Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The Mind Jell-O Problem

I had a teacher once that analogized the effort of grasping difficult concepts to nailing jell-o to a wall.  This has been my experience while trying to imagine the differences between primary oral cultures and those with literatures on a cognitive level.  Technology's impact has left very few purely oral cultures (we read about them in National Geographic with 132 speakers deep inside the Amazon rainforest), but there are an abundance of intermediates which retain characteristics distinct from chirographic (written) cousins.  According to Walter Ong's 1982 book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, of the nearly 6800 languages in the world, perhaps only 102 have developed written form and 68 a literature.  

That's 1%.  


And this is significant because among the cultures with written languages, those which dominate the internet and to which I belong, the others languages, the majority it seems, are invisible.  Invisible in the development of ICT.  Not only do we ignore them, but even if we try to consider them, we find it nearly impossible to imagine how to un-think the visible, tangible qualities we associate with language.  Ong and others assert that these qualities profoundly alter the way we think, and the way of thinking for each type of culture becomes inaccessible to the other.  Assigning an alphabet to an oral language or putting symbols on a cell phone is the type of superficial solution (and chirograhic bias) which fails to truly address the cognitive aspects of orality and literacy.

How profound is this difference, and can we approach an understanding of the other?  

This cultural and cognitive divide has vast implications for designing ICTs for users across the globe that interface through written language but prefer another oral language.  For example, a user in Morocco (an intermediate oral culture) may be fluent in French, English, Darija (Moroccan Arabic), and Tamazight.  All of these can be technically be written, the first two would be considered chirographic while second two would be consider oral.  While there is no question that the user is literate, there is a question about communication preference.  Oral or chirographic?  The user's preferred mode for communication depends on several factors.  There is research which shows many users switch languages based on audience and context and even within the same text event.  Perhaps the technology makes the choice because it supports only certain languages or perhaps the user wishes to convey a certain identity through language.  Whatever choice the user makes, he or she must conform to a chirographic mode of thought.  How does this disrupt the intended message?  How does this impede the potential organization or analysis an ICT can provide?  I believe it does disrupt and impede, and that new developers from these cultures will soon start to change they way they design dramatically as a result.
The 'nailing jell-o to the wall' exercise:  Ong suggests we try to imagine a day without 'looking something up.'  The idea that language can be seen becomes unavailable.  Now, try to solve an intricate problem without writing the solution down.  (For me I just think about the methodology of my thesis, yikes).  How do you remember it?  He proposes for oral cultures you begin to pre-arrange your solution with mnemonics.  In addition, you do not engage in this process alone.  Thought becomes a dialogue or a discussion.  It is no accident that there are no individualistic cultures among oral cultures.  Finally, dissolve your attachment to organizing by categorization.  Sorting our thoughts by metaphorically dropping items into category buckets is not possible when language has no tangible quality. (if your mental jell-o isn't sliding down the wall, then you aren't trying hard enough.)  Instead, thoughts can be arranged acoustically, or perhaps with reference to a visual or emotional cue which occurred simultaneously.  When thoughts take on this shape, logical manipulation (the Aristotelian sort we practiced for argument), becomes impossible.  If A is B and B is C then A is C and all that.... very problematic without categories.  

This cognitive divide is particularly evident in the way we perceive time and space (an issue I've described in previous posts).  And almost entirely impossible to describe from alternate perspectives which is precisely why it is so important.  I recently had a colleague tell me he was entirely lost during my description of non-linear time and had no earthly idea how space and time could be thought of differently.  He is not alone.  And the fact that he couldn't un-think his own perspective is precisely the problem oral cultures encounter with chirographic based ICT.  The majority of cultures must do mental gymnastics in order to make sense of literate cultures' logic.  Current ICTs do not adequately support oral cultures' information preferences.

A distinct and important different between oral and literate cultures happens at the cognitive level.  The way in which thoughts are formed, organized, recalled, and manipulated is not the same.  ICTs are designed for the information concept of literate cultures.  ICTs could perform better for oral cultures if developed from their cognitive perspective.  The rise in video and voice tech shows promise to address this deficit if developers from oral cultures are involved.