• Bernadette Bowen

Response to Ong "On 'Media' vs. Human Communication"

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

The following is a discussion board post I made for a Media Ecology course in response to this prompt:

According to Ong, "In real human communication, the sender has to be not only in the sender position but also in the receiver position before he or she can send anything" (p. 173). In a succinct paragraph or two: 

  • What does he mean by this?

  • What might this say about the frequent state of online communication?

  • e.g. about they often toxic nature of online (particularly anonymized) discourse

Before directly answering both of these questions rather simply regarding what I believe Ong meant by this quote, I believe it's especially important to contextualize it's origin. If you're not into that, skip ahead.


To begin, Ong made it a point to mention that due to the "technologizing of the word" (pg. 172) humans are inclined to view our own minds as containers where we keep the information that we've learned throughout our lives. As Ong himself purported, his "mind is a box" (pg. 172). After reading his flippant statement, I drew a little smiley face next to it because, while paradoxically acknowledging it's absurdity, this analogy resonated with my own occasional feelings of burn out from the perpetual condition of grad school.

Furthermore, if put into conversation with readings from our Introduction to Media & Communication course (Peters [1999] Speaking Into the Air), and our previous text this semester, Leder's (1990) The Absent Body, the read makes sense: a cybernetically linear perspective, ripe with a Cartesian mind/body split, is a common linguistic fore-bringer of those who attempt to obtain the traditionally idolized myth of perfect communication. For example, if someone didn't understand the meaning of any of the academic words used in my previous sentence, it could easily be chalked up as nonsense because writing is capable of "introducing division and alienation, but a higher unity as well" (Ong, pg. 175). As we read, Leder discussed how this strain of scientific thought led to multiplicitous changes in our human (Heideggerian) sense of Being-in-the-World.

On the bright side, since these authors did synthesize "How" we came to consider ourselves (if one subscribes to the belief that their brain is their self? which we can presume they do) as containers in a world (where we have all accepted the paradigm that we are in the world rather than of it), we are now better prepared to undergird the crucial question as to "Why?". Asked more directly in relation:

"Why do we accept the phrasing of a question which refers to humans as "senders" and "receivers," as if we are all human-like machines in the world?"

I would argue this question allows us a closer glimpse at the increasingly blurred distinction of both "Media" and Human Communication as we know them today. Even Ong's header description alone is telling in itself; how he linguistically framed "media" and "human communication" as being pitted against each other (referring to his use of "versus", as if they're about to compete in a ladder match).


Lastly, much like the McLuhan "Automation" chapter conclusions for this week, I believe Ong meant that inour world, which is now Being inhabited by increasingly machine-like humans, we then easily fall victim to Being (thinking and acting) inhumane(ly). [Please use this space to insert any cliche about the need to place yourself into another's shoes that you'd like.] In lieu of this modern blurring, Ong reminds us that intersubjectivity is the, "paradox of human communication...[and]...the media model is not" (pg. 173).

In other words, no matter how wise this anecdotal treatment reads, unfortunately it doesn't provide an antidote to the fact that (especially now, in this pandemic) those of us who haven't chosen to purge our social media have only been further swept up into the incessant environmental swill of (paradoxically human) online communication.

With both the aforementioned context and suggested meaning in mind, it would only make sense that if our general human "soil" has been toxically contaminated with inhumanity, that our proximally imploded simulations (intertextually, spatially, and temporally) would produce harvests of hyper-toxic natures as well.