Three Types of Societies

Scholars have recently rediscovered the significant and active influence that information technology exerts on the nature of societies. They  generally differentiate three types of societies and have documented different types of interaction and cognition in each.

Cultures with Primary Orality

Cultures without writing are referred to as demonstrating primary orality, and communication in those cultures is based on speaking and hearing. In these cultures, information is dynamic and communication tends to occur in communal settings. Poets and storytellers recount tales that many details of life (especially social expectation and norms) and the poems and stories contain mnemonics to help remembering, but the communal stories become a form of permanent memory that extends beyond the life of the individual who tells the tales.

Scholars suggest that in these cultures, there is little evidence of abstract ideas and reasoning. When asked about a heroic person, an individual who lives in a culture with primary orality will describe the actions of a heroic individuals rather than listing the characteristics of a heroic person. The permanent information necessary for science and religion as well as currency and property (as they have become familiar) is not possible in these cultures.

Because only speaking and hearing (skills that develop naturally with little specialized instruction) are necessary to participate in these cultures, there is little marginalization of populations based on communication skills. Also, all generations tend to participate in the same communication, so few generational differences exist, and information is updated quickly  and communication and cognition are highly social activities.

In these cultures, education tends to be informal and occur organically in an as needed basis as well as in apprenticeships. Parents teaching their children to hunt and gather, cook and garden, make crafts and tools are all typical examples of education in cultures demonstrating primary orality.

Literate Cultures

When writing is introduced to societies, there are recognized changes that occur within those societies, and these become widespread as printing is introduced. Many of these are associated with the permanence of information that is possible with writing.

Full participation in communication of literate cultures requires one to become a reader and writer. Not only are these gateway skills (a barrier to those who lack the skills), but those with greater skill can use those to gain economic and political advantage. Economic and political advantage is derived from the stable and abstract information that makes religion (especially the differentiation of adherents to different sacred books) and science possible.

Once writing is introduced to a society, individuals have  the opportunity to reflect on and analyze information and thus organize and plan their behavior at a level that is not possible prior to the introduction of writing.  

In literate cultures, formal systems of education arise that tend to demonstrate several common characteristics:

  • Curriculum and instruction focuses almost exclusively on the gateway skills. In recent decades, educators have recognized the dominant role of the linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences that is evidence of this characteristic.
  • Education occurs in isolation. Schools separate education from other social endeavors; curriculum separates problems from the real-world. Teachers are specialized workers who (typically) have no other relationship with students.
  • Education is valued as a method whereby one develops skill associated with economic, political, and cultural success.

In classrooms that serve this educational model, the teacher has the greatest expertise in both the curriculum and the communication skills. Because of that, the teacher dominates the information (selecting and presenting it) and the interaction (initiation and evaluating it). In these classrooms, students are perceived to have few relevant experiences and skills and the role of the teacher is to transfer knowledge and skill into the brains of students. Communication and cognition are understood as individual skills and activities.

ICT Culture

In the 1960’s scholars started to recognize that electronic information technologies were exerting strong sociocultural influences, and that these were beginning to reintroduce phenomena typically observed in cultures demonstrating primary orality. As networked information technology became ubiquitous  the characteristics of ICT cultures extended into the legal and political aspects of society that had been print-dominated through much of the 20th century:

  • Communication becomes a more social activity as large populations consume the same broadcasts. While this consumption may be done in alone large populations consume the same content.
  • Communication is less dependent on the gateway skills.
  • Learning communication skills is transferred to informal settings.
  • Information is dynamically updated, but generational differences in information consumption are exaggerated.
  • The capacity to create and disseminate information has moved from individuals with highly-specialized expertise and tightly-controlled access to production capacity available to almost everyone.

For recent generations (until the digital generations), the skills and knowledge necessary to be considered literate and numerate were well-known and stable. Reading and writing and calculating were the same for students as it had been for their parents and were for their children. While topics may have changed, the skills were relatively stable. As ICT has emerged and become more ubiquitous, and used for more aspects of social life, the nature of reading and writing and calculating skills has changed. Now, the skills one needs are different from those needed by parents and (one can presume) by their children.