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Weighing In

Web 2.0, Secondary Orality, and the Gutenberg Parenthesis

In the large picture of human history, the brief few centuries when print reigned unchallenged as the most revered form of knowledge will be seen as a mere parenthesis. Before Gutenberg, knowledge was formed orally and, now, in this post-Gutenberg era, knowledge is formed -- increasingly -- through "secondary orality" on the Internet (Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New Accents. Ed. Terence Hawkes. (New York: Methuen, 1988).). 

The sequence is: orality --> literacy --> secondary orality as the primary locus of knowledge authority over the last 500-plus years. Over the thousands of years of human history, those 500 years are a parenthesis.

"Gutenberg Parenthesis" is a term Tom Pettitt, Associate Professor of English at the University of Southern Denmark, used at an MIT conference on Folk Cultures and Digital Cultures. ("Before the Gutenberg Parenthesis: Elizabethan-American Compatibilties" Tom Pettitt )

What did writers do before the "Parenthesis"? "Sampling & remixing; borrowing & reshaping; appropriating & recontextualizing," in the words of the call for papers for the conference. This is "the way that some university students now think they should write academic essays," Pettitt says. He says this process, in folklore, is called "quilting." But on campuses, educators call it "plagiarism" unless it is properly cited and does not constitute the majority of the text.

Before Gutenberg, humanity mostly shared knowledge through the spoken word, what is called "orality" -- as opposed to "literacy." During the Gutenberg period, just ending, humanity valued printed works as the foundation of knowledge, and tended to believe knowledge is "owned" by an individual. After this "Gutenberg Parenthesis," humanity is beginning to understand once again, with the Internet, that knowledge is communal. The "Parenthesis" was the anomaly, not the Internet. We are not losing knowledge and learning values, we are reclaiming knowledge and learning values.

Web 2.0 can be defined in a number of ways, technically, by uses, by generational shifts, etc., but underlying all of the definitions is the cultural and historical fact that we are now in a period of "secondary orality" (Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy) that brings us back to the norms and processes of communications that humans have always sustained. Print artifacts, though they continue to hold enormous value, will continue to do so, and are not going away, can no longer be seen as the ultimate or even primary way that our world culture expresses received knowledge.

When we talked of "the late age of print" in the 1980s, such talk quickly came to be seen as delusional: Instead of print going away, we were swamped in new computer-generated print material. Only now with Web 2.0 do we get a concrete demonstration of the social structuring of knowledge and the multiple threads that directly or indirectly lead to any single expression of synthesis of those threads.

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (, serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: E-mail: [email protected]

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