Forward to the Past! The Rise of a Digital-Oral Culture

by Tom W. Bell

Multimedia's boosters claim that it will substitute interactive graphics and online video for much of what we now read and write. In fact, however, advances in multimedia promise something at once more radical and more natural: the substitution of speech for text. The result? An oral culture augmented by digital processing and communication. Such a digital-oral culture would recapitulate the preliterate--but hardly primitive--roots our civilization.

Oral computer interfaces may seem impractical at present. People who need to record, search, and cite information thus almost always prefer text. But technology promises to upgrade oral culture through speech recognition software, audio search engines, and compression algorithms that speed up voice output while retaining comprehension.

Linguists confirm that we enter the world hardwired for speech. Using computers in a digital-oral culture would thus come not simply as second nature, but as first. In contrast, we learn to read and write only with great effort. Tossing a keyboard into the loop further complicates the process. And as the flame wars that plague newsgroups and email lists demonstrate, a great deal gets lost in the translation to and from text.

The rise of a digital-oral culture will do more than simply make computers easier to use and communication more effective. It will change how we think. Scholars havetraced the reverse effect in cultures that moved from preliteracy to literacy. Eric A. Havelock, for example, attributes the seminal influence of ancient Greek civilization to the transition it made, c. 500 BC, from the "oral mind" to "alphabetic mind."

No one can predict exactly how the transition to post-literacy will affect us, but it certainly does not imply a return to the dark ages. Pre-literate (as opposed to illiterate) civilizations have had very highly developed cultures and economies. The ancient Greeks, for example, enjoyed Homer, Heraclitus, and international trade.

At a minimum, people in a digital-oral culture will speak a different language from our own. So long as computers fail to think like humans, they will not speak like humans. In orally interacting with computers, people in a digital oral culture will thus have to adopt unique patterns of speech. They may well end up thinking a bit like computers, too.

Humans come with hard-wired speech programs, of course, but computers could teach us new tricks. When speaking with computers we might, for example, start using "!" (a bang, or click of the tongue) to close files. Such tricks will carry over into and influence speech among humans. We might, for instance, start using "!" to close off topics of conversation.

Ultimately, such changes in speech will effect changes in thought. The recent rise of a digital-textual culture, however revolutionary, thus pales in comparison to the coming digital-oral culture.


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