I mentioned in my first post that all new communication technologies initially inspired fear and criticism. It goes as far back as the alphabet. Nancy K. Baym in Personal Connections in the Digital Age cites Plato quoting Socrates back in 370 BCE about this new alphabet thing:
“This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learner’s 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 not an aid 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.”
“They will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing,” because of reading without understanding… I’ve been to cocktail parties with people like that. Truth to tell I almost certainly have been that person at cocktail parties and am probably acting like one with now as I write this.
In once sense old Socrates was right. The creation of the alphabet did begin to change oral culture. Over the centuries memorization became less important and direct discourse between teacher and student was mediated to a degree by the written word. But what he failed to envision was how the written word made education more broadly available to everyone across both time and space, not just a select few students. Had he won the day and banished the alphabet, we would not know of him or his wisdom. It also increased the general level of knowledge of the polis as the best ideas became more easily accessible.
Of course the concomitant downside is that a lot of lousy ideas have been spread as well through the written word giving rise to such joyful cultural artifacts as political campaign literature, incomprehensible technical manuals and, eventually, FOX News (or the SUN network if you prefer a Canadian reference).
But even Socrates would agree that back in his day there were teachers spreading weak and even downright untruthful ideas. That part of human nature hasn’t changed, only the technology has. Those who complain that the internet is dumbing down our culture are essentially repeating Socrates’ argument. I suspect that in the end, we will see that the fearful running away from technology will only serve to isolate those who decry it.
Is the internet changing culture? Sure. Is it changing it for the worse? Nope. It’s just changing the way we do business, the way we learn and the way we participate in the formation and transmission of knowledge in the world. Are there people who accept some of the garbage that gets posted uncritically? Sure. But then people accepted bad television in the Broadcast Age, gosspiy telephone calls in the age before that and scurrilous pamphlets in the age of the printing press.
We can’t blame the technology for people’s bad and undiscerning choices.