Daily Archives: January 7, 2017

Walter Ong: Communications Theorist

Thinking about communications reminded me that in graduate school I was fortunate enough to work in the same building with, and read some of the writing of,  Walter Ong SJ (1912 – 2003). Ong was an American Jesuit priest, humanist and communication theorist, and professor of English literature at St. Louis University for many years.

Ong’s major interest was in exploring how the transition from orality to literacy influenced culture and changed human consciousness. He argued that the invention of writing played a major role in the emergence of individualism by providing the technology to think alone and to pursue intricate studies impossible in oral cultures that rely solely on face-to-face communication and memory. Ong claimed specifically, that the technologies of writing and printing created a new individualistic character, the private author who addresses an indefinite population. Paradoxically, he thought that “there is an inverse relationship between the number of people you are addressing and how alone you have to be.”

So I was introduced long ago to the sense that while technology changes communication, it doesn’t necessarily undermine it and may, in some ways, enhance it. You can easily imagine future technologies that would allow us to communicate even better, perhaps by being able to really feel what it is like to be the other or probe directly into others minds. Obviously Twitter and Facebook are shallow forms of communication, and on the whole, they may be detrimental to society and personal relationships. But I reject the idea that technology necessarily leads to a decrease in the quality of human connectivity. In fact on the whole better technology allows for better communication.