Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Platonic Half-Volley

With apologies to Katherine Hayles.

Any discussion of memory and technology needs to account at some point for That Thing That Plato Once Said. There is no way around it, so we might as well deal with it right away.

Here’s the old chap, by the way, in a file photo taken by Raphael and posted at the Vatican.

Although my favourite version is the preparatory cartoon at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan.

The Thing That Plato Said, or rather what he had Socrates say in one of his dialogues by way of a parable, is that the invention of writing would bring about the end of human memory: people would begin to rely on the written text instead of the contents of their own minds, externalise their memory to the point of atrophy. And further: the knowledge acquired from books would be degraded knowledge, not worth knowing. As it has been variously translated into English: the ‘conceit’ or ‘appearance of wisdom’, rather than wisdom itself.

This is clearly the mother of all contrarian points of view: with the benefit of twenty-four centuries of hindsight, we simply know that Plato was wrong, that writing – far from making fools of us all – has in fact enabled us to sustain and develop an ever more complex culture, as well as preserving the works of, yes, Plato himself, who unlike his teacher Socrates chose to write his thoughts down. But the parable still resonates because of the widespread feeling, not many years after the introduction of another paradigm-shifting communication technology, the computer, that we are also in the midst of a reconfiguration; and while most of us see the potential to do more things better, some are anxious that we may be in for a few unpleasant surprises, and worried that we cannot control or fully comprehend this new reality.

The relevant passage of the Phaedrus (274e-275b) has been the subject of much learned commentary, most famously by Jacques Derrida in 'Plato’s Pharmacy', an essay that spawned its own cottage industry of critique to the critique; my particular take-home points there: Plato makes a whole lot of neat distinctions and assumptions that can be shown to be deeply contradictory. Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy, and Erik Havelock in Preface to Plato offer other classic discussions of this perplexing invective (1). More recent treatments, post-advent of the Internet, can be found in Erik Davis’ Techgnosis and Darren ToftsMemory Trade, two books I couldn’t praise highly enough (that’s why I link to them, if you care to look to starboard).

But, as always, I am interested in a broader range of discussions in the fullness of the public domain, down (if you think that’s the way it goes) to the level of chatter in newsgroups and blogs such as this one. A Google search of the terms plato phaedrus memory computer returns 2,710 hits. Adding matrix brings the number down to a still respectable 675. Restricting the search to Google Scholar, to get rid of non-peer-reviewed schmucks such as yours truly, returns 1,220 and 223 documents respectively. Why did I add matrix? Because that film more than any other text is a sure marker of the angst that permeates the discourse of computing, subjectivity and the real, in which memory is most often embroiled (in fact, removing the search term memory doesn’t increase the numbers by much). And also, a bit cheekily perhaps, I’ve now added the magic word to this page. Web analytics tell me most people found this essay of mine because they were interested in The Matrix. And I like being read.

The numbers tell us that those four or five words are used together quite a bit, but not to what end. So I’ve done a random assay, the top of the page result of one page in five of the largest sample. And there are some false hits, predictably – a page of random quotations, another of theatre reviews in which the terms occur in unrelated pieces; others portend to discussions that occur elsewhere, in university courses and such like. But the majority of the sample is representative of the enduring resonance of the Platonic argument, in spite of (or perhaps because of) how integral computers have become to the work of memory and knowledge. Thus for instance Tim over at SansBlogue links to an article by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic entitled 'Is Google Making Us Stupid', commenting on its reaction and adding a thoughtful analysis of his own; In ‘Britney? That’s All She Rote’, Jenny Lyn Bader of The New York Times seizes on the latest Britney Spears’ oops moment - forgetting the lyrics that she was meant to lip sync at last year’s MTV awards - to draw a broader critique of a society in which ‘it’s gotten easy to forget to teach young people how to remember’; while in her blog, Girl Meets World, then-journalism student Amanda Cochran grounds the discussion in relation to the issues faced by her chosen profession, singling out for praise the following, exemplary contention of John Churchill’s in ‘What Socrates Said to Phaedrus’:
It is not that facts are not valuable. It is that in addition to possession of them, which is information, we need a sense of how they are connected, which is knowledge, a sense of how they came to be and how we came to know them, which is understanding, and a sense of what they mean for us, which is wisdom.
Adding matrix to the mix makes the sample veer towards the more metaphysically minded critiques, and the more extreme interpretations of the reconfiguration imagined by Plato; it also rarefies the air a bit, increasing the number of articles hosted by universities and subscription-only journals. But the general tenor of the texts remains broadly the same, and is consistent with my experience of researching this topic on the Web over the last several years. Back in 2000 as much as now, I would have expected to find more out of hand dismissals, like this one, by the anonymous author of a wiki that lists Plato’s argument as proof that the ‘new media are evil’ trope is ‘older than dirt’. What one finds instead for the most part is a readiness to engage, a willingness to explore the distinction between information and knowledge, between automatic recall and meaningful remembrance. Most commentators seem to have taken on board the lesson that Neil Postman derived from the Phaedrus in Technopoly: namely, that new technologies not only introduce new words, but change the meaning of old ones; and that it is incumbent upon us to understand what memory has come to mean, and how we can remember better, as opposed to just remember more. All the while knowing that, regardless of our protestations, we are operating from within the new paradigm, which imposes strict constraints on our agency and capacity for meaningful critique. As Ong writes
One weakness in Plato's position was that, to make his objections effective, he put them into writing… The same weakness in anti-computer positions is that, to make them effective, their proponents articulate them in articles or books printed from tapes composed on computer terminals [this is 1982 – no Internet back then]. Writing and print and the computer are all ways of technologizing the word. Once the word is technologized, there is no effective way to criticize what techonolgy has done with it without the aid of the highest technology available.(2)
Ong understood that ‘writing restructures consciousness’, and that once the word is technologized, that transition cannot be undone – except perhaps post-apocalyptically, and nobody wants that. This holds true for memory as well. We could research the Rhetorica ad Herennium and learn the ancient ways of memorising long speeches by building palaces in our heads, or practice the art of Renaissance mind theatres and wow the audience of the MTV awards with our flawless fake singing; but we cannot effectively revert to orality, really know what it was like to operate in a pre-literate world. The oral world of the Homeric bard or the Maori storyteller is gone. And the pre-computing world of our parents or perhaps grandparents is on its way out, too – witness the efforts of those who seek to equip every child on the planet with his or her own laptop, thinking perhaps that with technology alone will come education, employment, prosperity, and a safe and functioning society. But nothing is quite so simple.

There is a further complication, another reason why understanding and reforming memory is so urgent: a time of change is also a time to remember; we need to document the now. The twentieth century brought us another great invention, the motion picture. Well,
80 percent of all silent films made in the United States are gone without a trace. Fifty percent of films made in the nitrate era (that is, before 1950) have also perished. Among those extant, a significant portion is not well preserved. Given that the materials that have vanished were not well documented at the time of their creation, the full extent of this loss will never be known.(3)
The early documents of the Internet, the first hypertext narratives, the works of digital art and of amateur scholarship, are also in danger of being lost. Committed to digital memory in what must have seemed at the time a safe place, they are threatened by material decay of the storage media, software obsolescence, loss of the dynamic links that made them meaningful, and a host of other problems. The important work that needs to be done to rescue them from oblivion requires not only very able technologists, but also a willingness to question notions of information and wisdom, so that those documents can re-enter the public domain and be kept alive by intelligent connections – the same connections that are formed in the pre-literate minds of children who are learning to remember. The Thing That Plato Said, then, serves as a cautionary tale and a reminder, that we should look back, and all around us, and question just who it is who is empowered to produce knowledge and to decide what needs to be preserved, and in what way.

(1) I go over these responses to Plato in some detail in the introduction of my dissertation.
(2) Walter J.
Ong, Orality and Literacy – The Technologizing of the Word, (London and New York: Methuen, 1982), p. 79.
(3) Stephen G. Nichols and Abby Smith (eds.),
The Evidence in Hand: Report of the Task Force on the Artifact in Library Collections (Washington: Council on Library and Information Resources, 2001), p. 5.
Other referencesDerrida, Jacques. ‘Plato’s Pharmacy.’ Translated by Barbara Johnson. In Dissemination. London: Athlone, 1981, pp. 61-172.
Churchill, John. 'What Socrates Said to Phaedrus: Reflections on Technology and Education.' Midwest Quarterly 44:2 (2003). 11p.
Havelock, Eric. Preface to Plato. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963.
Plato. Phaedrus. Translated by C.J. Rowe. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1984.
Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.