Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 3 / July 1, 1994 / Page 7

The Common Place MOO: Orality and Literacy in Virtual Reality

by Don Langham (

In the Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates deliver what may be the earliest protest in Western history against the dehumanizing effects of "modern" technology. With the benefit of our literate perspective, it is easy to say that with his condemnation of writing, Plato establishes Socrates as the earliest Luddite. Yet, as modern critics acknowledge, writing is not without its dehumanizing qualities insofar as it encourages the isolation of the individual from community. Today, there is enthusiasm for computer-mediated communication's potential for ameliorating the divisions and isolation of print. For some rhetorical theorists, computer media promise to revitalize rhetoric by reintroducing the forgotten canons of classical rhetoric, memory and delivery. Among composition theorists, computer-mediated communication promises to move the writer out of the isolation of print into a hyptertextual network of readers and writers (Barker and Kemp, 1990). Whether or not CMC will have the democratizing, liberating effects its enthusiasts believe remains to be seen. But from the outset there is reason to believe that CMC may alter the nature of human interaction as fundamentally as writing and print have, perhaps producing a new way of "being" in the world.

In this article, I relate Socrates's critique of writing in the Phaedrus to a relatively new form of CMC known variously as MUD, MOO, and MUSH, which I will refer to as MOO. MOO environments provide an interesting perspective on how communication and transportation media affect human interaction, on how electronic communication can produce a sense of co-presence and interaction quite unlike that associated with other secondary orality media such as the telephone. Indeed, I believe that these virtual realities stand as an answer to Socrates's critique of writing, and to modern condemnations of electronic media.

The essence of Socrates's complaint against writing is that it disrupts traditional social relationships, both public and private. At the public level, writing destroys memory, as explained by King Thamus in Socrates's story of writing's introduction in Egypt:

The fact is that this invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves. So it's not a recipe for memory, but for reminding, that you have discovered. (68)

Modernity regards writing as an enhancement of the human memory, allowing us to "remember" vast quantities of information while liberating the mind from the necessity of memorization. But we can suppose that this fact would be little consolation to Socrates. His point is not simply that writing encourages forgetfulness, but rather that it disrupts the everyday routinized, ritualistic existence of oral society. As Havelock (1986) explains, the memory of an oral culture is based on social routine, ritual, public discourse: "The memories are personal . . . yet their content, the language preserved, is communal, something shared by the community as expressing its tradition and its historical identity" (70). Writing, on the other hand, promotes the dissolution of communal intimacy associated with primary orality, allowing the individual to divorce himself from society. Thus, not only does writing affect the larger social order, these "external marks . . . alien" to the individual work to alienate the individual from traditional society, allowing the student, for example, to achieve the appearance of wisdom by reading widely "without benefit of a teacher's instruction" (68). For Socrates, writing not only subverts the traditional social order, it replaces the immediacy of speech between living people with deaf and mute symbols that are unable to respond to interrogators, having "no notion of whom to address or whom to avoid" (70). He agrees when Phaedrus calls written discourse "only a kind of ghost" of the "living, animate discourse of a man who really knows" (70). The true discourse, Socrates says, is that which is inscribed in men's souls, and is delivered through speech.

What Socrates disparages in writing is exactly what critics of electronic media hope to defend from the further technologizing of rhetoric. Heim (1988) argues that "technology-based rhetoric" tends "to become a ubiquitous and destructive force that ruins the privacy of the individual mind" (57). Rhetoric based in electronic technology, Heim argues, doesn't account for the "need for inner digestion or the gestation period needed for ideas to become truly one's own" (57). Heim's criticism of electronic media is a mirror image of Socrates' critique of writing. Where Socrates sees writing as corrupting the individual's relationship to society, Heim sees electronic media as destroying the individual's relationship with himself. Moreover, Heim argues, electronic media will lead to a total breakdown of a functioning public space:

For its existence the public requires a common center of focus in order to be gathered into a more or less cohesive whole, what the ancients called topoi or common places. Technological linkage may create what is known as a global village, but the ensuing tribal mentality does not imply civilized rationality. On the contrary, without psychic depth or internal contemplative focus, the public becomes a manipulable mass, the raw material for shaping into any form whatsoever. (54)

Heim's condemnation of electronic media is a strident defense of the cultural values arising out of writing, but especially out of the development of print. Specifically, Heim is defending print culture for what Socrates objects to in writing. While writing isolates the individual from the community, it also allows for deep examination of the individual, allowing for a rich sense of self and psychic complexity, helping make writing, especially in the form of print, the medium for the kind of critical thought characteristic of modern Western culture. Tuman (1992) argues that print literacy is at the heart of modern humanism, and is the source of the critique of the dehumanizing practices of modern industrial capitalism. Indeed, the irony of Socrates's attitude toward writing is that he becomes the symbol of the individual remaining true to himself in the face of society's corrupting oppression.

Of course, the further irony of Plato having his mentor condemn writing is that the alphabet was the technological innovation that allowed for the kind of theorizing about art and philosophy that defined Plato's life. Philosophy and art could not exist without writing's facility for letting us objectify our ideas. As Ong (1982) explains, "Oral cultures, as has been seen, can have no 'arts' of this scientifically organized sort. . . . . Lengthy oral productions follow more agglomerative, less analytic, patterns. The 'art' of rhetoric, though concerned with oral speech, was, like other 'arts', the product of writing" (109).

While it easy enough for us to value writing for providing Western culture with a richly developed sense of self, analytic thinking and the arts, we should also note that Socrates's criticism of writing carries legitimacy. Tuman (1992) and Bolter (1991) associate the isolating quality to writing, especially print, with the dehumanizing practices of western capitalism. The development of mass, schooled literacy in the nineteenth century is intimately related to industrial development. Industrial technology in the form of the steam-driven printing press made possible the "penny press," making daily newspapers economical for the vast majority of working people. Industrial capitalists not only facilitated the spread of literacy, but depended upon an increasingly literate work force for their survival. By the end of the century literacy education was essential to the training of managerial workers needed by industry for their analytic skills. Concurrently, reading went from an oral and communal classroom activity to a private, solitary activity. Literacy, then, is associated with the ills of industrial capitalism--the alienation of the individual from society and the drive for efficient exploitation of the earth's resources (Tuman, 1992).

The mixed blessings of literacy are apparent in the development of the academic community. Kaufer and Carley (1993) (drawing on the work of Charles Bazerman) explain that while print has facilitated distant communication, allowing individuals separated by geography to get to form knowledge communities despite being unable to meet face-to-face, it has also helped separate and isolate participants. Participation in academic discourse, for example, requires that authors "compose a text satisfying the requirements of both immediate comprehension and relative similarity for an anonymous and widely dispersed readership" (347). The lack of visual or conversational cues in print communication make informal discussions difficult. Thus, while print revolutionized the distribution of professionals, allowing the creation of a virtual community in which geographically dispersed readers could meet each other within texts, print also helped isolate members within that community.

Today, more than two millennia after Plato's Phaedrus, electronic media are often hailed as Western culture's salvation from print. Lanham (1993) argues that the humanities' narrow focus on the printed text deprives literacy education of a critical understanding of electronic media, which in turn works to make literacy education irrelevant to modern life. Lanham sees a renewed appreciation of media among humanists as essential to insuring that humanistic values continue to inform education. In particular, Lanham argues that digital media will revitalize the study of literature:

The computer's oscillation between reader and writer reintroduces the oscillation between literate and oral coordinates that stands at the center of classical Western literature. The electronic word will allow us to teach the classical canon with more understanding and zest than ever before. (106).

Welch (1990) shares Lanham's interest in electronic media in general, but not his interest in computers per se. Like Lanham, though, she believes that a renewed focus on delivery is critical if humanistic education is to survive. She argues that focusing on delivery in rhetoric education will empower students to be aware of how the media are integrated and how they work to shape our understanding of life. This will revitalize classical rhetoric, she argues, and sounding a theme she holds in common with Lanham, make the arts and humanities relevant once again to the world by allowing them to address real problems.

Harnad (1991) takes this advocacy of electronic media a step further than Lanham and Welch (or anyone else), arguing that computer-mediated communication represents not only an improved medium for scholarly communication, but the fourth revolution in human cognition. The first revolution, the advent of speech, allowed communication at a speed approximating that of human thought. Writing, the second revolution, is slower than speech, but is powerful nonetheless for its ability to make speech dependent upon the speaker or the memory of the hearers. The third revolution came with the widespread use of moveable type, which brought about a revolution not in the way people communicate, but rather in the way they conceive the world. Now, at the end of the millennium, we have what Harnad calls "electronic skywriting"--the "fourth cognitive revolution" (42). In this revolution, writing will allow us to communicate with speeds approaching that of speech, which is much closer to the speed of thought than other communication media. This revolution will be most profound in the scholarly community.

Harnad argues that print-based scholarly communication is out of sync with the speed of thought, that print permanently puts scholarly communication out of step with the pace and power of the human mind.

According to Harnad, By the time scholarship is submitted for publication, reviewed, revised, edited, printed, read, and integrated into new research, an author is years removed from his ideas: "So a potentially vital spiral of peer interactions, had it taken place in 'real' cognitive time, never materializes, and countless ideas are instead doomed to remain stillborn." The problem with print is not just that it takes time to produce, distribute, consume, and comment upon. It is that the medium is "hopelessly out of sync with the thinking mechanism and the organic potential it would have for rapid interaction if only there were a medium that could support the requisite rounds of feedback, in tempo giusto!" (44).

The vision of the interactive future proposed by Harnad suggests that network-based CMC provides an answer to Socrates's critique that writing fosters isolation of the individual. In the cyberspace Harnad envisions, technologically mediated human interaction approaches the immediacy associated with orality. That is, like print, interactive networks bring individuals separated by geography into closer proximity. Unlike print, however, network-based CMC brings them closer together in time, as well--almost as though the technology were a medium of transportation as well as communication. To understand the significance of this statement, a comparison of CMC and telephony is helpful. Of our electronic communication devices, the telephone most closely approximates the immediacy of face-to-face interaction. Participants in a telephone conversation encode and decode the spoken word almost exactly as they would in an unmediated conversation. Except for lower fidelity sound and the need for a receiver and microphone, the technology is almost completely transparent to the user. In contrast to this, CMC systems are anything but transparent. At every stage of communicating, from encoding words on a keyboard to decoding hard-to-read text on a screen, the mediated nature of CMC continuously calls attention to itself--especially so when users attempt a "real time" conversation or "chat" via their keyboards. Yet, despite this difference (indeed, perhaps because of it), the CMC environment fosters a sense of place, a sense of a conversational space alien to most people's experience with telephony. Whereas telephony calls attention to the fact that the parties do not share the same space, CMC encourages the perception that their interaction occurs in a shared location. In synchronous environments, interaction occurs at the same time, in the same place.

What is significant about this fact is that it is possible to build structures within this space that can contextualize and give meaning to human interaction just as physical structures do. For example, a special type of CMC environment known as a multiple user dimension, or MUD, is a form of "virtual reality" designed to produce a structured world--structured both in the sense that it contains structures (like buildings), and that it provides structure for human behavior. A variation of MUD known as MOO ("mud, object-oriented"), is "internally extensible," meaning that the people who occupy these virtual spaces can expand them, not just as though someone were to add a room to a house (although this is often done), but as though one were to enlarge the universe.

Certainly a clearer understanding of exactly what defines a MOO is needed before explaining its relevance to our discussion of Phaedrus. A MOO can be thought of as a text-based virtual reality environment. It stands in distinction to the image-based virtual reality which has received extensive coverage in the news media. An image-based virtual reality is a three-dimensional, computer-generated space. Small video screens embedded in a helmet that covers the eyes allows participants to see that virtual space as though he or she were looking at the physical world. Sensors attached to the helmet and other attire detect body movement and displays the result on the video display, allowing the user to look around the virtual space simply by turning his head. In addition to looking at the scene, the participant can alter his or her perspective by moving around in it at will, usually with the aid of a glove that detects finger movements. Participants in image-based virtual realities can also interact with each other within the virtual environment. That is, they can see and speak to each other and jointly manipulate other objects found in the environment. Such systems are being developed for the training of pilots, astronauts, and even surgeons.

In contrast to image-based VR systems, MOO uses written descriptions to create a virtual environment somewhat analogous to the kind of virtual world produced in the imagination when we read novels. Rather than creating a "reality" from graphical images, as is done now with the helmet-and-glove systems, MOOs create their virtual reality out of textual descriptions similar to those used in novels to create in the reader's mind the world in which characters interact. The big difference between the MOO experience and the experience of printed text is that the characters in a MOO are controlled by real people who interact with each other and their textual environment in "real time." That is, in a MOO people from all over the world can talk to each other via their computer keyboards and video monitors as if they were assembled in the same physical location. In this sense, MOO is similar to Internet Relay Chat (IRC) (a kind of text-based citizen band radio or telephone party line). The difference is that unlike the chat programs, which only facilitate synchronous communication, MOO is a structured environment in which people move about and manipulate objects as well as communicate with each other. Through textual descriptions, a MOO replicates structures familiar to the everyday world--houses, schools, parks, stores, etc. Within these virtual structures are virtual objects that MOO inhabitants can manipulate through keyboard commands.

What makes MOO interesting is that unlike other electronic media, MOO allows the creation of social structure, which can be understood in terms of a human desire for a sense of having a "day-to-day" world in cyberspace. An early innovator of incorporating MOO into writing instruction describes the advantage of the structured environment:

[A]lthough the virtual world of a MOO is continually expanded, at the same time, it doesn't change all that much from day to day. You can create and keep your character; you can recognize your friends and classmates; you can find the same rooms you were in yesterday. And part of the communication takes place in the descriptions of those rooms, characters, and objects; e.g., characters in a room described as a classroom tend to behave differently than characters in a cafe; therefore you can use your room description to help you contextualize and direct the activities in it. (Fanderclai, 1993)

Structuration theory's understanding of "locales" is helpful in understanding the significance of Fanderclai's description of MOO structure. Anthony Giddens (1984) explains that

Locales may range from a room in a house, a street corner, the shop floor of a factory, towns and cities, to the territorially demarcated areas occupied by nation-states. But locales are typically internally regionalized, and the regions within them are of critical importance in constituting contexts of interaction. (118)

While they coincide with physical structures, locales cannot be understood simply as physical locations, for there is nothing inherent in their material existence that makes them what they are. Rather, locales take on their significance because of the way humans behave toward them. Locales are important because they "provide for a good deal of the 'fixity' underlying institutions, although there is no clear sense in which they 'determine' such 'fixity'." (118). To the extent that locales "provide for a good deal of the 'fixity' underlying institutions," it is also true that they contribute to the routinization of everyday life. That is, we use locales as contexts for human behavior, physical structures that encourage the replication of certain behaviors over time. For example, while it may be true that there is nothing inherently religious in the physical structure of a cathedral, its permanence and immobility relative to the flux and decay of human existence helps insure that the religion practiced in it will survive the passing of a particular congregation. The structure of the cathedral instantiates the social structure of religion. It remains a spiritual center only as long as a human community continues to act toward it as such, as long as they remember the practices and beliefs that inspired its construction. The cathedral's physical presence serves as an enduring reminder of how people are to behave routinely toward the cathedral, toward the religion, and toward each other.

In much the same way we structure the material world to instantiate social structure, the same can be done in CMC environments like MOO so as to encourage the creation of a routine, day-to-day world.

Indeed, the "realism" of virtual reality systems is not a product of how well they mirror the "real" world, but rather the extent to which they create structures that allow for a sense of a routinized existence, a sense of fixity we generally associate with ordinary, repeated, commonplace behavior.

In this sense, MOO provides a partial answer to Heim's contention that electronic media threaten civilization by destroying topoi or common places. As we have seen already, Heim argues that

For its existence the public requires a common center of focus in order to be gathered into a more or less cohesive whole, what the ancients called topoi or common places. Technological linkage may create what is known as a global village, but the ensuing tribal mentality does not imply civilized rationality. On the contrary, without psychic depth or internal contemplative focus, the public becomes a manipulable mass, the raw material for shaping into any form whatsoever. (54)

Of course, the oral culture of the truly "ancients" from whom we take the concept of topoi did not have at its disposal the "technological linkage" of writing responsible for the development of "psychic depth or internal contemplative focus" which Heim credits with keeping the public from becoming just so much Silly Putty. Heim's argument works at cross purposes, invoking the unmediated co-presence of orality on the one hand, and the social isolation of print on the other--just exactly what Plato does in the Phaedrus. The interaction between Socrates and Phaedrus can be read as a model for the ideal social interaction in the age of literacy, a model in which "dead" writing fosters a lively interaction between co-present readers. It is an example of reading as a collaborative project.

MOO provides a possible example of how CMC can bring us closer to this ideal advanced in Phaedrus. As discussed earlier, MOO characters not only interact with each other, but they can manipulate the objects of their environment as well. For example, a MOO-based library might contain an online dictionary that characters could pick up and carry with them to another location. Moreover, it is possible for characters within a MOO to share objects collaboratively in a manner not unlike Socrates's and Phaedrus's collaboration in the reading of Lysias's speech. Already it is possible for MOO characters to collaborate in the use of the information access protocol known as Gopher. Gopher provides immediate access to information stored on the thousands of Gopher servers around the world. Within a MOO this valuable information resource becomes potentially more valuable as it is possible for two or more characters to collaborate on information searches. Not only can they share the results from their searches simultaneously, but they can discuss their search strategies and results at the same time. As the developers of the interactive Gopher interface explain,

MOO provides a way for people who are . . . after the same kind of information to work together to find it. This is of course simple enough for people physically located in the same room, but collaboration across a greater distance can be very difficult. (Masinter and Ostrom, 1993)

No doubt the current collaborative Gopher interface found in MOO environments is quite crude in comparison to the interactivity that will be possible in future MOOs. Researchers at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center have announced plans to develop a MOO environment for the world's astronomers called Astro-VR, which will promote collaboration on research projects and the sharing of information resources. More sophisticated than the today's text-based MOO, Astro-VR will allow characters to communicate using audio and video channels. Such collaborative environments may be the world of Tuman's (1992) "online literate" of the future:

The literate of the future will be neither the dutiful but unimaginative scribe, nor the powerful but at times heedless intellectual; the computer age will support a new literate, someone committed to working with others, indeed, inextricably linked with them, both literally through computer networks and metaphorically through common causes. . . . Online literacy . . . will be more practical, less theoretical, and new literates themselves valued to the extent that they are team players, not traditional intellectuals. (123)

No doubt critics of electronic media such as Heim (and Tuman, who is sympathetic with Heim's argument), are not consoled by a collaborative world of "team players" who have little time (and perhaps little need) for the "psychic depth or internal contemplative focus" associated with print culture. What this means for the polis of the future is unclear, but just as the unmediated co-presence of orality and the social isolation of print are not inherently incompatible, neither are electronic media and the concept of the cohesive polis. Heim's conception of electronic media is based on the broadcast model of communication associated with television which thrives on audience passivity. It is possible that MOO is the forerunner of technology that will provide the sort of structured environment needed for the "common place" of civilized society. If so, we would have a median between the oral and literate extremes.

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Don Langham is a PhD student in the program in Communication and Rhetoric at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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