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‘“This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory.’

  • Plato, Phaedrus

Socrates and the Internet

It’s funny isn’t it? How a text written over two thousand years ago can be so relevant to the problems we face in modern society today. In this particular quote from Plato’s Phaedrus Socrates uses the supposed dialogue between the Egyptian Gods Theuth, the inventor of letters, and Thamus, the king of Egypt, to explain to Phaedrus the dangers of writing, and the worrying effects it could have on human wisdom.

Theuth believes that through his creation of letters he has found a way to preserve and improve the memories of the Egyptians; in other words he thinks that the externalisation of conscious thoughts into the written word will provide the Egyptian people with a wisdom that extends beyond their natural capacities. However, Thamus argues that Theuth is mistaken. His new invention–this revolutionary new technology–will not help the Egyptians to become wise at all. Instead of granting them new powers of memorisation, they will delegate their memory to a technological system, and in turn will lose their natural capacity for internal memory, the foundation stone of knowledge. Their memories, and thus their wisdom, will degrade as knowledge becomes ever increasingly stored in external symbols.

Now let’s fast forward 2500 years or so to 2015. Let’s imagine the invention that Theuth has created is not letters or the written word, but the internet. It’s quite startling how well the above quote still applies. In Socrates’ terms, the internet would perhaps be the single biggest system of collectivised memory loss in the whole of human history. The internet’s capacity to store human memories is limitless, and although books have been shown to improve the capacity of memory (something I will come back to in a later post), the tendency we have to rely on modern technology, in particular the internet, as a vast external memory bank has led us towards a lack of memory.

Modern philosophers in both the Analytic and Continental traditions such as Andy Clark, David Chalmers, Bernard Stiegler, and Catherine Malabou, have all been aware of this in recent years, and have all been keen to look at the effects of these externalisations on our minds and our culture:

Chalmers notes in the introduction to Clark’s Supersizing the Mind that the externalisation of memory through manipulation of outer objects can have a direct impact on how memory, and thus to some extent mind as a whole, can be altered by interactions with the “external scaffolding” around it (an idea that is apparent throughout Clark’s works): ‘A month ago, I bought an iPhone. The iPhone has already taken over some of the central functions of my brain. It has replaced part of my memory, storing phone numbers and addresses that I once would have taxed my brain with.’ Similarly Stiegler writes in his New Critique of Political Economy that technology ’causes our memories to pass into machines, in such a way that, for example, we no longer know the telephone numbers of those close to us’.

The smartphone example is perhaps an obvious one but it’s a perfect modern day explication of how external objects can act as part of our working memory processes. However what is it that actually determines what we remember and what we forget? To understand this question a good place to start is by looking at the work of a man who dedicated his life to the study of memory, Nobel Prize winning neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel.

Attention and Memory

According to Kandel the key to the formation of memories is attention. The process of storing and retaining explicit memories and building connections between them requires high levels of mental concentration which can be facilitated by a strong intellectual or emotional engagement. In his book, In Search of Memory, Kandel writes that for a memory to persist ‘the incoming information must be thoroughly and deeply processed. This is accomplished by attending to the information and associating it meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory’. Without giving true attention to a working memory, the neurons lose their electric charge within a few seconds and the memory is gone, leaving maybe only a small trace in the mind.

This problem of attention has become one of the most pressing problems affecting contemporary western society in recent years. Parents, teachers, university professors, and bosses the world over are becoming aware of the society of distraction that we are currently moving into. Since the development of the internet in the early 90s, and our subsequent leap into a world of easily accessible globalised information, our capacity for sustained attention has dwindled in recent years.

The huge amount of competing messages that we encounter every time we go online not only overloads our working memory; it makes it substantially harder for the frontal lobes of our brain to direct our attention onto one particular task. As Kandel states, the process of proper memory construction can’t even get started. And due to the neuroplasticity of our brains, the more we use the Web, the more our brain gets used to being distracted; to processing information extremely quickly and efficiently without the need for sustained attention.

How many of us have found it increasingly difficult to concentrate for extended periods of time on tasks that required sustained attention, for example reading a book? Or even watching a long film? Even in the process of writing this article I’ve noticed it’s initially difficult to not pop open another tab and check Facebook, or Gmail, or to get distracted by another hyperlink on a website I’m researching from. Through memory delegation our brains have essentially become adapted to forgetting, which causes them to become inept at remembering. And here we become trapped in a vicious cycle: as our use of the web makes it increasingly more difficult for us to keep information stored in our biological memory, we’re forced to rely on the easily searchable, instantly accessible nature of the Web’s external memory banks.

So was Socrates right? Does this mean that as time goes on, and our reliance on technical externalities increases exponentially, that we’re doomed to a future of attention deficit and social dementia? It may seem so. However there is another way.

In the Phaedrus, Thoth describes his invention of writing as pharmakon, a word with the same route as our English word pharmacy, meaning (of course) a place where medications and drugs are purchased. The use of pharmakon is interesting in this context as it can be translated as both poison and remedy (something Derrida discusses in his essay ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’). Modern technology can be looked at in the exact same way; it can, and must, be understood as having both poisonous and curative qualities. From our earliest written records in the Phaedrus, technê has been thought of dualistic, or pharmacological in nature.

To be able to focus on the postive aspect of this drug-like nature of technology we must become aware of it’s ability to damage our attention, whilst utilising it’s capacity for interconnectivity to actually improve our attention. In the next piece of this series I will explore the etymology of ‘attention’, and show how through a more postive utilisation of these external memories we can begin to recapture the attention has been lost in recent years. Stay tuned for pt.2.

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19 thoughts on “Reclaiming Memory, Recapturing Attention, 1: Socrates and the Internet

  1. I don’t own a “smart phone” (and never did) and I don’t watch TV. I don’t play computer games. One has to get rid of such things.

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      • I think there are positives and negatives. I think technology is inherantly dualistic in nature, at least in regards to the way it affects us. With all of the potentially negative aspects of the internet on memory and attention and variety of other brain processes, there will be a whole variety of postives (easy access to knowledge, decentralisation of power etc.) The key comes down to education. People of my generation (I’m in my mid twenties) were the first generation to grow up with the internet, and as such we were essentially its guinea pigs – nobody knew exactly what this new technology would do to us on a long term basis. I believe that in the future both state and social education will have to be substantially altered to deal with the new ways of acquiring and losing knowledge that modern technology, in particular the internet, provides. But in general I think it will balance itself out and the positives will outweigh the negatives. I’m a technological optimist at heart.

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      • I am in my 50s. I think such a device would take a lot of my time away. So far, I don’t see any convincing reason to own one. I have an old-fashioned simple mobile phone in order to be reachable for a few people.

        It is certainly a matter of generation, I am probably old-fashioned. However I am not technophobe, I am a computer programmer myself. But it is probably also a matter of personality type. I am an introvert (in the Myers-Briggs personality test I come out as an INTP). I like to be alone.

        I think smart phones satisfy needs of people who like to communicate a lot, they are for other personality types (I have written about this in a satyrical way here: http://asifoscope.org/2013/01/28/hyper-communicativity-syndrome-hcs/ (I hope our host here does not mind that I put a link here, otherwise I don’t mind if this comment is deleted or edited)).

        My impression is that younger people develop a habit of not thinking things through on their own. Instead, they constantly communicate through chat systems and the like. This seems to lead to a different style of thinking. I don’t know if this is good or bad. The single person might become more dependent on others and more reluctant of developing their own opinions and tasts. On the other hand, a group of people might come up with solutions that no single person would easily find. But I grew up in a world where such deviced did not exist and I am used to thinking alone.

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      • (No problem posting links!)
        But yes I agree with you to some extent. It’s always a matter of balance when it comes to how we should integrate with technology. There is definitely nothing inherantly bad about smart phones or the interconnectivity they bring about, yet as I mentioned in the article there can be negative consequences – if used unresponsibly. In the Phaedrus Thoth describes the invention of writing as Pharmakon, which is a really interesting term to be used for a new technological advancement since it can be translated as both poison and cure. In general technology can be looked at in the same way.
        Interestingly there’s a similar paradox in your statement that you don’t own a smart phone or similar device yet the only reason we’re able to have this discussion right now is through being connected by the internet. The positives are undeniable but they must be utilised correctly in a way that will allow the public to more informed about the potential negatives. I’ll try and expand on this in part two at some point this week!
        But yes I agree with your last point. The philosopher Gilbert Simondon refers to a similar idea as Individuation, which essentially means the individual is a process rather than a state. Individuals are constantly shifting and adapting in relation to the collectives they are part of. This idea applies to the realm of technology as well. Have a look at my other posts on Stiegler for more info.

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  2. I agree that there are pluses and minuses. I didn’t grow up with a computer (didn’t get one until my second semester of college, but I was very much behind the times). I spent my youth doing things the old fashioned way, although I doubt that has made me more attentive than younger folks.

    On the other hand, there was one benefit to my lack of access to the internet. One thing in particular that stands out in my mind is the way I learned to play guitar. I never learned how to read music (I could’ve taught myself, but that seemed too tedious). I followed the easiest possible route to play whatever song I wanted to play. Back then, that meant lucking out and finding the tabs in Guitar World magazine or figuring it out by ear. Usually the latter. (Occasionally they’d publish a Joni Mitchell or Led Zeppelin tab, but the magazine was geared toward young boys, so it tended toward Metallica and Nirvana, maybe a Jewel song to play for your girlfriend…I wasn’t into any of this).

    Today, I would hop onto YouTube and watching someone give a lame tutorial. I doubt I would’ve trained my ear and I wouldn’t have heard all the mistakes that almost inevitably come from YouTube tutorials.

    Alas, today I DO get on YouTube to learn a new song. I notice the problems, but there’s always another YouTube version I can watch. I’ve become lazy and now I have a hard time teaching myself something by ear. Just the other day, I gave up on a song I couldn’t find anywhere on the internet…I’ve grown really really lazy. Plus, there’s always a blog to read. 🙂

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    • Haha I agree with you! I think my musical ear has definitely benefitted from having to figure songs out without tabs (I can’t read music either!)

      I’ve found a similar problem recently when it comes to cooking. I’ve become so used to being able to look up recipes with whatever I might have in the fridge at one time that I find it hard to be creative in the kitchen without some sort of general guideline. A minor point but relevant nonetheless!

      This is the great thing about the dualistic nature of technology though, even by stating that ‘there’s always a blog to read’ you’ve essentially proved how beneficial some of these things can be. The fact that we can even have these conversations from different parts of the world at any given time is one of the most brilliant aspects of the internet age. To have such easy access to such a wide variety of cultures and personal opinions can only lead to a more tolerant and educated society! 🙂

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      • “The fact that we can even have these conversations from different parts of the world at any given time is one of the most brilliant aspects of the internet age.”

        Totally agree! I think I’d be a pretty lonely person if it weren’t for blogging, to be honest. I don’t have any friends who are interested in philosophy (besides my husband, of course) and having the internet allows me to learn a lot and meet some very intelligent folks such as yourself.

        To be honest, when I first started my blog, it was only in order to start a “platform” for my novel. I did it reluctantly and with a lot of doubt. I don’t think I’ve succeeded in creating a platform, but I’ve met some amazing people…a better outcome, actually.

        On the song…I just have to update you because I’m so thrilled…I figured out the problem. The song is Joan Armatrading’s “No Love for Free” and I just realized it’s in a different tuning. A major breakthrough for me. I tried playing it in standard tuning with a capo, but it seemed so difficult and I couldn’t get that wonderful ringing that comes from an open tuning. I haven’t picked up the guitar in many months, so this was a big deal for me yesterday.

        On cooking, so funny you should mention that. I do the same thing! When I was learning to cook, I’d run out and buy the exact ingredients for the recipe. Now I just look at what I have and find a recipe on the internet. I did get past the point of needing a recipe on some things, though, but that’s only because I’ve done a hell of a lot of cooking. Plus my brother’s a CIA trained chef and I’ve gotten a lot of pointers from him. (He, of course, never uses a recipe.) The main thing is knowing you can swap out certain elements to achieve almost the same results. I’ve started doing that with baking as well, which is a bit of a milestone (I’ve always thought that tampering with a cake recipe was a big no-no.)

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      • Comments like this one are, like email, an asynchonous medium. Yo don’t need to answer immediately but you can do so when you have the time and feel like it. I like that. Chat and phoning, on the other hand, are more immediate and are thus sometimes disruptive to thinking. These likes and dislikes of different media are definitely personal or personality-dependent. But I think “disruptive” describes how smart phones appear to me.

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      • Yeah I think you’re probably right. The more they develop them the more disruptive they become. A perfect example is when facebook changed their chat function so that every time you opened a message the other person could see if you’d read it. Whatsapp has the same function. They are forcing an increasingly instantaneous forum where the time for deeper thinking becomes limited.

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  3. The question is: How to keep trust in your biological memories? This needs attention. If you do not have trust, you’ll always looking outside for to be safe.

    How could a natural brain overruled by false connections made by the global industrialising of the law of attention/ attraction (via marketing, advertising …) + well placed security concepts works? What is the reason?
    Unableing own memories and hold the memories the industrie needed and wanted.
    The Free vs. the Masters and Slaves – as always.

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  4. Life needs attention
    You always going around – collect and save memories.
    You could read and use it.

    If you are not interessted in your own life and life itself, you are interessted in making an easy living.

    Simpel.

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  5. Pingback: Has technology really ruined the experience of travel? | samwoolfetravelblog

  6. Pingback: Reclaiming Memory, Recapturing Attention, 2: Paying Attention as Taking Care | Blue Labyrinths

  7. Pingback: Reclaiming memory | My Chronology

  8. In ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’, Abrams talks about how some indigenous tribes (I think it was the Western Apache) recite the stories tied to specific landmarks as they physically pass them. This constant remembering is a strong memory exercise that we lack in the modern world. We are not patient enough to rehash old stories or reflect on the past.

    Ancient oral traditions also use these stories to lay the foundation of identity. I believe our collective identity crisis is connected with a growing memory crisis, as we fade with every fleeting megabyte without a cultural anchor to root us in a consistent reality.

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  9. Read the whole article in the recent Philosophy Now issue 122…. agree completely…. may as well stick the device to our heads wit Velcro….

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