Musings on Literacy – 3 – Secondary Orality

After the Ubisoft Forward Event, the company offered the game Watch Dogs 2 for free to build anticipation for their upcoming October release of the subsequent release in the series, Watch Dogs Legion.

After playing a little and understanding the themes of the prologue, I checked out The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff in order to gain a better understanding for some of the critiques (either real or imagined) that Ubisoft hoped to communicate from the experience.

That post will hopefully be forthcoming, though I must admit that Watch Dogs is not fun to play.

In any case, there is an intro scene to get the player up to speed on Marcus Holloway and the frustrations that a group of hackers seem to have with ctOS, a surveillance system that can follow your every digital movement.

I will paste the cutscene here for your perusal.

At a campfire party underneath the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Marcus and the gang drunkenly discuss the opposition they have to such a wide reaching system. I was frustrated with this scene for a couple of reasons. First, the hackers seem upset, not only because of the surveillance to their freedoms, (stated as government interference), but because it renders them unable to participate in the capitalist machine without being denied the “ability to get approved for a credit card.” By conflating the issue of consumerism with surveillance was to muddy the water. Indeed, the very first thing you do in the game (after you wake up without any clothes) is to go to a store and buy shit.

Capitalism has been around much longer than digital surveillance, and the history of advertising and the manipulation of people to participate in a consumerist economy has existed since the industrial revolution. Controlling people’s impulses using clicks and swipes is therefore not new.

Perhaps that’s a post for another time.

But I think what I was actually upset about is far more interesting, and that is the campfire shooting-the-shit way all of these critiques are laid out. It is dialog writing, not necessarily the best writing, but the attempt still resides in Ubisoft highlighting the central tenets for why the hackers begin the experience that the player takes up. It all has to be talked about, so that characters can introduce themselves, bond, and formulate a plan.

I had a problem with the lack of density in the dialog, as if somehow they were going to be much more able to critique the system in a way that satisfied me. That the words they used were not specific enough. As if the way they spoke was not powerful enough to get to the “heart” of the issue.

And it got me to thinking about writing and print versus speaking and discussion.

Speaking is not Writing

Until I read an article from the New Yorker about “secondary orality,” I had no idea the term even existed. It’s a term coined by Walter J. Ong to describe the way communication has shifted from an oral culture to a written culture, and how styles of speaking change as a result.

I have just purchased his book, so we will see how it affects me after reading it, and if I have anything to say as a result.

But just the concept alone sort of antagonizes what my intuitions were for thinking about “why people do not read as much.” It seems ridiculous for people to speak like it was written in a book. Yet my interests in this new style of writing deemed “autofiction” from the likes of Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard has tricked me into thinking that out there, there are brilliant people who, when they open their mouths, it might as well be a transcript from a book passage. Each of the books from these two authors take everydayness, including the very narratives of their own lives, and turns them into highly sophisticated think-pieces.

Yet when we see these writers in front of a camera, we know that how they write and how they speak are two totally different experiences. In fact, it is odd that we read books and then desire so badly to meet the author. To always do so is to invite disappointment. For they will never be as articulate or stylistic, or have the form of speech that is as eloquent as their writing style.

Yet here I am wanting that sort of profoundness…from a video game.

Literariness as Bully

I think first and foremost I have to be willing to concede some things for my gripe with literacy and its decline in the past thirty years.

First, it is naive to think that just because a person cannot communicate articulately their concerns or arguments, they are unwarranted. These hackers in Watch Dogs 2 have complaints that I think we all have. Much of our privacy that we have garnered since our species has left the tribal era is slowly being eradicated by social media. Many of our desires played out with clicks and swipes are being accounted for in the largest ledger since Santa’s naughty or nice list.

But these hackers, as you see in the game, have almost the superhuman capacity to do something about it, and that empowerment can help to see not only how best to overthrow a system as ubiquitous as the internet, but also introduce ambiguities of “becoming the monster,” by exploiting the very systems in the same way as the enemy does, in order to start a revolution.

Is it really okay for me to dismiss their claims because they happen to possess technical skills instead of linguistic skills?

No. Absolutely not.

Indeed, this “curse of knowledge” resides throughout our structures and systems. Who hasn’t clicked through a “Terms and Conditions” for Apple Music or Amazon Prime simply because the amount of time it would take to physically read all that fine print is too much for us to do? And who hasn’t been frustrated by the gobbledigook that comes out of our healthcare industry’s contracts, terms, explanatory information, and insurance? Not only is it poorly written, but it is difficult on purpose.

One could make the argument that my complaint about poor literacy is in bad form because we have taken the recent phenomenon of reading and writing (as difficult as it is) and forced everyone’s brains to change to suit the needs of technology and culture, and then we use that literacy, or lack thereof, to oppress people who have only been the victims of bad luck in education and income.

Is my dream for a hyperliterate society a secret hate for oral culture?


The hard part about all this goes back to the campfire scene. The fact of the matter is I would not have been able to get all this cool shit out of that scene in a video game had I not also been able to use my linguistic skills from reading and writing in order to leverage this discussion out of it. In order to critique myself, and the scene, on multiple fronts, I needed literacy as a tool. And so even if I have selfish aims in my quest to understand why people do not read, literacy still wins out in the end. That is because it provides a heightened logic set, just like math, not just for expressing concerns, but for presenting counterarguments and rebuttals as well.

Many people play video games, but if all they do is play video games, they will not have the brain to see backstage into their impetus for playing the game in the first place.

The hackers in Watch Dogs 2 know more than anyone that we are being fucked with, because they know exactly what it takes to do the fucking.

So perhaps what we need isn’t necessarily more literacy: it’s more skill in something.

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