My snark is a political act – Wishing intellectuals would talk more and write less – why I never read papers at conferences – Academic culture is dominated by “a flash in human history”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/01/2015

Why Twitter’s Oral Culture Irritates Bill Keller (and why this is an important issue) – Zeynep Tufekci

First Keller talks about how we no longer need to remember everything and how his father used to use a slide rule and now there are calculators and who knows their multiplication table anymore… This is a familiar argument from cognitive replacement and I believe it is worth discussing not necessarily because there is something inherently wrong with machines making certain cognitive tasks easier, but I do deeply worry about what this means for valuing humans. Cheaper computers increasingly capable of taking over human tasks means that we face a profound human problem: how will we deal with the billions of people who will be potentially redundant if the only way of measuring a human’s worth is their price on the labor market? For me, this is an important political question rather than a technological lament. It’s not about what machines can do, it’s about the criteria by which we judge the worth of our fellow human beings, and how advances information technology increasingly leads us to devalue each other.

But this comparison between Gutenberg and Zuckerberg makes little sense unless you realize that Keller is actually trying to complain about the reemergence of oral psychodynamics in the public sphere rather than about memory falling out of favor. If the latter were the case, his ire would be more about Google; instead, most of his frustration is directed against social media, and mostly Twitter, the most conversational, and thus most oral of these mediums.

The key to understanding this is that while writing did displace the value of memory, the vast abundance of printed material it did something else also, something less remarked upon, both to the shape of our public sphere and also to our psychodynamics. It replaced the natural, visceral human oral psychodynamics with those of literate and written ones. Most of us are so awash in this new form that we notice it as much as fish notice water; however, writing is but a blip and the printed from a flash in human history. Orality, on the other hand, is perhaps the most human of our characteristics, and ironically, the comeback of which into the public sphere is the one Keller is lamenting while worrying about losing our human characteristics. What he seems to actually mean is that, with the advent of writing and printing, we *acquired* these new cognitive tools and novel psychodynamic [and I should note that they never took that much root in most recesses of culture and thus remain fragile] and they are threatened by social media which re-introduces older forms which, of course, never died out but receded from public importance.

The oral world is ephemeral, exists only suspended in time, supported primarily through interpersonal connections, survives only on memory, and rather than building final, cumulative works, it is aimed at conversation and remembering knowledge by rendering it memorable, which can often mean snarky, witty, rhythmic and rhyming. (Think poet slams rather than essays).

What we are seeing with social media is the public sphere, hitherto dominated by written culture, has been more opened up to oral psychodynamics. And this is particularly difficult to deal with for intellectuals who rely on their competence with, and dominance of, the written form as hallmark of their place in society. (As I will argue, there are reasons to be concerned but it is important to separate these issues). Also, television, too, is secondary literacy in that television acts in a way which assumes and implies writing. (I am not going to go into this at length here but there is a lot of work on this topic, starting with Ong).

However, Twitter and other such tools also present a great opportunity to bring into the public sphere, and into important conversations, greater number of people who would otherwise be excluded. Rather than seeing this as a turf war in which the literate classes must defend their turf against the barbarians at the gate, the questions should be how we can preserve the better aspects of the ideal of the reasoned, complex and rational public sphere without descending into elitism. (I say the ideal because, as Dave Parry often points out, usually on Twitter, the Habermassian ideal of the public sphere, well, never really was).


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