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Plato On Facebook

By - April 21, 2011


One of my first “big books” out of college was James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science and it still resonates with me, though it’s been so long I think I’m due for a re-read. In any case, the next book up in my ongoing self-education is Gleick’s The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. It’s long. It’s dense. It’s good, so far. In fact, there’s already a passage, a quote from Plato, that has struck me as germane to the ongoing threads I attempt to weave here on this site (even if all I’m really making is a lame friendship bracelet – pun intended, as you will see).

Early in the book, Gleick narrates the birth of the written word, which if you think about it (and he certainly has), is quite an extraordinary event. Turns out Plato, who was literate (and therefore quotable today), was not a fan of the written word. His mentor Socrates, Gleick reminds us, was illiterate. Well, OK, that’s not fair. Socrates wasn’t illiterate, he was, in Gleick’s words, a “nonwriter.” In any case, the passage that struck me is Plato speaking about the written word, quoted in “The Information”:

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them .You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.

Nicholas Carr would be proud of Plato. But both would be wrong.

Definitions of wisdom shift as cultures shift. Now, of course, to be wise is to be literate. Then, to be wise was to commit knowledge to memory. Now, it’s to the ability to lookup (to search, to find, to divine patterns). I’ve called this search literacy in the past, but I think we’re moving toward something larger.

Consider the same passage, liberally edited to be a critique of the new medium of Facebook and social networking, rather than the new medium of the written word.

For this invention will produce disconnection in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice true relationships between people. Their trust in Facebook, produced by external connections which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own ability to maintain relationships.You have invented an elixir not of relationships, but of reminding one of relationship; and you offer your pupils the appearance of connection, not true connection.

When writing was new, it was strange, and it was hard to imagine a society based on the written word. At the dawn of digital connectivity, the same holds true. Are digital relationships real? Is the grammar of Facebook robust enough to hold all the nuance of true connection?

Probably not yet. But I for one am happy Plato learned to write. And I can also imagine a time – well after these words sink deeply into the sediments of history – when Plato and Facebook are united in a new technology of memory, relationship, and communication that eclipses anything we might debate today.

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5 thoughts on “Plato On Facebook

  1. Adam says:

    I’ve been at the halfway point for a month and have been too busy to finish it!

  2. Alex says:

    That’s an interesting update of Plato’s skepticism towards writing. Do the tools we use really help us accomplish more, or do they hamstring our efforts to grow something genuine?

    Thanks for the food for thought. And posting.


  3. Plato says:

    Mr. Battelle, Web 2.0 Guru to the Stars you may be… Platonic Scholar you are not. (Nor is Mr. Gleick, I take it.)

    How can you bring yourself to assert that I am not a fan of the written word when I am among the most prolific writers in all of antiquity?! And that quote which you attribute to me? It was not I who spoke it, good sir, but rather it was Socrates… Socrates, who, you may know, was put to death for the words he spoke!

    Upon witnessing his fate, I concluded that I must keep my own thoughts close to my breast. Thus, instead of writing discourses, I wrote dramas. As such, one should not approach me as one approaches Aristotle, but rather as one approaches Shakespeare.

    With regard to the aforementioned quote, Socrates made this comment to Phaedrus, a bright handsome young man with a flair for rhetoric, who had just come from listening to a speech by the great sophist Lysias… Lysias, who is most famous for a legal defense he wrote in which a man who murdered his wife’s lover claims that the laws of Athens required him to do it!

    Socrates made this comment to Phaedrus outside of the walls of Athens and in an effort to get him to think about the differences between sophistry and philosophy and how each manifests itself within the walls of the city.

    To understand this quote, one must also understand the dramatic setting in which it was made and bare witness to the entire discussion, not just pull one quote out of it in isolation. Socrates did not speak, not did I write, in soundbites.

    This quote come from “Phaedrus”, a dialogue which focuses on the topics of love and rhetoric. For more on these topics see “Symposium” (love) and “Gorgias” (rhetoric).

    This quote pertains specifically to the topic of memory, which relates closely to the topic of “recollection”, which relates closely to the topic of reincarnation. For more on these topics see “Meno”… which is the dialogue that I recommend you read first if you desire to butt heads with Platonic Scholars.

    Take up my challenge to delve deeply into my work, as Socrates took up the challenge of the oracle to discover whether he was the wisest man in the world, and I guarantee that you will benefit with an increased ability to think more deeply about your own philosophical contemplations… including those related to technology, memory, relationships, and communication. Then again, as a result of a mere superficial brush with my work, you already are thinking more deeply about such things, aren’t you?

    Oh yeah… Did I mention that I wrote?… lots. 😉

  4. Paper (writing) and FaceBook are mediums for the exchange of ideas. Neither are the sole medium. Though I am a fanboy of both you and Plato, I believe that the arguments in both emphasized passages are non sequitur (fallacy of false cause).

    If I read something and then recall that information in a later debate, Plato’s argument is derailed, as I would produce the opposite of forgetfulness (and make my debate less based on personal assumption and egoistic criteria).

    If I friend someone on Facebook, then arrange an event with them, and we further cement our relationship at that event, the argument of the second emphasized passage is derailed, as I would have produced the opposite of disconnection (while having produced a permanent reminder of the event for us both).

    Writing and Facebook are supports, rather than sieves.


    Fantastic thought exercise.