Plato, the invention of writing, and the e-book

This post originally appeared on my now inactive blog, Voyage of the Paradigm Ship, January 19, 2009.

The following is a two-part email I sent to my good friend and colleague (he is chair of the faculty Library Committee) on March 27 and 29, 2006, after he sent me an editorial written by Edward Tenner in The New York Times, entitled “Searching for Dummies” (March 26, 2006). My friend is a history professor and an avid bibliophile. Though he has largely “come around” to my way of thinking regarding the benefits of electronic delivery of journal literature, he is far more resistive when it comes to surrendering the marvelous technology expressed as the printed book. He knows he has been socialized into this preference, but insists that a full embrace of computer and electronic information resource technology is damaging his students’ capacity to think through complex ideas in a sustained and deep way. I retort that our task should not be rejection of the technology but the instruction into its proper use, and building an awareness (understanding) both of its advantages/limitations and its impact (both good and ill) on human culture and knowledge. In my argument I drew an analogy from another ancient technology—writing itself.

Greetings. Further to our on-going conversation (print vs. electronic information resources), here is an interesting excerpt from Plato’s Phaedrus, where Socrates tells a story of the Egyptian god Theuth, the inventor of, among other things, writing. I have not read the full piece, but it is interesting here to see Plato’s critique of the losses sustained by writing (and reading) as a new technology over oral culture and true memory.

At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters [grammata=writing]. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. Theuth came to him and showed his inventions [technas, “arts”], desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them. Thamus enquired about their several uses, and as Theuth enumerated them, Thamus praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts [technai]. But when they came to letters [grammata], Theuth said, “This invention, O King, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; I have discovered a remedy [pharmakon: potion, medicine, drug] both for the memory and for wisdom.” Thamus replied: “O most ingenious [technikotate] Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a power opposite to that which they in fact possess. For this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it; they will not exercise their memories, but, trusting in external, foreign marks [graphes], they will not bring things to remembrance from within themselves. You have discovered a remedy [pharmakon] not for memory, but for reminding. You offer your students the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom. They will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

This is all very ironic in view of our conversation. We long ago adopted the writing technology of Theuth. We frankly no longer know what we lost through its adoption, since we have lived under its ideological assumptions for so long. Neil Postman, in his book Technolopy: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (Vintage, 1992) alludes to this story in rightly claiming the non-neutral and ideological function of every technology and technological adoption.

I have contended in our conversation that print books are every bit as much a technological invention of information transmission, and laden with ideology, as any book in electronic format. Postman urges caution, in deference to your concerns. I am not insensitive to these, of course. I am no heedless technophile any more than you are a heedless technophobe. My real point is offered by Postman where he writes: “[Thamus] would allow, I imagine, that a technology may be barred entry to a culture…But…once a technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do. Our task is to understand what that design is—that is to say, when we admit a new technology to the culture, we must do so with our eyes wide open.” (p. 7, emphasis added)

For good or ill, electronic information technology has been admitted into our culture. Since this technology has become proliferated into every facet of our students’ lives, it no longer makes sense to bar it here at Milligan College Library as some well-meaning bulwark against the flood. That is the surest recipe for irrelevance. Yes, we can and should keep the books around and in plain sight as an act of ideological subversion. But I believe our mandate now is to fight, not by insisting that our students use the books, but by building understanding instead of heedlessness. This is the instructional role of a comprehensive program of information literacy. Data is not information; information is not knowledge; and knowledge is not yet wisdom. Wisdom comes through passionate, responsible (ethical), critical (discerning) and mature use of information, and the organization of information that forms into structures of knowledge. This, it seems to me, has always been our task. Only now we can’t take anything for granted.

* * *

Plato, by having Socrates tell this story, is engaging in a form of rhetoric. Everything here is inescapably in written form! But for Plato this is also a concession and (what we are calling “ironic” in our current conversation) really a paradox. Plato writes to critique writing! But not all writing, as not all speech, is of equal value. For Plato, writing that preserves the living dialogical (mind-to-mind conversational) nature of true human (philosophical) knowledge, and which asks more questions than it answers, is the best. Incidentally, much of Plato’s writing is construed as dialogue between great philosophical minds. But he would say that even his writing is a concession, if only because of the inherent limitations of written communication. [See Robin Waterfield’s excellent commentary on this in the section of his Introduction to Plato’s Phaedrus (Oxford World’s Classics, 2002) entitled, “Dialectic and the Weakness of Writing,” pages xxxvii-xlii.]

My original allusion to this story, and giving it out as ironic, is a technical (pun intended!) misuse of Plato’s intention. But my warrant for it (as also picked-up by Neil Postman) is that Theuth is said to have invented writing. As such, writing is unmistakably recognized as a technology. As a tool, technology requires instruction for its proper use, and (because it is not value neutral) requires an awareness (understanding) of its advantages/limitations and its impact (both good and ill) on human culture and knowledge.

I think this is really the point of Plato’s critique. I imagine Plato would prefer not to use writing in human discourse because of its inherent limitations. But paradoxically, he has no choice to use writing if he wants his ideas disseminated and preserved (for reminding, not for true memory, as Thamus notes!). So, given the inherent limitations of writing, he must instruct his readers (in the guise of the highly-esteemed Socrates) into an awareness through critique of how this technology functions, and what is the most profitable writing form—the form that best preserves dialogical nature of human knowledge.

By analogy, you (and I) have come to view the writing of and reading from printed books as the best form for preserving and engaging the accumulated ideas of human knowledge. (You may quibble on my wording, but the basic gist is there, right?) We honestly believe and assume that a living conversation is still preserved within those pages for fresh engagement. We are no longer troubled by Plato’s concerns because we have come to view the book as a most acceptable means of disseminating and preserving ideas. To us, it is no longer a mere concession. Rather, it has been (for the last several thousands of years) the primary technology for this very purpose. Praise be to Theuth for his miraculous invention!

But now, after a very lengthy and productive stint with the printed form of the book, along comes a new technology that proposes a new form—an electronic/digital form. [I’m still in analogy mode here.] How do we react to this? Well, we may sense that this new technology will, to quote Thamus, “create forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it; they will not exercise their memories, but, trusting in external, foreign [virtual!] marks, they will not bring things to remembrance from within themselves.” We offer appropriate critique. To use this new technology implies a concession (but not the same level of paradox, since it still involves the use of writing [with multimedia capabilities thrown-in]). The preferred use or non-use of this technology does not (yet?) place a person in a “I have no choice” position as it did for Plato. But the use of this technology does involve certain advantages and certain limitations. And so, the use of this technology requires instruction for its proper use, and (because it is not value neutral) requires an awareness (understanding) of its advantages/limitations and its impact (both good and ill) on human culture and knowledge.

So, I would argue that Plato makes my case—though not because he is forced (paradoxically/ironically) to use writing even while critiquing it. The analogy is not in equating the move from printed book to digital book with Plato’s paradoxical move from using a pure form of human knowledge transmission (oral communication) and preservation (memory) to a compromised form through writing and (mere) reminding. The analogy, rather, is that given the invention of the electronic/digital form of the book and its inevitable/increasing use, we now need to instruct in its proper use and build an awareness of its advantages/limitations and its cultural impact. Thamus critiqued writing at its invention (in the ancient time of the myth). Plato critiques it (as it were) after long use. Thamus could warn the god of the dire unintended consequences of its use. Plato can allude to those warnings in order to offer contemporary instruction, even as he himself uses the technology!

I would say Plato was doing a form of information literacy. And so the New York Times Op-Ed piece [Edward Tenner, “Searching for Dummies,” March 26, 2006]. Information literacy is a “fighting back” strategy to the (dire?) unintended consequences of the miraculous invention called the Internet … and information resource access via electronic databases. Information literacy is instruction in the proper use and awareness-building of this new technology. What do you think?