Digital thinking and : was Socrates literate?
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With the issues of non-literate children and the question: was Socrates literate in mind, I was looking up whether or not Socrates was in fact literate and came up with an article on digital thinking and a few others. I put together this article from that research.
Reading in a digital world -- Socrates' nightmare -- By Maryanne Wolf -- Published: Thursday, September 6, 2007
Some responses to wolf's articles on digital thinking:
Socrates, literacy, and the 21st century library Saturday, April 9, 2011
On the Ecological Consequences of Alphabetic Literacy: -- Reflections in the Shadow of Plato's PHAEDRUS -- by David Abram
Wolf's article touches on the idea that reading is not natural and she discusses what actually goes on in the brain during the process of reading. I have some progeny that don't appear equipped to read properly and I have a few older friends and relatives that seem to 'scan' rather than read. This article indicates that ideas/thoughts other than what is actually written should result when reading properly and that what occurs when reading newer digital stuff is quite different -- and may not be generating the same type of deeper thought. I am struck by my thoughts on the quantum ladder of life in that the digital representation of electronics in showing only the states of zero and five volts and its correspondence to zeros and ones in binary -- it leaves out the reality of the switching between the two states. It makes me wonder how many people have done this type of mental shorthand where the ultimate reality of all things being analog is not noticed or remembered. Just as the digital circuitry quickly switches between zero and five volts and the result is the easily manipulated signals at those levels. The fact that it was all of the values in between -- at least momentarily -- is ignored -- you have to wonder if the brains of some people have much of their knowledge in that kind of digital format -- like a math test where you do not have to show your work.
It is kind of like knowing things as they are but perhaps not ever thinking about how the things got the way they are or not considering the values of the intermediate steps or links or even realizing that the links are or were there. I am struck by my study of the brain in that it is like a hologram with the image more than two-dimensional -- with links or branches in different directions. Bipolar people have some of the links disabled or enabled depending on whether they are in a manic mode or not. A person going crazy after drinking seawater on the lifeboat has had his brain cells shrinking due to the osmotic effect of the cells trying to dilute the salt level of the bloodstream by dehydrating -- sending water through the cell-wall leaving the cells smaller. It has the effect of a battery-case where the batteries perhaps are not getting a good contact -- links are intermittant or broken. How many people know that drinking seawater will cause you to go crazy but have no idea on why -- do they even care?
The David Abram article on Plato's thoughts on writing brings out an interesting idea. If I understand what he is writing, then Socrates and Plato saw knowledge as part of the pyche -- that is -- already known -- and that learning was just remembering or getting back to that basic knowledge -- you really already have. To me the oral tranmittal of complex ideas such as the Iliad and the Oddessy from memory is incomprehensible. Apparently the repetition of these songs or poems enough times became a permanent memory equivalent to memorizing something written. Socrates felt that dialog was superior to reading anything written. The sage speaking to someone can pay attention to the attentiveness of the listener and both can ask questions to indicate understanding of the concepts -- something that cannot happen in reading -- where there is no feedback loop. In the oral tradition the history of the greeks was memorized in the repeated stories similar to the memorization of the time tables or simple math. Just as we can now ask someone what two times ten is and get 'twenty' -- the greeks were able to refer to a conversation of Achilles with his mother and have everyone remember the conversation because it was memorized. The only modern analogy to the memorization of Homer's poems by the entire population could be the similar memorization or all of the dialog and plot of a movie like 'Star Wars' by a few fans that each saw the film many times. Those fans could talk of the plot and dialog of the movie in the same way as most of the population of the ancient greeks could on the topic of the Trojan War.
If I use the phrase 'drinking the kool-aid', would that phrase have the same meaning to others as I intended? To me it had to be researched -- it comes from the Jim Jones mass suicide in the 1970's. Research says it was actually Flavoraid and that his congregation had regularly ritually drank the drink -- without the poison in it -- as a ceremony knowing it could have poison but trusting the Jim Jones leadership -- in a kind of mass unthinking -- leaving the thinking to the leaders. If we all learned the phrase through the same oral tradition it would have the same meanings for us -- but I doubt that it does since if we know the phrase at all -- it would have come to us all differently -- and few would have researched it as I did.
Abram indicates that only one alphabet was invented and all others branched from it. He indicates that written greek was invented at least 1500 BC but disappeared and later reappeared about the time of Socrates -- written literacy became widespread again at the time of Plato -- just like the spread of computers nowadays. (not mentioned here but I have to point out the idea of an earlier dark age about 1200 or 1300 BC similar to the dark ages AD. It appears to have happened but since papyrus and writing in general has not survived this early dark age -- you have to wonder what was lost. cdm)
That mass shifts in thinking have occurred in the past is an interesting area of speculation. I remember reading Bertrand Russell's book on the History of Western Philosophy. At one point in the book he indicates that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was responsible for a shift in thinking toward Romanticism. He does not elaborate but I took it to mean that prior to this shift in thinking, people were more skeptical and logical. They had some training in the logic taught by the ancient greek philosophers and did not fall head-long into believing in the fairy tale ending. Russell wrote that belief in the Nazi and communist philosphies were a result of romanticism. I feel that the lack of skepticism is what can happen to young people getting married and thinking it would all work out -- when if you did some hard thinking, the 50% divorce rate should give the young people a reason to be skeptical. I recently read a book by Phillip Wylie called the Magic Animal and he brings out the point that humans are the only animal that can reason out the past and future and unlike normal animals that live only in the present and evaluate everything based on the immediate effects -- humans can 'time-shift' and leave things to be worked out -- or not -- in the future. Religions before Christianity mostly lived in the now but the advent of religions with the belief in a heaven and some sort of punishment for evil during life being enforced in an afterlife results in a time-shifting past mortal life and perhaps less of the hard thinking on solving some problems during mortal life. If there was a method to measure the levels of revenge and envy before and after the advent of these newer time-shifting religions you have to think the levels were higher in the past. You don't have to be as vain about your own looks or try to get the most beautiful woman in the world -- as in the Trojan War story -- if you really believe that you and your significant other will be 'perfected' in the next life. You don't have to act out your own revenge for wrongs if you believe it will be properly handled for you in the afterlife. If you believe your cleric will be punished in the afterlife if he is leading you astray -- then perhaps you lose your normal level of skepticism. Worse yet is that people think they are making points for a better afterlife by not being skeptical or even thinking about the mysteries of religion.
Let us get back to the digital thinking aspect of the possible shift in thinking as we voyage into the modern era of immersion in the internet, television, and cell phone based world. Just as the world in Homer's time had the important things memorized by learning songs and poems from youth, Socrates saw the advent of written language as perhaps ending up in less being memorized or learned/understood. Instead, the person would read it and not bother to memorize or take it to heart -- but instead just think he could look it up again when needed since it was written down. The new age of digital thinking may be like that with people just relying on Google or Wikipedia and not bothering to internalize the knowledge or information as in the days of Homer. I would add that the relative importance of facts and knowledge is also impacted by the speed of change in this modern age. I remember working on a project to investigate the potential problems for our computer based systems at Abbott Laboratories in Salt Lake prior to the coming of the year 2000. Now that it is past, everyone thinks it was an alarmist concern that was overblown. No jets fell from the sky and the power grid did not collapse but I wonder what other persons involved in similar projects found and fixed. We found some real flaws in our network of computers with their internal clocks and the software interfaces that handled dates. Prior to the advent of cheap memory and cheap hard drives the systems we used were based on a system of shared resources. Most of our stuff was from HP and had no hard drives and booted up over a network connection. But just as an Apple computer boots a different software source than a normal PC, we had several flavors of systems. All were purchased in the early 1980s and 1990s and none could handle a date more than about 20 years after the system was designed. How could this have happened? These computers were the state of the art and HP meant not just Hewlett-Packard but also meant high-priced. The shared resource system was a special computer with a large hard drive. Apparently the designers thought no one would be using the computers after 20 years. We found a work-around for it by using the autoexec files executed on boot-up. They were individual for each machine and since the shared resource hard-drive could not be set past 1999 we set it up to have a date exactly 20 years in the past and had the individual network computers add 20 years to the date in their individual boot up (autoexec files). I had written several programs in visual basic that did not work properly in the new millenium. The date function generated the date in a slightly different format in the new century. As a programmer we would parse through the date generated which was many characters long and find the year for instance in characters 8 through 11 of the string of ascii characters generated by the date function. In the new millenium Microsoft decided to move the position of the year in the generated string.
With the advent of digital media and the internet I wonder if the collective mind of the population has shifted even farther away from skepticism toward romanticism. Does the generation of youths that all have smartphones continually connected to the internet believe that all you really need is this connection? I have found the internet to have less depth on any subject than would be similarly found in a good library in the past. A search on a scientific concept in the past would bring up a white paper or an indepth article. Now a similar search generates an 'abstract' that may indicate an article with the answers you are looking for but to find out you have to purchase the article.
To complete the digital analogy consider that what you learned prior to the digital age may have those pesky analog attributes such as the process of actually learning the concepts under consideration. The old system of learning had the knowledge processed into your brain like a package in the grocery store -- with all of the data on the panels of the package indicating the ingredients, directions for use, manufacturing origin, etc. In the digital age the knowledge is wrapped up like a pretty birthday present -- with all of those useful panels covered up as mere distractions with all of the possible help on the panels obscured by the digital wrapper.
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