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« When Techies Don’t Get It | Main | Fiction meets tech »

An inhuman thing

“[It] destroys memory [and] weakens the mind, relieving it of…work that makes it strong. [It] is an inhuman thing.”
The sentiment above is from  Phaedrus - Plato quoting Socrates in 500 B.C. Greece. The “it” in the quote is writing.

Socrates was nervous since his information technology of the day, memorization, was about to be aced out by a new information technology, the stylus.

I thought about that quote when reading Naomi Baron’s Los Angles Times opinion piece (reprinted in today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune) called “Killing the written word by snippets.” In it she bemoans:
Will effortless random access [to snippets of books made available through Google Book Search] erode our collective respect for writing as a logical, linear process? Such respect matters because it undergirds modern education, which is premised on thought, evidence and analysis rather than memorization and dogma. Reading successive pages and chapters teaches us how to follow a sustained line of reasoning.
Any echoes of Socrates in Baron’s worry?

Could linear thinking, stubbornly following a path (Stay the course!) be as harmful as it is productive?


Random abstracts, unite! (But form a mob, not a straight line please.)

 PS.  T-shirt slogan in a recent gift catalog: “They say I have A.D.D. but they just don’t understand. Oh Look! A chicken!”


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Reader Comments (3)

And Plato also quoted Socrates quoting Thamus, King of Egypt. The Egyptian God of Technology, Theuth, was showing off writing to Thamus and but the king wasn't too sure about it:
"this discovery of yours 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. <a href="">Plato, <em>Phaedrus</em></a>"

I have said this before, but I think we are moving into a new type of writing that is built around interconnected snippets rather than single massive works. The new book is the blog.

Good readers have been doing this long before Google Book Search (and Cliff Notes, and Reader's Digest). Strong readers skim or jump around to different parts of non-fiction text. I would have to stop and wonder about someone who read fiction like that - I get screwed up enough when I forget to turn shuffle off when listening to an audiobook on my mp3 player. While many read non-fiction for enjoyment, if you are reading for information then snippets are probably more effective. Think about teaching. We are supposed to deliver content in 10-15 minute chunks and then have time to reflect.

Linear writing is great, but even better is growth of an argument through self-contained argument chunks (blog posts) that are developed over time within a larger body of writing (a blog). Maybe what we need is to develop a new style of blogging with short-lived blogs that serve a single purpose to deliver a series of spiraling posts on a single topic. Hmm...maybe I need to get started on that right now.
December 2, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher Harris

I don't know if you are a gentleman, but you certainly are a scholar. Thanks for this. I am truly enlightened!

When we are urged to "think outside the box," doesn't that seem to imply non-linear thinking. I go back to Pink's assertions in A Whole New Mind

that left brain (linear) thinking will not be enough to remain globally competitive in the workforce. Linear processes are easily taught and/or turned over to a computer. It's the synthesis that will be important.

Thanks and all the best,


December 2, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson
Yes, but...

One thing that keeps bothering me with this whole "rush to the new" is where do we put learning the basics? I'm sorry, but hypertext and blogging and all that nonsense are NOTHING if you can't read, write and compute accurately. It's simply not good enough to say "hey - xxx is blogging in Kindergarden" without teaching them how to think and synthesize. Yet all the blogvangelists want to talk about is how cool this new tool is - and it is ONLY a tool and may not be around in another few years - and how many people can we convert (browbeat?!) into using it.

It's also not taking into account those that are not as advantaged as we are, both here in the US and around the world. The $100 laptop is meaningless without an education. It pales in significance behind solving famine and health crises, not to mention political turmoil. I somehow doubt the people in Kashmir are bemoaning their lack of connectivity!

Learning by rote is still important. No, we don't necessarily need to memorize "I am a Jew" or "In Flanders Fields", but knowing HOW to memorize, HOW to concentrate, HOW to exercize those particular muscles is important. The same with learning your times tables. Ditto how to use a map. These are skills that then can lead us to better - perhaps greater - things when we ADD technology. But using the brain, rather than a machine, seems to be a rapidly declining art. I'm not convinced that what we are advocating that we teach our students is a valid replacement.
December 4, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

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