Thursday, April 1, 2021

#91 / Zeynep Tufekci And The Oral Tradition

The Oral Tradition
Zeynep Tufekci, in her substack newsletter, Insight, has written about "The Clubhouse App and the Rise of Oral Psychodynamics." Tufekci is a Turkish sociologist and writer, who focuses her work on the social implications of new technologies. 

"Clubhouse," for those who may not be familiar with it, is a social media application that allows users to participate in a "drop in audio chat." At the moment, you can "drop in" only if somebody gives you an invitation to do so, but that is expected to change. Furthermore, the application isn't all that exclusive. The New York Times reports that "the app, which lets people gather in audio chatrooms to discuss different topics, has been downloaded nearly four million times.... Public figures as various as Elon Musk, Ai Weiwei, Lindsay Lohan and Roger Stone have joined it, and the unconstrained conversations it has enabled have incurred the wrath of China, which [has] banned Clubhouse." Anna Wiener, who covers Silicon Valley's startup culture for The New Yorker, has given the app a rather "mixed review." 

In her own analysis of Clubhouse, Tufekci is trying to analyze and evaluate the very "latest thing" in the world of social media, and her analysis, which I found surprising, is mostly about how the "oral tradition" competes with the "literary tradition," and how it's quite a good thing that the oral tradition seems to be making a comeback through social media. 

This said, things are not simple, the way Tufekci presents her argument, as she seeks to differentiate the "oral" and the "literary" traditions:

There's something important going on here... [Clubhouse is] the latest encroachment of oral culture back into the public sphere. And it’s not just because it’s spoken, rather than written. For example Twitter, despite being written, has been primarily dominated by oral psychodynamics, especially early on. (More on what that means in just a minute). Clubhouse opens the door to a lot more oral culture by its design, though it easily veers into the podcast model (two speakers/large audience) that is, despite being spoken, is actually written or print culture.

I wouldn't have called Twitter part of the "oral tradition," but that's what Tufekci is saying, as she quotes, and then contests, an article by Bill Keller, writing about the “Twitter Trap.” Here's Keller:

My mistrust of social media is intensified by the ephemeral nature of these communications. They are the epitome of in-one-ear-and-out-the-other, which was my mother’s trope for a failure to connect.
Eavesdrop on a conversation as it surges through the digital crowd, and more often than not it is reductive and redundant. Following an argument among the Twits is like listening to preschoolers quarreling: You did! Did not! Did too! Did not!

In an actual discussion, the marshaling of information is cumulative, complication is acknowledged, sometimes persuasion occurs. In a Twitter discussion, opinions and our tolerance for others’ opinions are stunted. Whether or not Twitter makes you stupid, it certainly makes some smart people sound stupid.

The shortcomings of social media would not bother me awfully if I did not suspect that Facebook friendship and Twitter chatter are displacing real rapport and real conversation, just as Gutenberg’s device displaced remembering. The things we may be unlearning, tweet by tweet — complexity, acuity, patience, wisdom, intimacy — are things that matter.

What Keller is saying (in an article written in 2011) seems on target to me, and reminds me of what we have just lived through with former president Donald Trump. But Tufekci suggests that any negative reaction to Twitter may be missing something. Here's Tufekci's take:
The key to understanding ... is that while writing did displace the value of memory, the vast abundance of printed material did something else, also, something less remarked upon, both to the shape of our public sphere and also to our psychodynamics. It replaced the natural, visceral human oral psychodynamics with those of literate and written ones. Most of us are so awash in this new form that we notice it as much as fish notice water; however, writing is but a blip and the printed [is just a] flash in human history. Orality, on the other hand, is perhaps the most human of our characteristics, and ironically, the comeback of which into the public sphere is the one Keller is lamenting while worrying about losing our human characteristics. What he seems to actually mean is that, with the advent of writing and printing, we acquired these new cognitive tools and novel psychodynamic [and I should note that they never took that much root in most recesses of culture and thus remain fragile] and they are threatened by social media which re-introduces older forms which, of course, never died out but receded from public importance (emphasis in the original).
Not ignoring some of the complexities, Tufekci is basically saying that the oral tradition is the most natural and "human" way for us to communicate:

The oral world is ephemeral, exists only suspended in time, supported primarily through interpersonal connections, survives only on memory, and rather than building final, cumulative works, it is aimed at conversation and remembering knowledge by rendering it memorable, which can often mean snarky, witty, rhythmic and rhyming. (Think poet slams rather than essays).

In oral psychodynamics, the conversational, formulaic styling dominates (which aides memory) as well as back-and-forth, redundancy, an emphasis on being less analytic and more aggregative, being more additive rather than developing complex and subordinate clauses (classic example is the Genesis which, like Homer’s Odyssey, is indeed an oral work which was later written down). Oral psychodynamics also tend to be more antagonistic, interpersonal and participatory. (Wikipedia does a pretty good job of summarizing these arguments but I strongly advise reading Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word for a more thorough treatment—though I have some issues with Ong’s arguments I think they are well worth taking seriously).

Sounds a lot like social media, does it not? In fact, Andy Carvin often refers to his Twitter reporting as part preserving oral history, and I think he is spot on. This distinction is probably a bit harder to observe in the English Twitter-verse since English is so thoroughly colonized by writing. Whenever I dive into the Turkish Twitter, I notice tweets employing many forms of Turkish which are solely found in oral Turkish and almost never written down in literate culture. I think this distinction may be more visible in other societies where oral culture was not as decisively beaten back as in the English speaking world — this makes it harder to explain the issue in English.
Writing, especially writing at length is a different modality of thought than talking and it also allows a different kind of exchange and discourse. (I refer specifically to the scholarship of Neil Postman and Walter Ong). As Postman argues, writing and the spread of the printed word through literacy and the printing press created a culture in which it is possible to debate ideas at length and produce analytic thought which can be produced, advanced, discussed, refuted, rejected, improved and otherwise churned through the public sphere. As Postman writes in Amusing Ourselves to Death: “almost all of the characteristics we associate with the mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively, and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; and abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.” (p.63).

In other words, oral culture is not suited to certain kinds of knowledge accumulation and legibility of the world, some of which is necessary to hold our institutions together. And this underappreciated transition is certainly one big reason for the current tension in this historic transition: because of technology, oral psychodynamics have broken through at scale, and we are trying to manage them with institutions that operate solely through an within print/written culture. And that cannot, will not, hold without adjustment (emphasis added).

As I say, I was surprised to get this analysis as Tufekci evaluated "Clubhouse." I suppose the growing popularity of podcasts might be a related phenomenon, as the "oral tradition" is making a comeback against the "literary tradition" that has been dominating the American and English-speaking world since Guttenberg. 

The oral tradition, and "orality," the way I am understanding Tufekci, may be inherently more "democratic" than a communications psychodynamics based in "literature." In other words, the oral tradition provides language and the possibility of communication to more ordinary people, in the sense that an oral psychodynamics of communication tends to make communication available to everyone, based as it is on a basic human ability, shared by all. The "literary tradition" tends to be aimed at the elites.

I have been suggesting that the fate of our human civilization will depend, in large part, on whether or not we can find effective ways to "talk to strangers." Tufekci seems to be saying that we shouldn't spurn the role that social media can play as we seek to do that. 

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