The Internet as Secondary Textuality

a paper for a class.  Published here for the sake of making my education feel like it matters.

Internet communications technology represents the most highly developed process of what Walter Ong calls “Technologizing the Word” in his book Orality and Literacy. According to Ong, communication technologies break ‘the word’ from the context of the world in oral communication and give it an independent life in space and time via print and electronic media, a process that renders unique attitudes towards the word and the psychological concepts that surround it. Internet-based communication creates a new stage in the long process of technologizing the word, transcending ‘secondary orality’ by abstracting the word into a flexible visual space united by hyperlinks and criss-crossed by search technologies that give new life to words as independent entities.

Ong’s argument about ‘technologizing the word’ primarily concerns spatial relationships between words and people. The thesis assumes a prior use of ‘the word’ before its entry into written communication technology – for Ong, oral communication takes place within “real-life situations in which the word is used here and now… [including] the entire human, existential setting in which the real, spoken word always occurs” (Ong, 1982 p.47). In contrast writing “separates the knower form the known” (Ong, 1982 p.43), physically and intellectually distancing people in communication, and rendering the word inert and stable across distances and contexts. Print culture extends this process by assimilating the word into an object with a physical “residue” on the page (Ong, 1982 p.11) that labels the essential qualities of the world. Writing followed by print after introduced spatial dynamics to the word not present or even comprehensible in oral communication (Ong, 1982 p.60).

Internet communication adopts some of the characteristics of textual and written communication technology, but represents a new phase in the development of media that requires attention as a unique system, rather than merely an extension of the old. Contemporary digital communication embodies a kind of ‘secondary textuality’ that adapts the tools of print culture to a media environment that relies heavily on metaphors drawn both from electronic broadcast media and oral communication. Internet communication remains primarily typographic, dealing in keyboarded-in words that “pre-exist” their inscription by individual authors (Ong, 1982 p.116). The use of URLs to locate all internet content, as well as ‘tagging’ and links that form the foundation of search technology show how typography remains the foundation of internet media (for more on tagging and links/search, see below). The effortless and potentially infinite revisability of internet content, as well as the role of links in creating dialogic ‘conversation’ (also below) means that factors such as the event and time of composition/revision become increasingly relevant to the meaning of words, re-introducing elements of orality internet communication’s treatment of the word. The internet also retains elements of visual electronic media, particularly in the metaphors used to describe multimedia environments (“YouTube” and “Pandora Radio” are two examples of popular sites), and in the relationship internet discourse has to older electronic communication – just as manuscript cultures used writing to recycle ideas back into oral communication, internet discussion still cycles ‘up’ to television to establish legitimacy, and looks to television to establish the topics for discussion on blogs and other sites.

Space plays a key role in shaping meaning on the Internet. In traditional typographic environments, the white space that surrounds words becomes “charged with imposed meaning .. the words on the page and their specific spatial relationship to one another, the space itself on a printed sheet – ‘white space’ as it is called – took on high significance” (Ong, 1982 p.126). Internet communication’s malleable, intertextual typographic environment further cleaves words from their immediate context and makes ‘white space’ the key element of the medium – the internet accelerates the abstraction of words from their spoken environment but undoes print’s effect of “locking” words into position in visual space (Ong, 1982 p.119), easing the manipulation of white space and transforming spatial relationships into a commodity. Whole websites and companies exist for their ability to put the right words and links in the same space – putting textual links together on the same page is the primary function of search sites like Google, link-agglomeration sites like Digg or Del.icio.us, and even many blogs. These sites take web content, and rearrange it via links as single-serving chunks; creative and effective juxtaposition of content forms the basis of these often high-profit enterprises.

The de-contextualization of words from their oral context continues in the development of ‘tagging’ and ‘tag clouds.’ These tools take single words from content or author-submitted one word descriptions of the content, and displays them according to frequency of use, with the most frequently used words appearing the largest, and least frequently the smallest. The tagging organization of content takes another step past the practice in recently oral cultures of listing written manuscripts by first word used, then beyond the typographic organization of works by title, instead organizing content by individual words and themes that exist within the text (for examples of oral organization and typographic listing, see Ong, 1982 p. 126). The tag system also demonstrates the ‘secondary textuality’ of internet communication – sites like flickr (photo sharing) and YouTube (video sharing) use tags as a way to make visual content accessible by text-driven search mediated by the user’s keyboard. Tags abstract words from oral context then place them textual communication, which then flexibly organizes content adapted to the visual environment of electronic broadcast media. Last, the experience of viewing the web from a screen fixed in the user’s physical space displaying content in a dynamic, changing way demonstrates the final way that internet-digital communication transforms the spatial environment of the word. Printed textual communication acquires a sense of authoritative completeness because “print encloses thought in thousands of copies of a work of exactly the same visual and physical consistency” (Ong, 1982 p.130); the screening of ever-changing content via a single screen undermines this sense of authority, and instead positions content as a single site in a vastly larger system. Hypertext links and search engines then provide the connective tools that shape the character of the experience of the internet as incomplete information bound and criss-crossed with individual ideas.

In the internet’s total decontexualization of words from their spoken environment, hypertext links organize and re-contextualize content, establishing meaning by making connections between content. Links give the internet itself meaning – they form the ‘net’ in “internet,” and comprise the “web” in “World Wide Web.” In a media space with no inherent avenues for discovering content, links make sites discoverable, and meaningful – web-authors familiar to one user can reveal and contextualize an unfamiliar site with a link that characterizes the site via a particular word. Links are the basic unit of meaning on the internet, connecting claims to sites that provide evidence similar to the function of dictionaries in print (Ong, 1982 p.128), or offering users a way to refute claims made on other sites by contextualizing the meaning of those sites within alternative analyses which challenge the conclusions of the original authors. In this way, the internet pushes the “democratizing” adaptability of the alphabet (Ong, 1982 p.90) even further by offering tools for (potentially) widespread oppositional publication to any number of users with access to computers. Additionally, while internet texts have no self-evident corollary in physical space, and many users mask themselves with aliases or simple anonymity, the link-net develops a context parallel to the real world, made up of user-generated content which gives totally abstracted comprehensible meaning.

Links, by developing intellectual connections through the medium of a word accelerates the process of stratification of ideas within texts. Search technology applies this process further in a simple format that forms the foundation of many users’ web experience. As internet technology expanded in scope and importance, search engines appeared to mediate the immensity of the web and make it accessible – in much the same way early literate societies relied on gurus of different kinds mediate early written texts (Ong, 1982 p.92). The above-and-beyond dominant search engine Google uses links between sites as hints to its search algorithm; roughly, when a user searches ‘Barack Obama,’ they arrive at the site most linked to with the term ‘Barack Obama’. As search engines strive to incorporate ever-larger numbers of sites into their search indexes, the ability to surf the billions of web pages with key-words fundamentally transforms the experience of information. Instead of looking at information as something contained within complete works, titles, or articles, search technology stratifies knowledge as something experienced via keyword strings, breaking it out of the containers developed in older media environments. Print culture viewed knowledge as something stored on a flat space, words or ideas located within it; knowledge was uncovered in an exploration (Ong, 1982 p.72). Search engines pre-explore areas for users by indexing and categorizing websites, making the experience of knowledge more akin to modern air-travel, where the user already knows the information they wish to find, and search delivers exactly that.

With search, the unified audience listening to oral communication (Ong, 1982 p.73) breaks apart even further, devolving into atomistic individuals with access to little more than the knowledge they want to know. While criticism this parallels older critiques of previous media forms, the narrowness of knowledge gleaned via search gives the point particular potency even when considered as a historical feature of other forms of communication. The essential distinguishing feature of internet search is the mechanization of the process and ease of retrieval – search engines devote powerful computers to scouring the internet for sites that they index and make available for instant access by all users. Another distinguishing feature of internet-mediated search solipsism is the mobilization of advertisements around keyword strings – the popular Google AdSense technology searches webpages for frequently used words and draws on advertisements selected to match those keywords; paid search technologies work in much the same way, placing ads for items linked to search terms provided by users. Google’s search technology stratifies and monetarizes information, breaking up knowledge via the mechanization of the word.

Internet communication technology accelerates the technologization of the word that began with writing, abstracting words from their spoken environment in the physical world, relegating the word to an object manipulated in space. The internet introduces new spatial relationships that transforms the experience of knowledge by stratifying it across user-defined search terms that isolates readers and breaks ideas into ever-smaller parts independent of their context in a larger text.

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One response to “The Internet as Secondary Textuality

  1. nice read. have you seen “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Sorry, forgot the author but it appeared in Slate I believe. Geertz Lovinck is good too. Also Mark Poster has done some good stuff on this too; was just reading this morning “The Mode of Information,” it may be waaaay dated these days (published I believe in early 1990s) but the writing is very readable.

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