MovableType installation I had set up for my girlfriend to blog about working at the Olympics was freezing the server any time her posts exceeded 200 words. And she likes to write. A lot. I found the process a breeze compared to uploading ridiculously large MT (I was working on a Chinese dial-up equivalent connection), and having already done several MT installs, I knew that I belong to that 1% of people that has to change the path to MySQL in the config file, so I had the install up and running in about fifteen minutes. It was the recent theming and customization that proved a pain.

Moving things back and forth between formats online always seems to take much longer than it should. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been using Oinam’s Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS) theme. And I should have listened to him. Because I decided I didn’t like how it looked when my code for PComp overran the existing margins,

and I especially didn’t like the look of scrollbars in the middle of a narrow columnar layout. So, why not widen the center container by editing the CSS; it should be easy to add 100 pixels to the width of the center, right?  Wrong.  Because then you have to edit the little niggling images that make up the container and none of the lines match up and it’s grids and repeated saves and uploads and checks.

I ended up resizing the height of the divs that contain the images as background images for the header and footer to get the stripes to match up again, which may have eaten up a little of the curve but looks ok to me!

Compared to that ordeal, transferring the Ong and Waterfalls posts from the web pages I made last week to WordPress wasn’t too bad.  Instead of trying to move the actual HTML, which I assumed would wreak all sorts of formatting havoc given my liberal use of break tags, I copied and pasted (tagless) plain text from the Word files I wrote both responses in originally and then added the images through the WordPress interface.  Took about ten minutes.  And looks pretty nice.

PComp 1, Part Deux: A Winning Combination

Ok, so I’ve figured out how to time a button press.  By looking at the stopwatch example on the arduino site I got a sense of how timing works, though that example is based on using a button as a click that both turns on and then turns of the timer just as it would on an analog stopwatch, so it needs to keep track of clicks to determine whether the timer is running in order to know to turn it on or off.  I’m simply interested in the time the button is actually depressed, which I’ve managed to do using the pulseIn() function:

void loop()
buttonState = digitalRead(buttonPin);
// read the button state and store

if (buttonState == 1) {
// if the button is pressed then start timing

digitalWrite(indicatorPin, HIGH);
// turn on indicator LED so user knows button's pressed
elapsedTime = pulseIn(buttonPin, HIGH, initialDelay);
// record and store the time the button was pressed
// shows me that it's working

 else {
digitalWrite(indicatorPin, LOW);
// if the button is not pressed, turn off the indicator LED

Still to do:

  1. Turn microsecond output into a generic “long” or “short” entry for combination
  2. Make sure that the program remembers three presses and either turns on the unlock light or the no good light
  3. Build in a reset so that the lock resets after three presses

Two hours have elapsed, I’ve reduced the duration of the presses to 0 or 1 (short or long), but I still can’t figure out how to make the program loop over three times.


Push the button...

Push the button...

...and the indicator lights and the timer starts

...and the indicator lights and the timer starts

The length of the press is output as either 1 ("long press") or 0 ("short press")

The length of the press is output as either 1 ("long press") or 0 ("short press")

I think in the interest of sleep and sanity I’m going to settle for the very inefficient and extremely inelegant solution of manually repeating the instructions three times.  Hmm, that didn’t work either.  I’ll ask someone tomorrow.

/* My goal here is to create a unique sequence of
three button pushes of differing lengths that
"opens the lock" by lighting a green LED */

/* LED connected to digital pin 4
(turns on to signal correct combination) */
#define ledPin  4

/* LED connected to digital pin 19
(turns on to signal incorrect combination) */
#define indicatorPin 3

// LED that signals the button is pressed
#define ledWrong 19

// button on pin 2
#define buttonPin 2

// variable to store button state
int buttonState;

// elapsed time during button press
unsigned long elapsedTime ;

// variable to control inPulse() listening window
unsigned long initialDelay = 5000000;

// the correct combination to open the lock
int combination[]= {

void setup()

pinMode(ledPin, OUTPUT);
pinMode(ledWrong, OUTPUT);
pinMode(indicatorPin, OUTPUT);
pinMode(buttonPin, INPUT);

void loop() {
// read the button state and store
buttonState = digitalRead(buttonPin);

// if the button is pressed then start timing
if (buttonState == 1) {
// turn on indicator LED so user knows button's pressed
digitalWrite(indicatorPin, HIGH);
// record and store the time the button was pressed
elapsedTime = pulseIn(buttonPin, HIGH, initialDelay);
//converts the time into a 1 or a 0 (long or short)
elapsedTime = (int)(elapsedTime / 100000L);
if (elapsedTime < 10) {
elapsedTime = 0;
else {
elapsedTime = 1;
// allows me to check that it's working
// if the button's not pressed, turn off indicator LED
else {
digitalWrite(indicatorPin, LOW);

Going Ong and Ong: Thoughts on Orality and Literacy

“Once the word is technologized, there is no effective way to criticize what technology has done with it without the aid of the highest technology available.”

Though I felt like I was slogging through a morass of scholarly flatulence at points, for the most part, I liked the Ong reading, especially his occasional flakes of raspy humor.  I’d never thought of written language as a one-dimensional facsimile of three-dimensional spoken communication.  For me speaking and reading/writing are two completely different exercises and though they obviously influence each other, I’d never really considered the extent to which the ability to write structures our experience of speech and, if Ong is to be believed, of the world around us.  Three themes in particular got me thinking about stuff: the nature of preliterate communication, the consequences of the transition to a written or textual culture, and the deviously clever evolutionary argument for linguistic determinism.

Language and thought are rooted in sound and grow out of the unconscious.  Spoken languages have no awareness of their own history or grammar until they become written; indeed, Ong seems to suggest that nothing can be studied in the usual sense before being transfigured and abstracted into written form.  In the fourth chapter he argues that abstraction itself is possible only for a literate mind.  I’m not so sure about this.  Surely children born bilingual in oral societies have some appreciation of the abstract nature of language since they can compare and contrast between their two mother tongues without resorting to writing.

It makes sense, however, to attribute the shift from magical to rational thinking on the development of a written lingua franca and the commission of knowledge to the page.  What I’m not convinced of is that the loss of words’ totemic/magical value is a cause of this rather than a result.  Probably mutually reinforcing.

Ong admits he’s writing from within a Western humanistic scholarly tradition, but that colors his judgments in ways he may not be aware of.  To suggest that the Chinese are just waiting for the universal adoption of Mandarin before replacing Chinese script with a Roman alphabet is to misunderstand not only the nature of the Chinese language but also to give primacy to the linguistic tradition to which he belongs.  Chinese is not nearly as efficient or easy to learn or even legible from a distance as alphabetic languages, but if one believes Ong’s argument that writing changes the mind, then one would assume that writing differently changes the mind differently.  Does that mean the Chinese actually think differently because the level of abstraction of their writing is different than ours?  This smacks of linguistic determinism.  If it’s true, then he’s snuck through a theory that’s been long discredited by aligning it along a temporal axis rather than a cultural one.  If it’s not true, then why would the Chinese ever abandon a written language that has served them well for millennia?

This is why I struggled with the idea that writing irrevocably changes the mind.  Ong claims it’s a one-way street; you can’t come back up once you’ve gone down it.  There is a wistful nostalgia in his description of the demise of mnemonic memorization and what would now be considered the prodigious feats of mind of oral cultures.  Once you’re literate, you cannot fully understand words in the pre-literate way, he says.  I’m not so sure.  I think he’s confusing the advance of culture with the advance of communication.  Writing displaced memorization, I’m sure that’s true, but did it eradicate it?

I kept on thinking about hip-hop.  Hip hop is rooted in the world of immediate existence, it’s agonistic as hell, it’s formulaic (throw your hands in the ayah, and wave em around like you just don’t cayah), and it’s designed to be easy to remember.  One might argue that it is a memorized performance the way that a play is, but in its purest form, in the freestyle battle, hip-hop is not a recitation of a pre-existing text but an act of creative oral ad hockery.  And its practitioners are mostly literate, some prodigiously so. 

This idea of communication evolution as somewhat separate from overall cultural evolution got me thinking about how the Internet offers us a contemporary way of exploring many of the things that Ong writes about.  He writes about the inescapability of your frame of reference, giving an example of how people trying to describe a horse to people used to cars might call it a horse without wheels.  But that works forward too.  We’re seeing a similar clinging to traditional forms even though they’ve become largely irrelevant—albums in the age of iTunes for example.

What it seems to suggest to me is that while the mind doesn’t really change, what’s no longer the same is the definition of knowledge.  When writing came along, people stopped learning by rote.  If you don’t have to memorize, why bother?  Writing, argues Ong, enables innovation: when the mind’s principal task is no longer to conserve, it can focus on creating the heretofore unseen.  We’re now experiencing a similar revolution: if you know how to find facts, is it really necessary to know them?  Though we probably won’t lose the capacity to memorize or react critically to material we read, we may well choose to focus our mental energy on strategies for sifting through and making sense of large quantities of material or some other until-now impracticable pursuit.

The Internet is still primarily written—organized by keywords, tags, and links.  And according to Ong writing and print isolate, destroying group dynamics.  Online communication restores to writing many of the elements it lost in the transition from orality—immediacy, refutability (forums, IM, comments), and holistic expression (emoticons, video feeds).  I expect that if we asked him, he’d point out that the Internet has made it possible to recreate the advantages of spoken face-to-face encounters remotely.  I think we may be onto something that does more, that transcends speech by making conversations richer than ever before.


Ultimately, Ong’s whole argument verges on the specious: he can speculate about what it’s like to be pre-literate, but the only people who can intelligently refute his argument are perforce excluded from engaging it.  The idea that writing is primarily responsible for introspection and science and philosophy may or may not be true—it seems pretty compelling as he presents it—but it requires that we accept that the breadth of oral cultures’ intellectual experience has been preserved in the textual remnants of ancient oral epics that have come down to us or in the songs of some scattered Yugoslavian goatherds.  And I’m not sure that’s a premise I’m willing to accept.

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