Miami University has an excerpt from The Phaedrus, a dialog between Socrates and someone named — wait for it — Phaedrus, that Plato wrote. Presumably, Plato didn’t misrepresent Socrates’ ideas in these dialogs, and Socrates did not seem to write anything down: pretty much all we know about his philosophy comes from Plato. In the excerpt, Socrates makes a case against writing by saying that the words themselves are not a complete representation of knowledge, but rather words are to knowledge as pictures are to their subjects.
That is to say, Times Square can be photographed; but someone only seeing the photograph will only know what the Square is in the vaguest of senses. The reality of being there is lost by the photograph, and no picture or even video can truly capture what that experience is like. However, to someone that has been to Times Square, a picture will help them reminisce about it and in some ways evoke that knowledge of the place. Socrates saw writing in the same way: writing cannot be used as a sort of standalone memory bank because people who read a text will only have a partial understanding of the author’s meaning, and therefore should not be taken seriously. However, writing can be used as as entertainment, for example to help someone reminisce about something they wrote down. In other words, if you’re not already familiar with the real knowledge that’s written down, you can no more learn it from a text than you can know what it feels like to be in Times Square from a photograph.
Real knowledge, Socrates said, can only be gathered via dialog: a give and take of questions and answers where ideas are interrogated until the knowledge is truly understood. But with a book, that cannot be done unless one has access to the author. In the excerpt, he says:
[Writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; 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.
What’s interesting to think about is whether throughout human history, if it actually has been the case that all knowledge has been passed down via dialog — in universities and other discussion forums — with books being only an interesting aid. In other words, if a child grew up alone with a Kindle containing all of the books in the Library of Congress, could he gain the same kind of knowledge which a normal person gains via social interaction? Or more pragmatically, could you understand the true, intended and complete meaning of the words you are now reading if we didn’t share the same knowledge?
Gizmodo has an interesting article bashing Bill Keller, the head of the New York Times, for saying that technology will make people dumber because we won’t have to think for ourselves — that we are “outsourcing our brains to the cloud”. The article’s take is that Socrates was wrong and writing didn’t make us dumber, ergo Twitter and Google won’t make us dumber either; also, the outcome depends a lot on how we use the technology. Both arguments seem to hold water, with the exception of the part about Socrates being wrong.
If it’s true that for all of these centuries we have been using text as merely an aid, not as a source of knowledge, then we have been doing exactly what Socrates blessed. And if we use the Internet and the Cloud in the same way, then Bill Keller should be proven quite wrong, because while we may rely more on Google to look up where Namibia is, Facebook and Twitter allow us to have more dialogs more with people than at any other time in history. And if alive today, Socrates would probably be a prolific email, IM, forum, Facebook, and Twitter user.