Maybe I am feeling snarky. I just left the following on someone’s blog:

To sum up then:

orality = dialogues bound by time and space
literacy = monologues that transcend time and space
digital culture = dialogues that transend time and space

This construction seems too reductive to me. In what way are dialogues and monologues limited to orality and literacy respectively? Surely you’ve overheard, or been in, a “conversation” that was really nothing more than a monologue, that had no back and forth exchange but was just some bore blathering on. Likewise, you’ve surely come across dialogical writing. Have you never conducted a conversations on paper on an occasion when talking was not appropriate? And what about letters? People have been carrying on conversations via letters for a few thousand years now.

We must also consider the fact that people use writing to dialogue with themselves, to externalize their thoughts so that they can analyze and process what they can’t work out or work out as easily in their head. Likewise, we should also consider that the fact that one can be in conversation with a written or printed text. One can read a text and respond to it. One can even ask a written text questions and get an answers. Or one might read a series of texts which exist in dialogue with each other. Consider, for example, reading someone’s collected letters, which often include letters to and from, or a debate that takes place in the pages of one or more academic journals.

While oral and written modes of communication do have affordances and constraints, there is nothing inherently dialogic or monologic about them. And, likewise, there is nothing inherent about the digital that makes it monologic or dialogic either.

Whether an utterance, be it oral, written, or digital, is a monologue or a dialogue depends upon the sender and the receiver. Person X can ask as many questions as he or she wants or can offer as many chances for Person Y to enter into a conversation, but if Person Y refuses, Person X is, in effect, involved with a monologue. Moreover, whether or not Person X intends a monologue in speech or in writing, if Person Y responds, then there has been dialogue however brief it may be. And, finally, a dialogue can breakdown into two or more monologues if the parties involved stop listening to and engaging with one another.

Another serious problem I find with this construction is the conflation of medium and materiality (what we might call media dynamics) with the mode of communication. Digitality refers to the medium and the materiality of the communication, not its mode. Digital communication can be oral, written, or both. The digitality of that communication means it has a different set of affordances and constraints than do other forms or oral and written communication.

What’s cool about Web 2.0 technologies is that we’re starting to better understand and make better use of the media dynamics of networked digitality. Networked digitality can foreground presence and immediacy in ways that chirographic and typographic communication rarely do because of their affordances and constraints: while a conversation via handwritten letter can take weeks or months and a conversation conducted through periodicals and books can take months if not years, conversations online can take hours and minutes. This means there is an affordance for dialogue, but there’s also an affordance for grandstanding, trolling, flaming, and misunderstanding that face-to-face dialogue doesn’t have.

I hope I’m not being too snarky, but conflations of medium (oral, chirographic, digital, etc.), materiality (codex, paper, WordPress or Blogger, rock, etc.), genre and practice (monologue, dialogue, rant, probe, praise poem, memo), and techno-cultural milieu (oral culture, print culture, digital culture, etc.) are all too common. Despite McLuhan’s aphorism, the medium is not the message. (This is not to say McLuhan’s wrong: the medium is the message, but, at the same time, the medium is not the message. This is not a paradox but, rather, a media ecologist koan.) It is in conflating these issues that the author of The Talking Shop takes a wrong turn in his “Orality and Web 2.0” post, it’s one of the wrong turns Rushkoff goes wrong in his piece I discussed yesterday, it’s one of the wrong turns Beth Daniell makes in her all-too-famous “Against the Great Leap Theory of Literacy,” and it’s the wrong turn people make when they talk about email or web pages or blogs as genres.

Email, web pages, and blogs are particular instances technologies governed by specific materialities and the medium in which they exist. Some bloggers argue that “true” blogs follow certain conventions, and that uses of blogging software that fail to follow those conventions aren’t blogs. This argument is another example of conflation, in this particular instance the conflation of the genre and practice and the materiality (under which I include particular instances of technologies such as blogging software–and if we want to work at a level of fine detail, we should consider which particular blogging software is being used).

When we conflate these issues we tend to focus on what I call “surface” issues rather than deep structures, and surface issues tend to lead us down the wrong paths. My favorite example is the assumption made by early scholars of oral tradition that an oral poet must be illiterate despite the fact we had evidence to the contrary. This assumption actually lead to debates about how many scribes it would take, and under what conditions, for a performance of The Iliad or Beowulf to be “accurately” recorded. This “Orality and Web 2.0” piece, in its claims monologic and dialogic communication, is another good example of focusing on surface issues. When we pay attention to deep structures, we are making distinctions among the medium, materiality, genre and practice, and techno-cultural milieu, which should help us avoid the mistakes I’ve been pointing out.

This is not to say that I’ve got it all figured out. I don’t. Nor is it to say that if we follow my suggestions we won’t make mistakes, that my suggestions won’t lead us down other wrong paths. I don’t yet know if they will or if they won’t. What I believe, however, is that my “deep” structures provides a less wrong understanding of media than do surface issues. I’m referring here to what Isaac Asimov terms “the relativity of wrong.” As Asimov argues in the essay of that name, there are degrees of wrongness (for instance, while Newtonian Physics is wrong, you can use it to make planes fly), and the idea of scientific inquiry, all inquiry I would add, is to work towards the less wrong. And it matters not whether for you less wrong means being closer to an objective truth or it means creating a more coherent account of what is known.