There Can Be No Return To Orality Because You Cannot Undo the Effects of Literacy
"We never go back. This is not to say that elements of the past can never reassert themselves or re-appear in interesting ways, but we never go back to a past state of affairs because you cannot undo what has happened since. Even when elements of the past are retrieved or patterns echo, they will have been changed by their passage to the present. I say this, in part, because when new technologies appear, it is tempting to cast them in light of older technologies or in relation to older social states. Some of this reflects the understandable tendency to make sense of what is novel by reference to what is familiar, hence the fact that we still speak of web “pages.” But it applies, too, particularly with new media, to the idea that we are thrust into an older form of culture by a new technology. To note one recent example, when Clubhouse, an audio-only social platform, was a big deal earlier this year, it was not uncommon to come across someone claiming that it marked the return of oral culture, culture characterized by the spoken word rather than writing. (There were, to be sure, more and less sophisticated versions of this claim.) But this was always impossible. Better to say, I think, that Clubhouse or Discord might retrieve certain aspects of orality, but there can be no return to orality because you cannot undo the effects of literacy. This is why Walter Ong spoke of “secondary orality” when he wanted to analyze how radio and television re-shaped a literate society. When I’ve used the orality/literacy frame to make some sense of social media, I’ve spoken of digital media “scrambling” earlier dynamics as a way to account for the aspects of both continuity and discontinuity. In any case, there’s no going back."