Tag Archives: Walter J. Ong

Neural and technological inequalities

I’m always happy to see discussions about the social implications of new and emerging technologies. In this case, the discussion was held at the Fast Company (magazine) European Innovation Festival. KC Ifeanyi wrote a July 10, 2019 article for Fast Company highlighting a session between two scientists focusing on what I’ve termed ‘machine/flesh’ or is, sometimes, called a cyborg but not with these two scientists (Note: A link has been removed),

At the Fast Company European Innovation Festival today, scientists Moran Cerf and Riccardo Sabatini had a wide-ranging discussion on the implications of technology that can hack humanity. From ethical questions to looking toward human biology for solutions, here are some of the highlights:

The ethics of ‘neural inequality’

There are already chips that can be implanted in the brain to help recover bodily functions after a stroke or brain injury. However, what happens if (more likely when) a chip in your brain can be hacked or even gain internet access, essentially making it possible for some people (more likely wealthy people) to process information much more quickly than others?

“It’s what some call neural inequality,” says Cerf, a neuroscientist and business professor at the Kellogg School of Management and at the neuroscience program at Northwestern University. …

Opening new pathways to thought through bionics

Cerf mentioned a colleague who was born without his left hand. He engineered a bionic one that he can control with an app and that has the functionality of doing things no human hand can do, like rotating 360 degrees. As fun of a party trick as that is, Cerf brings up a good point in that his colleague’s brain is processing something we can’t, thereby possibly opening new pathways of thought.

“The interesting thing, and this is up to us to investigate, is his brain can think thoughts that you cannot think [emphasis mine] because he has a function you don’t have,” Cerf says. …

The innovation of your human body

As people look to advanced bionics to amplify their senses or abilities, Sabatini, chief data scientist at Orionis Biosciences, makes the argument that our biological bodies are far more advanced than we give them credit for. …

Democratizing tech’s edges

Early innovation so often comes with a high price tag. The cost of experimenting with nascent technology or running clinical trials can be exorbitant. And Sabatini believes democratizing that part of the process is where the true innovation will be. …

Earlier technology that changed our thinking and thoughts

This isn’t the first time that technology has altered our thinking and the kinds of thoughts we have as per ” brain can think thoughts that you cannot think.” According to Walter J. Ong’s 1982 book, ‘Orality and Literacy’,that’s what writing did to us; it changed our thinking and the kinds of thoughts we have.

It took me quite a while to understand ‘writing’ as a technology, largely due to how much I took it for granted. Once I made that leap, it changed how I understood the word technology. Then, the idea that ‘writing’ could change your brain didn’t require as dramatic a leap although it fundamentally altered my concept of the relationship between technology and humans. Up to that time, I had viewed technology as an instrument that allowed me to accomplish goals (e.g., driving a car from point a to point b) but it had very little impact on me as a person.

You can find out more about Walter J. Ong and his work in his Wikipedia entry. Pay special attention to the section about, Orality and Literacy.

Who’s talking about technology and our thinking?

The article about the scientists (Cerf and Sabatini) at the Fast Company European Innovation Festival (held July 9 -10, 2019 in Milan, Italy) never mentions cyborgs. Presumably, neither did Sabatini or Cerf. It seems odd. Two thinkers were discussing ‘neural inequality’ and there was no mention of a cyborg (human and machine joined together).

Interestingly, the lead sponsor for this innovation festival was Gucci. That company would not have been my first guess or any other guess for that matter as having an interest in neural inequality.

So, Gucci sponsored a festival that is not not cheap. A two-day pass was $1600. (early birds got a discount of $457) and a ‘super’ pass was $2,229 (with an early bird discount of $629). So, you didn’t get into the room unless you had a fair chunk of change and time.

The tension, talking about inequality at a festival or other venue that most people can’t afford to attend, is discussed at more length in Anand Giridharadas’s 2018 book, ‘Winners Take All; The Elite Charade of Changing the World’.

It’s not just who gets to discuss ‘neural inequality’, it’s when you get to discuss it, which affects how the discussion is framed.

There aren’t an easy answers to these questions but I find the easy assumption that the wealthy and the science and technology communities get first dibs at the discussion a little disconcerting while being perfectly predictable.

On the plus side, there are artists and others who have jumped in and started the discussion by turning themselves into cyborgs. This August 14, 2015 article (Body-hackers: the people who turn themselves into cyborgs) by Oliver Wainwright for the Guardian is very informative and not for the faint of heart.

For the curious, I’ve been covering these kinds of stories here since 2009. The category ‘human enhancement’ and the search term ‘machine/flesh’ should provide you with an assortment of stories on the topic.

How the technology of writing shaped Roman thought

I have two bits about the Romans: the first is noted in the head for this posting and the second is about a chance to experience a Roman style classroom.

Empire of Letters

This January 8, 2019 news item on phys.org announces a book about how the technology of writing influenced how ancient Romans saw the world and provides a counterpoint to the notion that the ancient world (in Europe) was relentlessly oral in nature,

The Roman poet Lucretius’ epic work “De rerum natura,” or “On the Nature of Things,” is the oldest surviving scientific treatise written in Latin. Composed around 55 B.C.E., the text is a lengthy piece of contrarianism. Lucreutius was in the Epicurean school of philosophy: He wanted an account of the world rooted in earthly matter, rather than explanations based on the Gods and religion

Among other things, Lucretius believed in atomism, the idea that the world and cosmos consisted of minute pieces of matter, rather than four essential elements. To explain this point, Lucretius asked readers to think of bits of matter as being like letters of the alphabet. Indeed, both atoms and letters are called “elementa” in Latin—probably derived from the grouping of L,M, and N in the alphabet

To learn these elements of writing, students would copy out tables of letters and syllables, which Lucretius thought also served as a model for understanding the world, since matter and letters could be rearranged in parallel ways. For instance, Lucretius wrote, wood could be turned into fire by adding a little heat, while the word for wood, “lingum,” could be turned into the world for fire, “ignes,” by altering a few letters.

Students taking this analogy to heart would thus learn “the combinatory potential of nature and language,” says Stephanie Frampton, an associate professor of literature at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], in a new book on writing in the Roman world.

Moreover, Frampton emphasizes, the fact that students were learning all this specifically through writing exercises is a significant and underappreciated point in our understanding of ancient Rome: Writing, and the tools of writing, helped shape the Roman world.

A January 3, 2019 MIT news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Everyone says the ancients are really into spoken and performed poetry, and don’t care about the written word,” Frampton says. “But look at Lucretius, who’s the first person writing a scientific text in Latin — the way that he explains his scientific insight is through this metaphor founded upon the written word.”

Frampton explores this and other connections between writing and Roman society in her new work, “Empire of Letters,” published last week by Oxford University Press [according to their webpage, the paper version will be published on February 4, 2019; the e-book is now available for purchase].

The book is a history of technology itself, as Frampton examines the particulars of Roman books — which often existed as scrolls back then — and their evolution over time. But a central focus of the work is how those technologies influenced how the Romans “thought about thought,” as she says.

Moreover, as Frampton notes, she is studying the history of Romans as “literate creatures,” which means studying the tools of writing used not just in completed works, but in education, too. The letter tables detailed by Lucretius are just one example of this. Romans also learned to read and write using wax tablets that they could wipe clean after exercises.

The need to wipe such tablets clean drove the Roman emphasis on learning the art of memory — including the “memory palace” method, which uses visualized locations for items to remember them, and which is still around today. For this reason Cicero, among other Roman writers, called memory and writing “most similar, though in a different medium.”
As Frampton writes in the book, such tablets also produced “an intimate and complex relationship with memory” in the Roman world, and meant that “memory was a fundamental part of literary composition.”  

Tablets also became a common Roman metaphor for how our brains work: They thought “the mind is like a wax tablet where you can write and erase and rewrite,” Frampton says. Understanding this kind of relationship between technology and the intellect, she thinks, helps us get that much closer to life as the Romans lived it

“I think it’s analagous to early computing,” Frampton says. “The way we talk about the mind now is that it’s a computer. … We think about the computer in the same way that [intellectuals] in Rome were thinking about writing on wax tablets.”

As Frampton discusses in the book, she believes the Romans did produce a number of physical innovations to the typical scroll-based back of the classic world, including changes in layout, format, coloring pigments, and possibly even book covers and the materials used as scroll handles, including ivory.

“The Romans were engineers, that’s [one thing] they were famous for,” Frampton says. “They are quite interesting and innovative in material culture.”

Looking beyond “Empire of Letters” itself, Frampton will co-teach an MIT undergraduate course in 2019, “Making Books,” that looks at the history of the book and gets students to use old technologies to produce books as they were once made. While that course has previously focused on printing-press technology, Frampton will help students go back even further in time, to the days of the scroll and codex, if they wish. All these reading devices, after all, were important innovations in their day.

“I’m working on old media,” Frampton says, “But those old media were once new.” [emphasis mine]

While the technologies Carolyn Marvin was writing about were not quite as old Frampton’s, she too noted the point about old and new technology in her 1990 book “When Old Technologies Were New” published by the Oxford University Press in 1990.

Getting back to Frampton, she has founded an organization known as the Materia Network, which is focused on (from @materianetwork’s Twitter description) “New Approaches to Material Text in the Roman World is a conference series and network for scholars of books and writing in Classical antiquity.”

You can find Materia here. They do have a Call for Proposals but I believe the deadline should read: December 20, 2018 (not 2019) since the conference will be held in April 2019).

Also, you can purchase the ebook or print version of Frampton’s Empire of Letters from the Oxford University Press here.

I have a couple of final comments. (1) The grand daddy of oral and literate culture discussion is Walter J. Ong and I’m referring specifically to his 1982 book, Orality and Literacy. BTW, in addition to being a English Literature professor, the man was a Jesuit priest.

Reading Ancient Schoolroom

(2) The University of Reading (UK) has organized over the last few years, although they skipped in 2018, a series of events known as Reading Ancient Schoolroom (my August 9, 2018 posting features the ‘schoolroom’). The 2019 event is taking place January 23 – 25, 2019. You can find out more about the 2019 opportunity here. For anyone who can’t get to the UK easily, here’s a video of the Reading Ancient Schoolroom,

According to the description on YouTube,


Published on Feb 22, 2018

The Reading Ancient Schoolroom is a historically accurate reconstruction of an ancient schoolroom. It gives modern children an immersive experience of antiquity, acting the part of ancient children, wearing their clothes and using their writing equipment. It was developed by Eleanor Dickey at the University of Reading. Find out more at: www.readingancientschoolroom.com

There you have it.