Thursday, September 29, 2005

Socrates and Google: Learning to Forget

Thought I'd share my post to the Humanist list (use of tech in
teaching and researching the humanities). The topic is needing time away from the computer, and our growing reliance on tech for memory.


[Hide Quoted Text]
> From: Steven D.Krause
> Subject: Re: 19.304 contemplation and computing
> Of course, the problem of technology and "critical thinking" (or just
> "thinking") has been a problem for thousands of years.
> [ ... Socrates on Theuth and Thamus ... ]
> Substitute "digital communication" for "letters" and I think you can
> see how these things fit together.

Thamus was right. The mnemonic powers of pre-literate (as in pre-writing) societies astounds us today. Who among us can recite a three-hour epic poem?

However, Thamus only looked at the costs, and not the benefits. For example, it's been argued that Western Civilization's success in science could not have occurred in a non-literate society, because observations need to be written down if they are to be trusted with the passing of time, and properly analyzed.

Similarly, we today enjoy amazing benefits from being able to tap into the global Googlebrain that all Web users are collectively growing through their individual accretion of factoids and comments. But I agree with those who have said that in another decade, people will feel hopelessly lost if their Web access is taken away. Lost in the sense of feeling they are no longer themselves.

It used to be only hard-charging workaholics who felt anxious without access to their email. More and more, that feeling affects everyday people; if you don't experience it, you likely know someone who does. A similar dynamic affects people's growing reliance on search engines for recalling simple facts, and the use of blogs and wikis (I like to maintain personal memory (both short-term and long-term).

> [T]hey will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing;
> they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing;

Quite true. Like Thamus, I lament that aspect. It's wonderful that the Web helps people to learn so much. At the same time, you never know if someone mailed you something useful/clever/obscure/intelligent because they are such an intelligent, well-educated, interesting person, or because they did a 30-second search on Google. And I do think my brain is learning to become lazy; either I'm just forgetting how to remember, or I subconsciously know I'll be able to look something up again in the future, and it gets thrown out.