Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Threat of Dangerous New Technologies: It's Not All That New

An expert recently said:
"...'My issue is that it's not just gaming. It's social networking. It's the Web in general,' said [analyst at In-Stat Jim] McGregor. 'We've gained so much, but still it puts people in front of a computer screen for hours on end. It gives Americans just another reason to be fat, dumb and lazy.'..."
Apathetic Lemming of the North (August 23, 2009)
I'd be a bit more aghast at that proclamation, if I hadn't heard it before. About the Internet, cable television, television, and the telephone. As long as I can remember, someone's been concerned, sometimes with reason, about newfangled technologies.

Science fiction/speculative fiction stories can center around the effects of technology on people and cultures. Even when the story doesn't, I think it's a good idea to give a thought to what technologies are being used, how they affect people - and what people think about them.

An author doesn't have to start from scratch, imagining how technological change might affect people. Over the millennia, we've gone through quite a bit. And, sometimes, there seem to be repeating patterns.

Agriculture as a Dangerous New Technology

And yet, somehow, we've survived. Ever since some reckless maniac shoved seeds in the ground and stuck around: instead of doing the decent, sensible thing and following the herds like a proper hunter-gatherer. Pretty soon, all the counter-cultural elements in society were putting seeds in the ground and ignoring all that was noble and decent. Well, maybe not: but my guess is that a few people saw it that way.

Somewhat after agriculture destroyed humanity's culture and heritage - or opened new vistas of promise - someone developed writing. Probably several someones.

Writing as (Dangerous) Information Storage and Retrieval Technology

As long as writing was used exclusively for recording business transactions, the damage was limited to the commercial sector.

But no: some wiseacre decided to start recording ideas in this dangerous new information storage and retrieval technology.

That's where Plato comes in.

Around 360 BC, Plato wrote a work we call Phaedrus. Yes: wrote. That's the verb used in quite a few discussions of Plato's work, and it's quite possible that the ancient Greek philosopher did use the new information technology.

New, and apparently controversial.

In Phaedrus, Plato has his mentor, Socrates, enlightening someone in a dialog. I'll pick up where Socrates tells about a story he picked up in Egypt:
" of the ancient gods of that country; the same to whom that holy bird is consecrated which they call, as you know, Ibis, and whose own name was Theuth. He, they proceed, was the first to invent numbers and arithmetic, and geometry and astronomy; draughts moreover, and dice, and, above all, letters. Now the whole of Egypt was at that time. under the sway of the god Thamus, who resided near the capital city of the upper region, which the Greeks call Egyptian Thebes...."
(Phaedrus, p. 103-104) 1 [emphasis mine]
Interesting story, if somewhat long-winded by contemporary standards - that's just a brief excerpt. Socrates goes on, and eventually gets to where a ruler is evaluating this invention: letters. This king, it would seem, invented regulatory agencies.
"...'The king replied: 'Most ingenious Theuth, one man is capable of giving birth to an art, another of estimating the amount of good or harm it will do to those who are intended to use it. And so now you, as being the father of letters, have ascribed to them, in your fondness, exactly the reverse of their real effects. For this invention of yours will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn it, by causing them to neglect their memory, inasmuch as, from their confidence in writing, they will recollect by the external aid of foreign symbols, and not by the internal use of their own faculties. Your discovery, therefore, is a medicine not for memory, but for recollection,--for recalling to, not for keeping in mind. And you are providing for your disciples a show of wisdom without the reality. For, acquiring by your means much information unaided by instruction, they will appear to possess much knowledge, while, in fact, they will, for the most part, know nothing at all; and, moreover, be disagreeable people to deal with, as having become wise in their own conceit, instead of truly wise.'..."
(Phaedrus, p. 104-105) 1 [emphasis mine]
This was over two thousand years ago: a tad over 23 1/2 centuries. We're so used to the idea of recording and retrieving information with writing that we don't think of it as a technology. These philosophers were much closer to a time when writing was starting to affect how people handled information in a big way.

And, apparently, some didn't like it.

Socrates, of course, has more to say:
"...Soc. For this, I conceive, Phaedrus, is the evil of writing, and herein it closely resembles painting. The creatures of the latter art stand before you as if they were alive, but if you ask them a question, they look very solemn, and say not a word. And so it is with written discourses. You could fancy they speak as though they were possessed of sense, but if you wish to understand something they say, and question them about it, you find them ever repeating but one and the self-same story. Moreover, every discourse, once written, is tossed about from hand to hand, equally among those who understand it, and those for whom it is in nowise fitted; and it does not know to whom it ought, and to whom it ought not, to speak. And when misunderstood and unjustly attacked, it always needs its father to help it; for, unaided, it can neither retaliate, nor defend itself...."
(Phaedrus, p. 107) 1 [emphasis mine]

This Could be the End of Civilization as We Know It - 360 BC

Socrates was right, in a way. Before the development of writing as a medium for storing complex ideas, philosophers like Socrates and Plato relied on their own memories, and on their ability to talk about what they'd thought about. Memorizing massive amounts of information like that required a sort of mental discipline that's lacking today. I'm pretty sure that I have to work harder at wrote memorization than I probably would if I didn't know how to read and use an index or table of contents.

On the other hand, if it weren't for this dangerous new technology rotting away the mental powers of its users and (potentially) deceiving them into thinking that they actually understood what they'd read: we wouldn't know what Socrates and Plato had on their minds.

And, although they didn't have a perfect track record when it came to figuring out what things were and how they worked, they and others like them helped lay the foundation for the sciences, philosophy, and the arts.

Socrates had a point, too, when he talked about the lack of interactivity that's nearly unavoidable with writing. We didn't have a workaround for that until Information Age technologies started destroying humanity's culture and heritage - or opening new vistas of promise. Maybe a little of both.

This Could be the End of Civilization as We Know It - 2009 AD

We've gotten used to the sort of lazy memory that writing encourages, and discovered that there were advantages to being able to get at the actual words of great thinkers like Plato - not what a succession of well-meaning but less gifted people remembered someone telling them about what their teachers said Plato thought.

Don't get me wrong: oral traditions are more accurate than some people were willing to believe.2 I'd still prefer the words set down by someone like Plato or Bhagwan Swaminarayan, than what someone remembers about what those people said.

I don't think that writing - symbols on a flattish surface which record ideas - will disappear, or become something that always needs a keyboard. Anyone who remembers the 'paperless office' knows what I'm talking about.

Oral tradition, I'm pretty sure, will also continue.

It's just that it looks like we're on the edge of another radical change in how people handle information. 'Information Age' technology is already changing how news is handled - and how people communicate with each other.

Me? I'm not worried. We survived agriculture: I don't think cell phones and Internet cafes will destroy us.

Related posts:

1 All excerpts are from:
  • "The Phaedrus, Lysis, and Protagoras of Plato"
    By Plato, Josiah Wright, Immanuel Bekker
    • The book's title page reads: "The Phaedrus, Lysis, and Protagoras of Plato"
      A new and literal translation mainly from the text of Bekker
      by J. Wright, M.A., Trinity College, Cambridge,
      London: MacMillan and Co., Limited New York: The MacMillan Company, 1900
Another translation is available online:
  • "Phaedrus"
    By Plato
    Written 360 B.C.E
    Translated by Benjamin Jowett
    The Internet Classics Archive, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law faculty website has something to say about Plato and Socrates.

2 "...The validity and reliability of this type of transmission are confirmed by modern researchers of the Nahuatl culture such as Miguel León Portilla
(Miguel León Portilla, El destino de la palabra. De la oralidad y los glifos mesoamericanos a la escritura alfabética, FCE, Mexico City 1996, pp. 19-71)....
" ("Our Lady of Guadalupe: Historical Sources" L'Osservatore Romano, via EWTN (January 23, 2002))

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