‘“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.