Those who forget the past…

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There are many who believe that the inter­net will make us stu­pid, so it may come as a relief to know that some 2,400 years ago Socrates believed* that the same would hap­pen because of the new art of writ­ing:

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.

And mis­un­der­stand­ing the capa­bil­i­ties of com­put­ers is not a recent inven­tion either; in the mid-19th Cen­tu­ry the math­e­mati­cian Charles Bab­bage, the­o­ret­i­cal inven­tor of the first mechan­i­cal com­put­er, complained:

On two occa­sions I have been asked,—“Pray, Mr. Bab­bage, if you put into the machine wrong fig­ures, will the right answers come out?” I am not able right­ly to appre­hend the kind of con­fu­sion of ideas that could pro­voke such a question.

I found both of these quotes in James Gle­ick­’s The Infor­ma­tion, which despite my being only four chap­ters in, and the fact that it’s only March, is a can­di­date for book of the year.

* Accord­ing to Pla­to.

2 comments on
“Those who forget the past…”

  1. You said: “2,400 years ago Socrates believed* that the same would hap­pen because of the new art of writing”

    Which hap­pens to be true! I live in Moroc­co where a good­ly num­ber of the cit­i­zens hap­pen to be illit­er­ate, nei­ther read­ing nor writ­ing, but they do have amaz­ing mem­o­ries. In times gone past I employed a maid, when she went to the mar­ket I could read her a list of a cou­ple of dozen or more things for her to buy, she would mem­o­rise it (using sev­er­al tech­niques) and nev­er make mis­takes… and this over sev­er­al years.

    Also the stock­man where I work looks after a stock of sev­er­al hun­dred dif­fer­ent types of audio and video con­nec­tors, cables and so on. He is also func­tion­al­ly illit­er­ate, but knows from mem­o­ry where each item is, how many are left in stock and when and why var­i­ous tech­ni­cians have tak­en stock. I have nev­er known him make a mis­take, his mem­o­ry always tal­lies with our data­base, and if it does­n’t, then the mis­take has always been traced to some­one not fill­ing in the data­base properly.

    Socrates seems to have been right, we’ve all for­got­ten how to use our mem­o­ries properly.

    Anthony I.P. Owen [March 13th, 2012, 17:02]

  2. That’s inter­est­ing, Antho­ny, but I would­n’t con­sid­er that means we are more stu­pid; we just think in a dif­fer­ent way now. Writ­ing has longer term ben­e­fits, because it means we have accu­mu­lat­ed knowl­edge; we’re no more intel­li­gent or stu­pid than past gen­er­a­tions, we’re just capa­ble of know­ing more. And after all, with­out writ­ing we would­n’t know what Socrates said!