Tuesday, May 03, 2005

I've been working through the two drawers of letters of reference files -- slow going as most are just one page and I have to create and label a new folder for each person. As most of these files are confidential and as access to them will be restricted, there really isn't much to say about them other than it is slow, labor-intensive work. I am learning something about the letter of recommendation genre, however. I've been asked to write a few in the past and seeing some four decades of letters of recommendations written by Ong has given me another perspective.

While I've been working on these recommendation files for a few days now, today's work was dogged by a new problem. Each file gets labeled "Ref: + name of person" and instead of writing "Ref" I've been writing "Href" far too often. There's clearly some sort of interiorization of HTML going on here.

Eira Aringay's and David Davo's Walter Ong Wiki Project is now up. Eira comments and reflects upon the research process used to create the project on her blog.

And, finally, the last question and resonse of the interview, although now one can read it on the Ong Wiki:

Q6. How are Professor Ong's theories about culture, technology and humanity significant to contemporary society?

I think this goes back to what I was saying about Ong writing a deeply personal history of humanity in general and of Western culture specifically. A few years ago, we in North America (and I'm assuming the developed world as a whole) started seeing reports of how computers, and especially the internet, served as tools which kept us isolated from family and friends. What I found most ironic in these reports was that they always compared the isolating role of computers to the social role of television. Even when we watch television alone, it turns out, we talk about watching television when we get together with others. The irony here is that it wasn't even twenty years ago when we heard reports of how television isolated us from our friends and neighbors. Before television, we used to spend our evenings out on our porches and in our yards and down at a local pub. Instead of sitting inside our houses watching television, we were outside interacting with our friends and neighbors. It was when I began reading accounts of these reports in the popular press that I realized that we, as a culture, had interiorized television.

What Ong has helped us to do, what his observations about culture, technology and humanity have done, is give us a framework to think about how we interact with technologies. Not just technologies of the word but all technologies, and in a larger sense, all knowledge, which exists because of and is passed on through technology. Ong liked to say that there is nothing more natural to humanity than the artificial. While we now know that humans aren't the only tool using species on this planet, and while know that we aren't even the only users of language (which is, really, just a tool), our history, our culture, and our consciousness are too deeply interwoven with technology to separate us from it. In this sense, what Ong has to say that is significant to contemporary society, and will always be significant to each and every future contemporary society, is this understanding of technology.

I use the word observations above rather than the word theories both in deference to Fr. Ong, who disliked the being described as a theorist and one who produced theories, and more importantly to stress what I said earlier about his belief that he was describing God's creation. As I said earlier, new knowledge didn't bother him because he regarded the gaining of knowledge as an ongoing process of discovery that continually builds upon prior knowledge. This is an important distinction. Theorists have theories which they often feel compelled to defend against new theories because a theory is something the theorist creates. Describing what one observes, on the other hand, is always an ongoing process of information accumulation that is inherently subject to revision. Theorizing assumes, or at least pretends, that we know all there is to know, which is a real problem for Ong when you recall that he believed God reveals knowledge to us through time.

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