What’s old is new again

There’s a theory lurking in the long grass of Communications Theory that I’m slightly obsessed with.

The theory was put forward by a Jesuit priest and professor of Renaissance English Literature by the name of Walter Ong in 1982. The theory is Secondary Orality. What’s fascinating about it, is that he intended it to be a theory around how our society now regards oral communication as secondary, after the written word, but many readers cottoned on to a completely different element of the phenomena and took it in a rather unexpected direction.

That direction is concerned with the changes over time in the way we communicate and absorb information (especially news and stories). It may be worth mentioning at this point that an early academic supervisor of Walter Ong’s was Marshall McLuhan, of “the medium is the message” and “global village” fame, and the idea outlined below around the fall and rise of communal communication is very much in line with his views on life.

In the beginning

In times past, from the earliest moments of human history in fact, the transfer of information from one person to another has been a group activity. Think about an ancient hunter/gatherer tribe huddled around their campfire at night, hearing the story of the day’s hunt, or the shaman’s account of an ancestral legend. Then the medieval minstrel, entertaining and informing the inhabitants of a far-flung castle through his songs. After that, the town square, with the market-day crowds gathering and debating the news brought from ‘away’ by the peddlers and merchants.

In all cases, the storyteller may not always have the stage, and the voice of the story entirely to themselves. The audience will engage, ask questions, verify or argue points and add details. The teller him or herself, is likely to tailor their delivery to best cater to the interests and preferences of their audience. Something easily done when the communication channel is the spoken word and the only person who’s heard the story before (and differently) is the apprentice tagging alongside.

Change comes

Then came the Gutenberg printing press and mass production of the written word. From hearing and discussing the latest news in the square, the old men of the town are now together in the reading room of the local library, each reading a newspaper, alone.

The audience is now singular, but it is a passive one. There’s no return channel for discussion, dispute or expansion with the author. That’s not to say readers are passive, anyone who’s been caught up in a cracking good story can attest to their active engagement in it, to the point you forget you’re reading words on a page.

The World turns again

And now we’re coming out the other side of what’s been termed the Gutenberg Parenthesis.

Communication is now very largely driven by the written word (oral communication could be seen as secondary), but it’s becoming communal again. Blogs get comments and drive further thought and conversation as a result – the post is the beginning of something, not the end. There are online forums where discussions blaze on all topics under the sun (and several rather darker than that). Games now need story progression as well as engaging activity to fully hold their users. Sites such as Tumblr play host to realms of enthusiasts writing fanfic, expanding the universes of their most loved books, movies and TV series.

I follow a number of author blogs, but my favourite is one (among several) that publishes serial updates to a story that’s later published as a novella. The reason I rate The Innkeeper Chronicles over others is the simple fact that the commenters (and there are MANY) frequently drive story developments with their questions, ideas and suppositions. It’s not a one-way ride.

Plus, how many similarities are there between ye olde townspeople discussing pronouncements from the Town Crier, frequently while he’s still “Hear ye’ing”, and live-tweeting Eurovision with your friends and favourite Twitter wits?

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