A New Orality is Coming to Replace Old Literacy

If the past emergence of newspapers was ‘linked to the liberation of the national bourgeoisie’, where is the social media era leading us?

(AM): The social media era has already led us to what Martin Gurri has called ‘the revolt of the public ’. I have described this process as the emancipation of authorship. Before the arrival of the internet, there were approximately 300 million people able to communicate their ideas beyond their immediate surroundings. Now, thanks to the internet, the number of authors has reached 3.4 billion in just 30 years.

We all live inside an era of the explosion of authorship. It impacts all the areas of life. In politics, the emancipation of authorship has given people access to the setting of agendas. The elites and the media, their megaphone, have lost their monopoly in this area, a process Martin Gurri describes as the global ‘crisis of authority’. Starting with the first wave of social media proliferation that captured young progressive urbanites—Occupy Wall Street, the Arab spring, the Indignados movement in Spain, and so on—a tsunami of anti-establishment protests has now struck the world.

However, by 2016, social media had spread widely enough to allow other social strata to participate in agenda-setting. No longer was it just the educated, urban and progressive youth who were empowered. A new wave of conservative protests took hold. In a sense, Trump’s ascent was the successful completion of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but based on a different demographic group.

Old media have already shown how they impact society. Now we need to look at new social media. Old media were based at least in part on text, on literacy. Literacy conveys linearity and therefore requires the elaboration of meaning. Now not only has the length of text shrunk on social media, but the necessity of communicating only through text is vanishing as well.

With the progress in media hardware towards the newest social media, a new orality is coming to replace old literacy. The means of digital social communication in the newest media, such as Twitter or TikTok, resemble the vocal-dance communicative performance of primeval humans in our pre-speech era. Interjection, the least semantic form of verbal expression, is becoming the most efficient semantic carrier. Digital orality is based on exclamations and digital gestures. It aims to persuade rather than inform. It operates with emotions and objects—memes, pictures, videos, and so on—directly, rather than with meanings.

This is going to shape agendas in a completely new way, with no requirements for literacy, rationality or fact-checking. The new mode of agenda-setting will most likely bring a new wave of upheavals, this time even more radical. It will start, again, with the younger demographics who are completely out of touch with traditional political parties’ agendas, and who are extremely anti-institutional.

-Andrey Mir, “How to live with polarisation.” Human As Media. March 30, 2021.

I’m inclined to think that this is similar to the two technology revolutions, where most of the population moves in the direction of orality or apps. But, it also has the effect of taking the culture of literacy in a different direction, where tools for writing create increasing sophistication in composition that may make literacy more difficult for the general population. However, there is also more opportunity for diversity of expression and clarity.

Hiroshima by John Hersey

“A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next—that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything.”

—John Hersey, “Hiroshima.” The New Yorker. August 24, 1946.

August 6th is always a good time to reread John Hersey’s seminal essay, Hiroshima. Or, his book of the same name. Particularly when the United Nations leading official on nuclear disarmament has this to say in a recent interview on our current situation:

Nakamitsu: The Doomsday Clock is a very effective way of informing the public about how dangerous things have become. I share the concern. The risk of use of nuclear weapons, whether intentional or by accident, is higher than it has been since the darkest days of the Cold War. But the greatest danger is through miscalculation.”

—Izumi Nakamitsu in an interview with Dietmar Pieper, “The Nuclear Risk Is ‘Higher Than it has been since the Darkest Days of the Cold War’,” Der Spiegel. August 6, 2020.

Harvard’s Reinhart and Rogoff Say This Time Really Is Different

“And you want to talk about a negative productivity shock, too. The biggest positive productivity shock we’ve had over the last 40 years has been globalization together with technology. And I think if you take away the globalization, you probably take away some of the technology. So that affects not just trade, but movements and people. And then there are the socio-political ramifications. I liken the incident we’re in to The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy got sucked up in the tornado with her house, and it’s spinning around, and you don’t know where it will come down. That’s where our social, political, economic system is at the moment. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and it’s probably not in the pro-growth direction.”

-Simon Kennedy, “Harvard’s Reinhart and Rogoff Say This Time Really Is Different.” Bloomberg. May 18, 2020.

Probably the best thing I’ve read on the financial implications of the coronavirus pandemic. If you have any interest in GDP, the economy, etc., this is worth reading in full.

Mal on the Street

“In conventional business attire, trusty Mohawk at their side, the two would waylay pedestrians and proprietors. Clandestinely recording each conversation, they would retreat to the curb to rewind: The Mohawk used quarter-inch metal cassettes and rewinding the tapes required the operator to manually turn a handle like a fishing reel. Then they’d hook up the earpiece and listen to their latest. If they only collected usable material every two or three days, they were happy.

The best of these hidden-mike recordings is a long encounter with a druggist, from whom Coyle solicits advice about performing home surgery on Sharpe, who is complaining of chest pains. The druggist is aghast at Coyle’s medical “experience” — third-year high school, plus a few days of home study. They offer to do the surgery in a station wagon outside. The druggist begs them not to, saying they’re running huge risks for no reason. Coyle replies, “He’s willing to take the chance, and it would be very interesting for me.”

-Staff, “Mal on the Street.” SF Weekly. May 25, 1995

Pace Yourself

Open Question: What does it mean to “pace yourself” in modern culture? Does it mean staying with something long enough, over time, to truly develop a relationship with the material and love it?

“There’s a willingness, there’s a faith, there’s a very, very magical alchemy that happens when somebody looks at something with enormous love and enormous passion—and it doesn’t matter what that material is. It can be a comic book page, it can be a silly story, and you don’t change it, but the way you look at it transforms it. Which is a very different exercise than postmodernism. Postmodernism or kitsch is me winking at you, saying ‘I know it’s silly, but I’m being ironic. I’m above the material.’ And for me, the transformative power of art is you are not above the material…

…I think it is amazing that I can travel with my iPad with thousands of movies. I think it is amazing that I can streamline thousands more. I think it is amazing that I can know what happened in far-flung countries, in one second. But it is up to us, as humans—one of our ethical tasks is to say, how am I going to pace myself? What am I focusing on? Because otherwise we live life in a blur. We’re texting and driving. So it is—media is not evil. The speed of media is not evil. What is toxic is that we don’t pace ourselves. That we’re not having dinner without texting; that we’re not capable of paying full attention to the moment we’re living. And that is true also of the cinematic discourse.”

-Guillermo del Toro in an interview with Lauren Wilford, “Death is the Curator: An Interview with Guillermo del Toro.” Bright Wall / Dark Room. Issue 44. February 2017.

This whole interview is packed with wisdom and might change the way you think about culture, particularly film. Read it.

The Portal, Episode 3: Werner Herzog

“In depth and somewhat reverential interview with Werner Herzog, who the host considers to be an unparalleled genius living in an age that might not be chaotic enough to appreciate him — ”what does a Winston Churchill do if there’s no World War Two to win?”. The answer, apparently, is make films: bizarre, varied, brilliant, inexplicable films that challenge narrative and perception. The conversation here ranges more widely than cinema though, with Herzog giving his views on travel, politics and education among other things. Beyond technical skill, an aspiring filmmaker must “read, read, read,” he says (82m16s).”

—”Expanding Brain.” TheListener.co. November 22, 2019.

Hour of the Wolf

“[B]ecause I am a romantic, I still believe that we have the potential to be nobler than we know and better than we think. […] So I urge you to keep your heart’s compass on the true north of your dreams. Be free to be romantics, to reject cynicism, to believe that good will prevail and that those who do wrong will be punished, because, when the hour of the wolf comes, as it comes to all of us sooner or later, those are the things that sustain us.”

—J. Micheal Straczynski wrote that speech 20 years ago for Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher, the protagonist of Murder, She Wrote, quoted in Cord Brooks, “‘Writing Superficially Is Easy’: An Interview with J. Michael Straczynski.” Los Angeles Review of Books. September 21, 2019.

Also:

…”it doesn’t matter where you come from or what you endured or what your resources were or who didn’t believe in you. Your success is the result of your talent, your dreams and the degree to which you are — or are not — prepared to fight for them…

…What mattered to me in the telling was to illustrate that we have choices about how we react to the things that happen to us, that we can choose differently than others would have us choose, and that we can break the cycle of violence or abuse or alcoholism by taking responsibility for ourselves instead of blaming others or indulging in victimhood. If it can help some people understand that there is a way out of the darkness that does not require doing unto someone else as was done unto them, then the book has been worth the effort.”

ibid.