Writing: The Original Technology



Writing may not seem like a technology compared to the modern day revelation of smartphones, tablets, and laptops, but writing can be seen as the original/foundation technology.  As Ong (1982) points out,

“…we find it difficult to consider writing to be a technology as we commonly assume printing and the computer to be. Yet writing is a technology, calling for the use of tools and other equipment: styli or brushes or pens, carefully prepared surfaces such as paper, animal skins, strips of wood, as well as inks or paints, and much more” (Ong , p. 82).

Writing can be considered a technology because it requires a person to enable external resources and execute an action.  All the gadgets of today make writing seem like a simple and mundane technology, but the reality is that it holds the foundation for modern technologies and is perhaps the most complex to master. “Writing is in a way the most drastic of the three technologies. It initiated what print and computers only continue, the reduction of dynamic sound to quiescent space, the separation of the word from the living present, were alone spoken words can exist” (Ong, p. 82). These factors combined with the permanency of writing and the potential anonymity makes writing one of the most ancient and yet, advanced forms of technology.

Disconnected from the Source

One of the biggest reasons that writing can be labeled as a technology is that it provides a way to disconnect a source from a piece of information. As Ong (1982) states, “Writing separates the knower from the known and thus sets up conditions for ‘objectivity’ in the sense of personal disengagement or distancing” (Ong, p. 46). This prevents the source from manipulating a piece of information or developing new meaning from the original fact.  This also creates a situation where information is no longer wrapped in context.  “Writing establishes what has been called ‘context-free’ language (Hirsch 1997, p. 21-3, 26) or ‘autonomous’ discourse (Olson, 1980), discourse which cannot be directly questioned or contested as oral speech can be because written discourse has been detached from its author” (Ong, 78).  Information is no longer subject to the context of the source (i.e. emotions, location) and is available in a “what your see is you’re your get” format.  A written piece is something that lacks the same life like fluidity of orality because it is transformed into a permanent and unchangeable fixture.

There is a paradox to this type of technology; written information loses the potential for influence, but also gains the potential for infinite effect. As Ong states, “The paradox lies in the fact that the deadness of the text, its removal from the living human life world, its rigid visual fixity, assures its endurance and its potential for being resurrected into limitless living contexts by a potentially infinite number of living readers” (Ong 1977, p. 230-71).  This paradox is one of the core attributes that make up our modern day technologies like smartphones, laptops, and tablets. Information that is read and distributed through laptops or smartphones has the potential to reach an infinite audience and remain available for extended lengths of time

Writing can also provide the ability to disconnect the memory from the information.  Ong cites Havelock’ description of this as “… the text frees the mind of conservative functions on itself, the text frees the mind of conservative tasks, that is, of its memory work, and thus enables the mind to turn itself to new speculation (Havelock 1963, P. 254-305).” When modern day society thinks of technology they think of devices that allow us to perform tasks with a greater deal of ease.  Writing is a prime example of this; the mind is freed from the burden of memorization, which opens the door for possible advancements in thinking.


            The second attribute of writing that constitutes it as a technology is its permanency.  This is something that is works hand in hand with the previous idea of disconnecting from the source.  Writing can be powerful and devastating because of its lack of change.  When writing is created and published, it becomes a permanent fixture until that document seizes to exist.  Writing can hold true information or false information; fabrications or truthful recounts.  Either way, a written item holds an unwavering permanence. “After absolutely total and devastating refutation, it says exactly the same thing as before. This is one reason why ‘the book says’ is popularly tantamount to ‘it is true’. It is also one reason why books have been burnt. A text stating what the whole world knows is false will state falsehood forever, so long as the text exists. Texts are inherently contumacious” (Ong, 79).  An example of this is the novel, A Million Little Pieces.  Since publication, the author has confessed that much of this biography is false.  Even though our society now knows that this information is incorrect, the written book still remains on book shelves and in eBooks. No matter how much we refute the book, the information remains the exact same. This established permanence cannot be replicated by speech because false information quickly becomes extinct, undoubtedly because the idea of liars holds a negative connotation and because speech connects the source with the information, few people will continue to provide false information.

Writing has a long and famed history in multiple cultures and across multiple centuries.  It is believed that the first form of a pencil came from the ancient Romans who used a tiny brush that they called penicillus (meaning “a little tail”) to write on papyrus. (“History of Pencils”, 2013).  While writing may hold an ancient history, it can still be seen as a technology created to alter the original information system, speech. Ong’s concept of writing as a technology holds a great amount of truth. Writing has redefined information processing and opened the door for modern day information transferring technologies


Havelock, E. A. (1963). Preface to Plato. Cambridge, MA: Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press.

History of Pencils (2013). Retrieved from http://www.berol.co.uk/historyofpencils.html

Ong, W. J. (1977a). Typographic rhapsody: Ravisius Textor, Zwinger, and Shakespeare. In W. J. Ong, Interfaces of the word: Studies in the evolution of consciousness and culture (pp. 146-188). Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Ong, W.J. (1982).“Some psychodynamics of Orality”. In W.J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (pp.31-77). London and New York: Methuen.

Ong, W.J. (1982)“Writing restructures Consciousness” In W.J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (pp.78-116). London and New York: Methuen.

Online Identity Solely as A Contruction

Online Presence

Photo courtesy of Google Images

 Online Identity Solely as a Construction

As technology continues to evolve and the internet begins to invade our everyday lives, the dilemma we face is how to define ourselves through this medium.  New ways of technology evoke an evolving process in which someone may have multiple identities. “People take on different identities throughout their lives and find new ways to represent themselves to the world” (Thurlow, Lengel, Tomic, p.97). The ways we find jobs, fall in love, and even go to school have all been affected by the evolution of the internet.  These changes can be efficient and innovative; similar and different from face to face interactions. Just like a person who is going on a first date, a person who is finding love online must decide how they are going to define themselves and what perception they are going to try to give to the other person. Whether it is in person or over the internet, identity is a construction.  A person is capable of deciding how they will present themselves and use interaction by others to gauge worth and identity.

Constructing and Managing Identity

One of the key factors in constructing an online persona is identity play. Identity play is defined as “pretending to be someone else or just portraying different aspects of yourself” (Thurlow, p.100). This aspect of identity construction is an attempt to create an impression of who you are based on aspects that you have decided are important. After creating the identity, impression management becomes critical. Impression management suggests that users rely on “on time tags and emoticons in order to create the right impression or to get a favorable impression of other people” (Thurlow, p.52).  This stage is when we begin to rely on others to measure the impact of our online identity. Our perception of our online self is gauged by the reaction of others.  When a person posts a photograph on Facebook, they often judge their appearance by the number of “likes” that photo gets.  This begins to blur the line between the social self and the personal self.  People can find themselves measuring their personal self worth based on the worth that others give to their social self.  Thurlow and company describe this as identity construction; “Identity is something we put together with the help of others… In other words our sense of ‘I’ is put together in relationship with other people” (p.96)

Daniel Chandler  (1998) defines this effect on self perception like this: “these technologies of the self allow us not only to think about our identity and to transform the way we think of ourselves, but also to change ourselves to who we want to be. In fact, the internet is unique in the history of communication technologies because it offers ordinary people the potential to communicate with vast numbers in a way that before was possible only for the very wealthy and very powerful.” (Thurlow,98).  The expansion of technology not only allows us to create varying identities, it also changes how we value these identities and how we use them to manipulate perception.

Redefining how we are Identified

Prior to major technological advancements like the internet, identity was defined through far less complex markers.

“Previously, most people lived in communities more strictly defined along national, ethnic, religious, and class lines. Consequently, identity didn’t seem like such an issue and people took their identities for granted on the basis of nationality, gender, religion, occupation, and so on… More recently, however, most of us are lucky enough to live in much more exciting, multi –ethnic, international environments.” (Thurlow, 98).

The invention of an online presence opened the door for disembodiment. Disembodiment is defined by Thurlow as “An identity which was no longer dependent on, or constrained by, your physical appearance” (p. 99).  This created an opportunity for identity to be measured without the knowledge of gender, occupation, nationality, or ethnicity.  This also aided in a post-cultural identity in which

“A technologically enabled postmulitcultural vision of identity disengaged from gender, ethnicity, and other problematic constructions. On line, users can float free of biological and sociocultural constructions, at least to the degree that their idiosyncratic language usage does not mark them as white, black, college-educated, and high school dropout and so on.” (Thurlow, p. 99)

The release of physical constraints has allowed more freedom to construct an online identity that incorporates a variety of possibilities and endless chances to relate to a desired culture.

All in all, online identity is constructed in some of the same ways that a face to face construction is created.  The primary difference lies in the guaranteed aspects of a person such as appearance, gender, nationality, ethnicity etc.  In a culture that is pre-technological advancement, the components listed above were primary identity markers.  Now that our society is in a technological whirlwind, identity is what you make it.  As Sherry Turkle states, “You can be whoever you want to be. You can completely redefine yourself if you want. You don’t have to worry about the slots other people put you in as much. They don’t look at your body and make assumptions. They don’t hear your accent and make assumption. All they see are your words” (Turkle, 1995: 184).  All identity is a construction, but internet identity is almost completely a construction of who a person wants to be, is, or wishes they could be.


Chandler, D. (1998). Personal home pages and the construction of identities on the web. Available (11 April 2003) online: <http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/short/webident.html&gt;

Turkle, S. Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the internet. New York: Touchstone.

Thurlow, C., Lengel, L., Tomic, A. Computer mediated communication: Social interaction and the internet. London: Sage Publications