To my surprise, I was struck with the age-old lament present in Plato’s Phaedrus that the new technology, in this circumstance – writing – will alter the fabric and structure of society, and result in its inevitable decline. Imbued with today’s contemporary discourse over the fear and uncertainty, or excitement and fervor in many quarters, concerning the digitalization of all things print, I had not consciously thought of writing, the actual words, characters taken and put on tablet or parchment, as a form of new technology or revolutionary advancement since grade school. The current state of rapid digital turnover in the twenty first century seems less significant than the conversion of oral language to the new written form.
Through Socrates, Plato laments with increasing anxiety over the potential loss of one’s mastery of memory, and the distance that emerges by capturing the oral and making it written. Moreover, the absence of an appropriate interpreter and teacher who controls the knowledge, which Socrates decries “drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it” (118). The underlying sentiment that disturbs me in the artificial dialectic between Socrates and Phaedrus is that Plato seems to envision a “right type” of student and thinker that is most deserving of this advanced knowledge rather than a more democratic, and yes, modern vision for the dissemination of knowledge.
I realize that this excerpt from Phaedrus is over two thousand years old and it may be unfair to impose a modern sensibility on the idea of who has access to knowledge. But many of Plato’s ideas seem pertinent in today’s quickly changing Internet landscape – does this new technology improve the current curriculum or does it diminish it, making it a mere reflection and unequal substitute of the former model?
Dennis Baron offers further technological advances in the development of writing in his “From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies” outlining the “new literacy technologies “ that were developed after the advent of the clay tablet, taking the form of the printing press, telegraph, typewriter, telephone and most significantly the pencil. Each of these new technologies propelled the dissemination of the now written word into more hands that I suspect would not necessarily please Plato. The modern corollary to Plato’s argument is that the Internet provides unfettered, undiluted access to just about everything and to everyone with access to a computer, but as Barron aptly points out “literacy has always functioned to divide haves from have nots, and the problem of access to computers will not be easy to solve” (132).
A final thought on Phaedrus, Plato employs the new technology of writing that he fears and decries in crafting his own argument, as Walter J. Ong points out in “Writing Is a Technology that Restructures Thought” that a critical “weakness in Plato’s position is that he put these misgivings about writing into writing” (28), which suggests that Plato recognized the power of the new technology as he debated for the older way – Plato’s thoughts once again finding resonance in today’s uncertain, shifting digital world.