Literacy, Technology and the Learned Mind throughout History

Socrates provideth the fingerI was listening to an interview Bob Edwards (formerly of NPR’s Morning Edition, now on Satellite Radio) put on and his interviewee was talking about how Socrates was concerned that the rise in the written word would defeat wisdom and learning. Apparently, as the written word was slowly growing around Greece at the time, the philosopher’s concern was that if people didn’t need to remember things they wouldn’t have the opportunity to think them through and analyze the meaning behind an idea, nuance out the finer details and expound on a thought, rather than just read it and know that it will be there if you need to read it again. If something is recorded on paper, Socrates thought, then it doesn’t have to be recorded in the mind.

Which instantly lead me to thinking whether the Internet might have a similar affect, even if you don’t buy into Socrates’ evaluation and think that reading enlightens rather than diminishes, the idea that if you read a book, you’ve got to read the whole thing, or at least large passages of it to discern information. Want to know when George Washington sailed the Delaware, you’ll need to find the book containing his life story, then the passage containing that portion of his life, then the actual phrase that states the date. In doing so you’re likely to read the surrounding events and have a better sense of the context of the big picture, rather than just sucking out a particular piece of information.

But today, I can google george washington sailed the delaware, click on one of the results and do a quick find within the page to get the info I want. Only if I’m exorbitantly interested will I read anything other than the exact bit of information I’m looking for. In turn, I haven’t learned anything but a single piece of information, which without some type of surrounding context does me little good in the future. How many times will it come up in conversation, “So, tell us just one bit of information about some subject.” It’s anti-conversationalist.

Socrates may have been right or wrong: perhaps humans without written language today would achieve the same feats of philosophy that he and his protege did, or perhaps without books and reading, intellect and wisdom would have remained only in the hands of the fortunate, the rich, the powerful. If you side with the aspect that with writing, books and reading came more power to the people, more intelligence, then wouldn’t the same stand for this great Internet age? In 4000 more years will we be all the wiser for our interconnectivity, our immediate access to answers?

Or will the Internet go the way of radio and television, which held so much promise for enlightenment and information and sharing but instead are primarily used to boost sales and promote a mainstreamed culture, to affect everyone to believe in and desire for the same things, rather than afford opportunities to expand our little gray brains.

Up Next: Burger King Refuses a 1¢ Raise for Workers