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.


Grunt said...

History isn't based on what is recorded, history is based on what survives. There may have been a philosopher who was more insightful on this issue than Plato, but we'll never know because he didn't write his stuff down.

But ever time we create a new form of communication we figure out more quickly that the form is important historically more quickly than we did the last time. I think you're pessimism is undeserved at this time.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I think your pessimism is undeserved at this time.

I don't know if it's my pessimism, but I do find that pessimism has a role to play. This is something that Stewart Brand (someone I have a lot of time for) wrote in 1998:

We are in the process of building one vast global computer, which could easily become The Legacy System from Hell that holds civilization hostage—the system doesn’t really work; it can’t be fixed; no one understands it; no one is in charge of it; it can’t be lived without; and it gets worse every year.

It is tempting to dismiss this out of hand - of course the Internet works. But I find that entertaining the possibility that he might be right leads to some very productive thinking, especially for somebody who is interested in developing an ecology of memory. I'm aware that I've only focussed on the pessimistic stories thus far, though, and I'll remedy that starting next week - because of course the Internet can be used for some absolutely fantastic and inspiring memory work.

History isn't based on what is recorded, history is based on what survives. There may have been a philosopher who was more insightful on this issue than Plato, but we'll never know because he didn't write his stuff down.

That's a great point, but my interest is in memory, not communication, so I'm drawn to the things that we failed to remember, and how and why it happened. We know that we lost Aristotle's book on comedy, the particular technology that it was encoded into wasn't redundant enough (although it saved a lot else); while the Homeric poems were passed down for centuries before anybody wrote them down, which is pretty impressive if you think about it. All sorts of digital texts from the eighties and early nineties, on the other hand, are gone. So yes, we do work things out faster, but technological erasure is also a lot faster. It's a matter of keeping up, and keeping up requires some slow thinking too.

Taramoc said...

As a non-expert reader, it seems to me that Plato didn't realize a big shift in paradigm was going to occur with the introduction of the written word. The human mind has to switch from actually remembering things to remembering where and how things are stored, so they can be re-accessed and relearned again if necessary.

Also, it has to remember how to use the tools needed to access those things. With books and other printed media, the alphabetical order used in indexes and the various methods of cataloguing used in libraries seems to be enough, but with digital media, these tools gets exponentially more complicated.

The overload of information that a simple Google search brings can very quickly make useless any stored knowledge of the topic we are interested in, no matter how exhaustive it is. The crucial thing to me is that the burden of making the information accessible is as much on the tool as on the user of the tool.

On one hand, it's important that the tools we have at our disposal to retrieve knowledge are up to par with the depth of it and the physical media it's stored on. On the other hand, it's up to the user to employ those tools in the optimal way that suits his own way of thinking and the task he needs to accomplish. Often a more efficient use of the tool needs the use of the user memory.

A trivial example of what I'm trying to say is my daily usage of Outlook. I have in my Inbox all the emails I have ever received since I joined my present company (13508 as of this moment). They are pertinent to hundreds of different issues, many of them not related. When I need to look for some old communication, I just use the search feature of Outlook.

I do see many of my colleagues make nice separate folders, and file their emails in them by topic, but I find that the time spent in creating those folders, storing the emails in them (in a word maintaining the tool) and browse them when we need to retrieve something (using the tool) is way more than using the Search function, that, even if not perfect, works well enough, at least for me. My method though, rely more on memory, since for a project, to make the search useful, I will have to remember more than just the name, so that I can add more terms in my search and minimize the number of hits.

To conclude, Plato fear not. Human memory will have to keep up with the tools offered to access the stored knowledge, and remember how to use them more efficiently to be successful. It seems to me this task is often more complicate that just remembering the knowledge itself.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Those are some really crucial points, I think, and you are right: we learned to use writing intelligently, just as we had learned to store information in other people by means of language. It's what some commentators refer to as the prosthetic relationship with our memory technologies, and there's every reason to believe it will hold true of the computer as well.

There are a couple of interesting books on this, from very different disciplines. The Renaissance Computer is a collection of essays that looks (among other things) at how the early indices of print culture transformed the ability to access the written word. Whereas Merlin Donald in Origins of the Modern Mind discusses external memory systems, such as writing and the computer, as extensions of the mind which have become so integral to it that they could be considered evolutionary. Very interesting books both.

Again, though, I am irresistibly drawn to the frictions and the resistance. A friend back home who owned a bookshop told me that he didn't let his staff use the computer, except when a book was out of stock and had to be ordered. He explained that you need to know your books, what they look like, where they are located, and I think he had a point. There is room for negotiating how much we devolve to our technologies the task of remembering certain things.

On the topic of being an expert, a disclaimer is in order: I think very few people are experts on memory, except perhaps one a very narrow aspect of it, and I don't claim to be one in that sense either. It happens to be my main research interest and I hope that this blog over time could become a resource for people who share that interest. And if it so happens that it will host thoughtful comments such as yours, and become more of a conversation, I will be grateful and even happier. :-)

Taramoc said...

Thanks for the kind words. I do find memory as a topic very interesting and, since I work in technology, even if on the creative side, I think I will be checking your blog regularly.

The two books you mention looks very interesting, and if I didn't have the crazy life I have, I'd probably read them. I'll have to save them (with many others) for the years to come, when my kids start finding their own way in the world.

I totally agree on your comment about room for negotiation. I think it boils down to personal preference. For example, I'm still one of the dinosaurs that buy music on physical CDs instead of iTunes, Napster or similar sites. I've heard all the arguments against it (included the environmental ones), but I still can get past the feeling of having a physical representation of my purchase, along with all the extras that come with it (booklet, lyrics, etc.).

The same is true when it comes to books. Browsing in a bookstore is still one of the things that give me a lot of pleasure, and it will never be replaced by downloading a .pdf file.

I guess when it comes to work, I'm always willing to take the most efficient approach, and that seems to be the most "evolved" in a technological sense, while when it's pleasure, I'm old fashioned and enjoy more tangible ways to deliver knowledge to my brain.

I hope that, at least in my lifetime, I will be able to keep doing that.

Jake said...

I think it's worth bearing in mind Rosalind Thomas' (Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece, (Cambridge, 1992)) point that literacy and orality in classical Greece might not have been the binary distinction that we make it out to be, and that the written word might have been a supplement to oral performance, rather than a substitute for it.

She is arguing against Goody and Watt's work (‘The Consequences of Literacy’, in J. Goody, (ed.), Literacy in Traditional Societies, (Cambridge 1968)), in which they argue that the shift from oral to literate culture is the shift from mythic to properly historical consciousness -- they argue that the written word brought a shift from a model of thought where the word is indistinguishable from the context in which it is uttered, to one where words are portable and in a sense divorced from their contexts. It might be that the part that Plato thought was degraded wasn't the factual or narrative content of the memory, but the performative element of it.

If Goody and Watt were right that in a pre-literate society the performance and the content of the performance of memory were not thought of as different, and Thomas is right Herodotus' and Thucydides' histories were written as aides to performance, and thus were part of an oral culture, then Plato's complaint about the degradation of memory takes on a new shape. It is not that we will forget things with writing -- as you point out, we have remembered much more -- it is that the act of memory, the performance of a knowledge of the past as it was shared amongst the classical Greeks, will be lost. The oral culture that you note we cannot return to was one in which performance was remembrance, and Plato was quite right about us losing that.

Anyway, this is a terrific blog. I'm looking forward to reading more from you.

Jake said...

So, if I can follow up on my last comment, I wonder if we could draw an extremely generalised schematic regarding memory in different ages of writing technology. If Goody an Watt are to believed, in oral cultures, memory is synonymous with the performance of memory and the past, and a society with written history sees a divide between memory residing individuals and a sanctified past residing in books. I recall elements of my own past a la Proust's Remembrance, but if I want to know the history of a thing, I read it in books which are themselves largely based on written records, and am deeply suspicious of so-called oral histories, always subjecting them to the authority of the written word.

In a digital age, 'memory' retains those meanings, but also takes on technical ones -- in the form of storage and RAM. Thus, as Taramoc points out, our understanding of memory becomes a matter of utilising tools for access -- 'memory' in the shape of RAM (short-term memory) governs the speed of that access, whilst we measure storage in terabytes. Memory becomes something with which we interface, and knowledge (facts, really) are a wikipedia search away.

But, as you point out in your final paragraph, this warehousing model of memory is illusory -- when links die, when technology becomes obsolete, these memories are lost. Alternatively, we may forget our search terms, so to speak. If Taramoc should want to find an email, but can't come up with the words to enter into the search engine, those emails will be lost forever (yes, he could just look through the inbox, but I can imagine a point when the information is so much that a manual search will become impossible).

And, like those whose memories and histories were retained in oral cultures, we don't even realise that they've been lost: we may understand how the technological parameters that govern our memory shape of what we remember, but that is not the same as remembering.

These are probably not particularly original points: my interests reside in the print culture of the 17th Century rather than the digital culture of the 21st. But I'm avoiding reading a book about Galileo, so you'll just have to be subjected to my musings.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you Jake, for the kind words and the great contribution. "We may forget our search terms," I'm going to hold on to that - you could do a great reading of some of the stories of amnesia that crop up so frequently in the culture these days - think Memento among very many others - using that phrase as your interpretive key. The flipside, as you also hint at, is that when you have too much information even the right search term may not help you to find what you're looking for. I'm going to talk about that a bit in my next post.

I will definitely track down the Goody and Watt essay. One of my aims with this blog is to develop an annotated bibliography (and filmography, webography, etc.) for people interested in this topic, under a Creative Commons licence and of course acknowledging the contributions of everyone involved. Your comment would be just perfect to that end, so with your leave I would like to use it.

And, like those whose memories and histories were retained in oral cultures, we don't even realise that they've been lost: we may understand how the technological parameters that govern our memory shape of what we remember, but that is not the same as remembering.

Brilliantly put, and I think it would describe equally well what happens in another instance of what is sometimes regarded as progress, namely when a language falls by the wayside.

Jake said...

If you're building a bibliography, I would add Keith Thomas, ‘The Meaning of Literacy in Early Modern England’, in G. Baumann, (ed.), The Written Word: Literacy in Transition’, (Oxford, 1986). It's part of the Goody and Watt debate, and he outlines how, in the age of print, literacy was not a straightforward concept -- many people could sign their names, read particular kinds of print (most commonly blackletter) but not others, and not be able to read handwritten words, for example.

Where it might be interesting for you is in the details of various mnemonics and other non-script systems used in the early modern era, particularly for counting.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you Jake, duly added.