When I originally set out thinking about the social implications of orality and the postliterate world, I immediately imagined a series of old-world relationships. Ones that still exist today, though maybe overlooked or under-utilized, or ones that may have been forgotten or no longer seemed “relevant.”
Here’s an example: how we sleep.
The lightbulb changed how we slept. It changed an entire part of society, and yet, somehow, we forgot.
Another example: the washroom.
Do you remember the racks and piles of magazines and gamebooks in the washroom? I have a few friends who have a couple of books still in the washroom - but between you and me, I think it’s more for decor and homage to their childhood than actual purpose. The iPhone altered what we did in there.
What have other aspects of everyday life been lost over time as we’ve introduced technology?
As we slide into the postliterate, my thinking is that those lost and forgotten pre-Gutenberg aspects and social structures might creep back into our lives. Imagine if, one day, light bulbs and phones stopped working. My feeling is we would start segmenting our sleep again and bringing back the washroom library.
So come with me and try to think of how society has changed between now and 1450, now further to the year 1000, 0, 100BCE, 1000BCE.
Like I do with my series of Ong’s characteristics of oral society, I’ll start throwing these thoughts out here as we go.
The very first is what I call:
The Master & The Apprentice.
This is a good first step in taking our minds to imagine what life might be like. It’s a relationship that we are all aware of. We call it different things depending on context and industry: student, resident, associate, apprentice, mentee. They may be formal or informal relationships.
Lawyers, Doctors, Artisans, and Trades have formally kept this tradition going and know how vital it is. These industries, and others that follow this process, are aware of a simple truth that our literate-dominated world sometimes forgets.
It’s not just information, but its application, the feeling of it, that is required for understanding, of knowledge.
The written word has detached the emotion and persona of those with knowledge. Imagine reading a manual about anything. Learning from literature alone is learning alone. It is your own voice in your own mind. It’s your own body imagining actions & movements performed.
What orality brings to a lesson, or thought, is the deep-rooted understanding that while you may not remember who said it - you remember it was someone else. Not you. And in that understanding come reverence and respect for the path of information. For the path of history. It’s not just off-hand recognition of Mastery, but the emotional understanding of where it came from.
What does this mean for the future?
I’ve been building up to this idea that we won’t be “illiterate.” I think it will be more likely aliterate. We will still be inundated with information. Though, we might not care.
Yet, remember the literaty from a couple of weeks ago?
In our past, the Master has been the gatekeeper to knowledge and information. The image of the elder confounding the student with seemingly irrelevant tasks and exercises. Then came literacy, and the Master, still with irrelevant tasks, became the librarian with hordes of ancient texts piled high around them. Both of these images are intertwined with experience and age.
The challenge we’ve faced with Masters is that technology has shifted the control of information by reducing the cost to produce and distribute to almost free. It has made the time to gain information irrelevant. The speed of language has allowed the young to garner just as much information. What’s worse is that computers can even assimilate it faster than anyone.
And here’s where we’re starting to see the crack of information alone.
The new Master
The new Master is beyond data alone. New Masters, regardless of age, are arising as those that filter and navigate the infinite for answers. They use it as a foundation to gain insight, filter between folklore and truth, navigate and come out of the other end with true mastery. They are the embodiment of passion and drive for their industry and craft.
Master Penman Jake Weidmann youngest of his kind; one of twelve existing today. In an act that was once standard, penmanship is no longer has a permanent place in school. It’s more a fascinating divergent lesson. A few chapters might be dedicated to the strange cursive writing style - pre-QWERTY.
Weidmann persisted. He uncovered and hunted for old techniques and then tried them himself. Filtering through fact and fiction for himself.
Lars Andersen an archer and disputed Master who is trying to navigate between fact and fiction of ancient methods in his craft. Is his underhand style new or re-invented? Some even dispute the materials he cites as his inspiration. They are hidden in legends and paintings. Yet, his mastery cannot be denied no matter how disputed. It is faster than anything seen. Unlike the tried and tested mastery of Jake, Lars’ path is more obscure to uncover.
What would it be like to have someone with this drive for mastery as a teacher?
And what of the apprentice?
I think it’s understood that we’ve got a feeling that education needs change. The recent pandemic is challenging education even more. What to change, how to change?
Modern standardized tests turn children into widgets. Read book A, then book B. Put this piece with that and carry them down the conveyor belt. Spit them out like a new car. Products of industrialized education. Like the printed word in a press. Lather with ink, hang to dry and put it on a shelf to sell.
It’s more complicated, I’m sure.
Since the early 1900’s methods like Montessori, Waldorf, or democratic schools like Summerhill have for over a century tried to show our industrialized printing press method can’t work.
My feeling is that we have a sense of why our education system is challenged. In start-up terminology, we have an issue of “scale.” I think we know that the master-apprentice relationship is the best, that one on one individual attention and care is best - but the cost of one on one grows considerably as the system grows.
As orality continues to retake hold, perhaps solutions will become clearer. Perhaps we’ll see a larger influx of children taking on their parent’s trade or specializations starting sooner when a Master sees a child’s inclinations and invites them to join their school (would we go so far as a sorting hat?). Making more, and smaller more specialized schools. Broadening the scope of what a successful education looks like and achieves.
Guilds & Universities
And here is the next logical step from The Master & The Student. Where do they learn? Where did they learn? How do they continue to learn?
What used to be the institutions that supported the Master & Apprentice? Are there any that haven’t held well over time? Guilds?
But that’s for another day.