Monday, October 05, 2009

Did Pencils Make Us Dumber?

A critique of claims that technology is making us dumber:
Claims of pretty much every modern technology somehow making us dumber are almost never supported by the facts, but still, you get people just trying to drum up book sales telling us that Google makes us dumber by encouraging people not to read as much -- when actual evidence shows people are reading more long-form works.

It appears there's a recent book out, A Better Pencil, by Dennis Baron, that explores how these same fears and totally unsubstantiated moral panics seem to have come about with pretty much every new communications platform out there. Baron recently did an interview with Salon, where he pointed out that these same sorts of fears go back all the way to Plato:
I start with Plato's critique of writing where he says that if we depend on writing, we will lose the ability to remember things. Our memory will become weak. And he also criticizes writing because the written text is not interactive in the way spoken communication is. He also says that written words are essentially shadows of the things they represent. They're not the thing itself. Of course we remember all this because Plato wrote it down -- the ultimate irony.

We hear a thousand objections of this sort throughout history: Thoreau objecting to the telegraph, because even though it speeds things up, people won't have anything to say to one another. Then we have Samuel Morse, who invents the telegraph, objecting to the telephone because nothing important is ever going to be done over the telephone because there's no way to preserve or record a phone conversation. There were complaints about typewriters making writing too mechanical, too distant -- it disconnects the author from the words. That a pen and pencil connects you more directly with the page. And then with the computer, you have the whole range of "this is going to revolutionize everything" versus "this is going to destroy everything."
So, forgive me for being skeptical about each new fear about each new communications technology that comes about. For all the cries of "but this time, it's different," it's the same exact story we've seen pretty much throughout history.

1 comment:

rosserw said...

I must say, Plato had a point. While experts differ on the plausibility and practice of reciting epic poetry in the classical period, recordings of extant oral historians in the early 20th century showed that multi-day oral poetry could be delivered competently, if not completely accurately (i.e. there was some degree of improvisation). These historians were invariably illiterate. Who beyond the autistic has this sort of prodigious memory today? It's not entirely unreasonable to suspect that reliance on the written word might play a role in us exercising the memory less.

A more pedestrian example: I used to know many more phone numbers prior to getting a cell phone and its phone directory. I'm sure my general ability to remember numbers has suffered partially as a result of no longer getting the practice memorizing phone numbers.