It's written/print culture that's the recent historical anomaly, and still a minority of the world
Is this why print/text media has such a difficult time reporting on politicians working in bad faith, relying on the labeling of "misleading claims" and "falsehoods" to do the work of holding them to account? Expectations of linearity and ideological consistency colliding with an orality that makes space for (and maybe even thrives in) contradiction?
I've never looked at Twitter that way, as an oral expression, but it makes sense. What a great piece!
I love writing, but I love speaking with audiences and Q&As almost more because it feels like it builds connection and exchanges thought in a completely different way (which is one of the reasons I dislike doing readings -- I don't feel like I'm engaging with the audience; much prefer Q&A). But I don't find that many fellow writers view these oral activities as more than a duty.
I'm not sure how Clubhouse fits into all of this. Last week was literally the first time I'd ever heard of it, and I was more interested in Elizabeth Spiers's piece related to it (https://mynewbandis.substack.com/p/slate-star-clusterfuck) because she did such a good job explaining what many people get so wrong about journalism (not opinion writing or editorials, just day-to-day journalism, which is harried and underpaid and chronically on deadline for too many pieces). The thought of trying to understand that ecosystem frankly makes me tired. Which is partly why I so appreciate thinkers and researchers like you untangling these ideas in comprehensible ways. Thank you :)
Today's piece dredges up many trains of thought for me.
A number of years ago, I sat next to a Hasid at work. He brought up to me, for reasons I cannot recall, that the Torah was the result of an oral tradition. I was shocked, and started talking to him about Millman Parry and formulaic composition in Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian folklore (in the 1920s a hotbed of continued oral rather than written tradition), and how he had used live examples of formulaism to show that Homer was also the outcome of an oral tradition. And that such formulaism had been found also in Navajo and Biblical traditions among many others. Unfortunately, we did not see eye to eye on what oral tradition meant. For him it meant that God had dictated the Torah to Moses, not that it was a human product that displayed similarities to other cultures. Both Homer and the Navajo were unknown references to him.
Your piece brought up also research that Luria and Vygotsky had done in the 1930s when trying to determine how best to bring education to the Uzbeks. They interviewed both Uzbekis who lived in towns and had been "westernized," and those who still lived in the mountains and had not. One example was their asking each group to find the odd one out in the group hammer, screwdriver, and nail. The townspeople said that nail was the odd one out because the other two were tools. The mountain people said it was a screwdriver: hammers hit nails, what was a screwdriver doing in the grouping. Luria and Vygotsky concluded that concept formation was quite different between the two groups, the townspeople tending to the more abstract associations, the mountain people to very concrete associations.
Other examples more in keeping with your article, Zeynep, are Cockney rhyming slang, which makes little sense when written; and the art of Playing the Dozens among Black children in Harlem in the 1940s and 1950s, a kind of back-and-forth set of amusing insults. Songs by Bo Diddley like Say Man draw on the same kind of traded insults.
In the early 1980s at a Linguistics Institute, Chuck Fillmore ran a seminar on formulaic speech. He was focused primarily at that time with lexical formulaism rather than fully discursive. (My personal favorite was how a number of people mis-parsed "an arm and a leg" as "a nominal egg," illustrating that the whole formula transmitted meaning rather than its individual components. Around the same time, Discourse Analysis was looking at more syntactic and pragmatic constructs where clitics (small words that "lean" on larger words) were used discursively to switch topics. Examples from Hittite, Hebrew, Greek and a host of other languages illustrated ways in which the speaker could move the conversation from one area of focus to another. Latin ablative absolute was another such technique ("which things having been said, they moved on to eat lunch" kind of structure.
I have too hard a time reading Twitter to know if there are similar formuaisms or topic-switching mechanisms in that medium. Perhaps Clubhouse will give rise to its own set of mechanisms.
What has been fascinating about clubhouse is how it establishes the absolute end of eye contact by social media. I wonder what John Berger would have to say about all this written and heard communication that avoids all eye contact. I'm tempted to 'ironically' host a clubhouse room on 'The End of Eye Contact'.
Fascinating article Zeynep. I really appreciate these types of articles that both spark a curiosity and give more reading to engage that curiosity.
Thank you for a thought-provoking post. So much so, that I subscribed today! As someone who works in narrative design for companies, teams, and people, I am struck by the nuances of this piece. I see this play out - in the form of alignment challenges. (aka - people not on the same page). I get strategy documents in scattered remnants of G docs or MSFT docs and have to dissect for a sense of harmony. The leadership orates their points in town halls or sales meetings, many times referring to slides to support their conversation, most of which are not widely distributed to their teams beyond the next level down. It is interesting to compare this to the Bezos method at Amazon of writing 6-page narratives that are read in silence and then discussed and debated around the table.
Could this be a factor why talk-radio seems to have such a large influence in the U.S.?
Some of us here are of a certain age where approximately the first half of our lives were spent in a largely "analog" world (LPs and tapes, real telephones, no email or social media), and the second half in a "digital" world. It's become a cliche to point out the huge psychological and societal changes wrought by this epochal shift -- and of course there will always be an analog component simply by virtue of our being human, just as residual oral culture remains embedded in otherwise dominant written/print culture -- but still, it's easy to lose track of how much has changed. And yet, it's mind-blowing to consider that this analog-digital shift must be a minor blip compared to the time frame and scale of the transformation from oral to written culture detailed by Zeynep here.
I'd be interested in hearing (reading in print!) what you guys think about the relationship between these two developments of analog-digital and oral-written - both of which have brought certain definitions of "progress" and evolving customs, but which continue to harbor tensions and maybe even a return of the repressed as seen on Twitter and elsewhere. Do you see a lot of parallels between these; or are they quite different, or even orthagonal?
This piece has got me thinking about different aspects of speech and conversation, and I’m grateful for the addition of the term “orality” to my vocabulary.
It’s hard to find out how clubhouse actually works, but I’ve gotten the idea that it offers one of my favorite activities: conversation (I’m assuming it’s real-time talk where everyone can participate.) An exchange of ideas in a conversational setting results in subtle changes in the participants’ thinking: someone else’s personal story can open up understanding of a social issue, or an intriguing idea can send one home to follow a new intellectual direction. Even the collective emotional tone of the group—the level of self-disclosure, the pace of the conversation, the degree of shared concentration—plays a role in how the conversation develops.
Since Twitter is asynchronous and publicly shared, it’s different from conversation (although I can’t say much more, since it’s always seemed too distracting and fragmentary to incorporate into my life.)
Another point is that when oral tradition and storytelling become written, they still retain important oral aspects. I can only speak of Western culture, where generations have grown up with the language of the Torah, Bible and attendant ritual language resonating through their lives. When I turned to a Zen practice late in life, it was the language of the Bible, hymns and prayers that came into my mind while I was sitting. Oral repetition embeds composed, printed language permanently within one’s cognitive existence. (For this and other reasons, I worry about what the loss of religion will do the next few generations before other forms of faith emerge.) And of course literary language beyond religion has injected itself into our cultures: Shakespeare, poetry, myth and song can be found in the idioms and metaphors of both spoken and written language.
Next, I tend to track current social movements in terms of my own lived and pondered experience. The feminism of the 60s and 70s developed through print and intimate conversation. We had our “cancel” period: woe to the poor guy who opened doors for us or called us “girls.” We had moderate feminists and radical feminists. But reading and writing in the print world require concentration (preferably without earbuds.) I wonder whether current social justice movements, driven by viral cancel culture, memes, and short attention spans can only lead to a radically polarized society that we can’t pull ourselves out of.
So indeed, no solutions required—just awareness and ongoing analysis. Some elements for thought might include these: synchronous vs. asynchronous; public vs. private; “shared” vs. ephemeral (“sharing” is huge); and different types of attention. I’ll also just also mention “time for incubation” since it explains the lateness of my comment.
First of a series. To come - explaining the potency of "image boards", the success of the likes of Limbaugh, and the message of 'News of the World'.
A good start, but. 🤠
As I read, I am reminded of something I have experienced, storytelling. As I learned the craft years ago, I learned of its roots in "oral traditions," and I began to get a sense of something that could be learned but hardly ever taught: immersion in the story as a whole while traveling across the groove of the story in time (a description that is unavoidably vague). Even as I was laughing at the clown car that Matt Taibbi described in 2014 and 2015, I knew there would be a price to pay. Little did I know what that price would be.
While I would agree that social media brought in elements of orality that disrupted the psychodynamics of power, it does not reintroduce orality, and it is important to appreciate the difference. The shift from orality to literacy was more than changes to how we remember, how we express ourselves, how we organise our knowledge and institutions, and how we recognise and privilege expertise. It was also a shift from visceral embodied sensory experience to a culture that accords primacy to the visual – that too a specific kind of vision, central focused vision, that defines distance between spectator and object, unlike peripheral vision that immerses us within space. Literacy has devalued peripheral vision along with all the other senses.
Oral culture is also aural: when you hear a person speak, you also hear sounds of the spatial context of that speech. You might hear birdsong, wind, other people, traffic, etc. These are more than background noises, the echo of a space is a telling indicator of its aura, its sounds are tied to the rhythms of the world, the time of day, and contextualise the conversation in a primordial visceral way that visual forms of verbal expression cannot replicate. Even the absence of sound can be telling: the stillness of bodies in an audience induced by rapt attention devoted to a speaker is a palpable energy that significantly shapes the dynamics of what is being said. And being embodied, oral culture is adept in roping in the other senses as well. Rituals of touch are a strong part of orality, as are rituals of food that bring in taste and smell into the culture. Above all, orality is embedded in deep time, asking for a recognition of ancestors, and demanding you consider what kind of ancestor you will become. This is not to nostalgically romanticise orality, but to recognise what has changed.
Orality is embodied, spatialised, contextualised, and embedded into time. Social media, even if it deploys certain modes of expression of orality, is disembodied, de-spatialised, de-contextualised, and unrooted in experiential time. And as Hossein Derakshan has argued, social media radically transformed the web from a free exploratory network of hyperlinks to the prison of the stream. The velocity of the stream, the adrenalin of ‘likes’, the compulsion to scroll and not linger, the FOMO culture it induces, and the unrelenting velocity of information flow create the attention economy where attention is the scarcest resource. This is what has affected our capacity to remember, much more than the impact of printing. Printing, while reducing our capacity to remember, expanded our capacity to reason. Social media is damaging to both memory and reason.
I suspect it is these losses that Bill Keller is lamenting, except he went about rationalising it in completely the wrong way.
Where Clubhouse adds a completely new dimension to social media is in it being ephemeral: there is no written record, and the default mode is to disallow recording. Right now, this impact is not felt as it is still a US-centric tech-dominated space. But as it goes international, the ephemeral dimension will mean that the chats you join are constrained by time zone. So even if not local or national, it will start breeding regional cultures as opposed to other social media whose textual record is dispersed, spatially undifferentiated, across the globe. Manual Castells has argued that globalised digital culture has put us in the space of flows rather than in the space of places, and that we inhabit ‘non-local geographies.’ Clubhouse may induce a dimension of regionalisation over time, recovering some aspect of the ‘space of places.’ And this may be the most interesting pointer to possibilities for the future – a form of social media that is designed to connect the virtual with the physical.
"…oral culture is not suited to certain kinds of knowledge accumulation and legibility of the world, some of which is necessary to hold our institutions together." I wonder, are different kinds of institutions in the making? Are old ones adapting? Will it really be all TikTok and Clubhouse? What can we know about the implications of orality for social forms?
I've been experimenting with GTP-3 a lot, recently, and this article started a whole new train of thoughts about the role of text-generating algorithms that are trained on the written word…
I’ve not used Clubhouse yet, but I’ve recently started using TikTok. I’ve really noticed how much I’ve found a diversity of voices so quickly. Twitter has been great to be able to see on a daily voices the thoughts of those different than me, but that took a long time and active effort to build up. On TikTok in a short time I’ve found unique perspectives that I haven’t seen on Twitter over years of use. I think that the ease of oral communication for people that never were comfortable with writing on Twitter explains a lot of this.
I don’t want to discount the TikTok algorithm’s role in surfacing new voices to you, whereas Twitter relies heavily on a kind of connection graph of replies and retweets, otherwise you just see what you explicitly choose to follow most of the time. However, I think the ease of just turning on your phone and talking really is a major factor.
Video vs audio for TikTok vs Clubhouse feels like it may be secondary. Audio only might have some advantage for speaking up - I know a discomfort with showing my face inhibits me a bit from actually posting on TikoTok. But it seems like TikTok’s Twitter like feature of being bite-sized and asynchronous vs Clubhouse’s real-time live nature will be more relevant to their impact.
I do think it’s strange that folks who are influential on Twitter seem to have more interest and thoughts on Clubhouse than TikTok. Maybe that’s partly generational, but maybe it’s also that TikTok and Twitter fill the same space, but for different communication forms - at least on the creator side. As a consumer I find plenty of space for both, but find TikTok pretty fascinating, and am currently mostly bemused by Clubhouse (without access to use it yet, so not a fair comparison).
I watch the DW channels every day, through Youtube, and am intrigued by the ads that get dropped into "my" stream - all for high-end consumer items and for the uber-trim elites who seek methods to keep them physically superb. But toward the end of the current item on virus variants, it's noted that staff in Belgian elder care homes are reluctant to vaccinate. I'll suggest that's because, in the main, the end of the course for COVID illness in the elderly is a "peaceful" journey in intensive care. The patients are not seen to be struggling for breath because they are artificially ventilated. This is a kind "Soylent Green" end that's managed to be *not* alarming.
The other day, on another podcast, Anne Johnson (premier UK epidemiologist) observed that the HIV epidemic produced a surfeit of highly disturbing (& effective) visuals that were managed into the public consciousness in order to propel the charge for prevention & cures.