The computer rewrites the history of writing by sending us back to reconsider nearly every aspect of the earlier technologies. (Jay David Bolter, 1991:46)

Electronic text will . . . serve as the vehicle for displaying all of Western literature in a new light. Since much of this literature is oral in origin and nature, and self-consciously rhetorical, and since electronic text is both oral and rhetorical to a degree, "repurposing" can reveal to us aspects of our greatest works of art--literary, artistic, and musical--that we have never noticed before. Robert Winter told me that in creating his Ninth Symphony program he heard things that he had not only never heard before, but had never been able to hear before. I think electronic text will allow us to hear lots of things, in both reading and writing, that we have never been able to hear before. [Richard A. Lanham, 1993:print/131; hypertext/476-77; author's emphasis]

. . . soon most information will be generated collaboratively by the cyber-tribal hunter-gatherers of cyberspace. (John Perry Barlow: 90)
I have long been intrigued by Walter Ong's provocatively parallel terms, "primary" and "secondary orality."/1/ However, Ong only tantalizes with a few offhand comments alluding to similarities or differences between primary and secondary orality. In Orality and Literacy, the magnum opus that summarized his lifework, Ong admits candidly that "various kinds of residual orality as well as the 'literate orality' of the secondary oral culture induced by radio and television awaits in-depth study" (160; emphasis added). Now retired, Ong never carried out this "in-depth study" himself.

Evidence of a secondary, electronic orality has burgeoned in the last decade. Ong's Orality and Literacy, published in 1982, appeared in the early days of the microcomputer revolution, predating the cyberpunk science fiction movement, the appearance of HyperCard and other hypertext software applications, and the recent exponential growth of traffic on the Internet. Ong's hoped for in-depth study of secondary orality is well under way now, and some academics are making valuable contributions to it (Boomershine; Brent; December; Enos; Farrell; Finnegan; Harnad; Moulthrop; Mullins, 1990; 1993a; 1993b; Scott; Theall; Zuboff), but the real exploration is being conducted by hackers, crackers, cyberpunks, console cowboys, Internet surfers, netheads, and other denizens of cyberspace (Levy; Hafner and Markoff; Sterling; Rheingold, 1993).

The main thesis of this paper is reflected in my title(s). I suspect that Ong is correct that a new orality is emerging in Electronic Age. In fact I suspect that it is the sensibilities induced by our use of electronic media that have allowed us to reacquaint ourselves with the sensibilities of primary oral cultures. In the discussion that follows, I propose that we consider hypertext as paradigmatic of digital, electronic communication, and that we consider how the experience of hypertext might enhance our sensibilities to the characteristics of ancient, primary orality. Furthermore, electronic communication brings to the foreground a host of ethical and political issues, which I shall survey briefly.

The discussion that follows crystallized for me as I read the following three books: Jay David Bolter's Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing; Richard A. Lanham's The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts; and George P. Landow's Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology./2/ Each observes the return of orality in the Electronic Age, and each suggests that hypertext can serve as a lens through which to re-vision the history of media, thus allowing us to see things we have never before been able to see (Bolter,1991:46; Lanham, 1993: 213; Landow:102-103). Thus my thesis is a variation on a theme by Bolter, Lanham, and Landow.

What is "hypertext"? Ted Nelson, the computer visionary and activist who coined the word, defines it as "non-sequential writing--text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen. As popularly conceived, this is a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways" (Nelson, 1992:0/2)./3/ Thus, hypertext consists (the language varies) of nodes or writing spaces, connected by links created either by the author/creator or by the reader/user. By activating an existing link or by creating a new one, the reader can jump from node to node and thus blaze a trail through the network or web that is the "docuverse" (Landow) of the hypertext.

The experience of navigating through a hypertext is not alien to readers of codex books. For example, the cross references in a study Bible function like hypertext links, only the reader has to do a laborious manual search to turn up the cross-referenced text. Imagine if, with the click of a mouse button on a computer screen, it were to pop instantly. Or again, glancing from the main body of this paper to the footnotes below is also a hypertextual jump (Landow:4-5). But if this paper were an electronic hypertext, I could create links from the footnotes to their own 'footnotes,' or better to computer files containing the full texts of the titles in my bibliography, which themselves could be linked to still more texts, and so on, as long as human perseverance and computer storage space permits. Precursors to hypertext may also be found among some of the intriguing works of modern fiction, which strain against the physical limitations of the printed page, crying out for the freedom and fluidity of hypertext. Works such as Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, and Borges's "Library of Babel" and "Garden of Forking Paths" might be more at home in hypertext than in print (Bolter, 1991:132-39).

It is vital to understand that hypertext is not restricted to words only. Hypertext can include any kind of information that can be digitized electronically: scanned images (including color photographs), stereo sound, videotape, and animation. Therefore, when I use the word "hypertext," I use it broadly to include "hypermedia" or "interactive multimedia."/4/

There is no reason to limit hypertext to the storage capacity of one's own desktop computer. By nature, electronic media are networked media; the computers of the world are increasingly connected through local and wide-area networks and by the Internet (Fowler, 1993). Through the World Wide Web (=WWW), using a front-end graphical user interface such as Mosaic,/5/ one can explore the riches of the Internet by following hypertextual connections between the multitudinous resources on the Net. If the user has the appropriate hardware and software and plenty of bandwidth, then Mosaic allows one to access digital resources residing on Internet computers all over the world--to read a text, to view digitized photos or graphics, to play a video clip, or to listen to a digitized sound. We are rapidly approaching the realization of a global hypertext that was only dreamed of a few years by fanatics such as Ted Nelson, in his fabled "Xanadu Project" (Nelson, 1987; 1991)./6/

At first glance other forms of computer mediated communication, such as email, newsgroups, Internet Relay Chat, multi-user dungeons or domains, might seem more "oral" than hypertext./7/ But as the digital media continue to melt together, increasingly it becomes clear that in cyberspace "everything is connected."/8/ Hypertext is networks of digital, electronic connection. Thus, "hypertext" can be construed broadly to include "all of the above" and more. For the purposes of this paper, I propose to take hypertext as paradigmatic of digital, electronic media and CMC.

In the remainder of this paper, I shall do three things. One, I shall describe the salient features of hypertext. Two, I shall describe some of the major characteristics of primary orality, as outlined by Walter Ong, and indicate how our use of hypertext can awaken us to the primary orality of antiquity. Three, I shall point out areas in which the ethics and politics of electronic communication are fiercely debated today.

(Go to the next section)
(Go to the previous section)
(Go to the Outline)