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.