[Air-l] Impact of intense technology use on memorization's quality

Charles Ess cmess at lib.drury.edu
Tue Jul 8 07:32:12 PDT 2003

Of course, the classic reference is Plato's dialogue, Phaedrus, in which
Socrates tells a myth regarding the invention of writing by the Egyptian god
Theuth - making the point that writing gives us the _illusory_ appearance of
having knowledge, good memory, even wisdom - while the technology of writing
in fact weakens our use of memory:

"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; [275a ]  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. Their trust in writing,
produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will
discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an
elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the
appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things
without instruction and will therefore seem [275b ]  to know many things,
when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since
they are not wise, but only appear wise.  (Fowler translation: see

FWIW: I think there is truth in the Socratic story.  Much has been written,
for example, about "cyber-gnosticism,"  our confusing our increasing ability
to find and retrieve the sorts of knowledge and information that become
increasingly available on the web and in our computers with  - wisdom,
which, for me, involves not only recollection but also judgment and
reflection that are not always fostered by computer-mediated recollection.
But of course it's enormously complicated.  I would also be the first to
argue that because the new technologies increase our ability to store,
organize, and retrieve information - including insightful texts such as this
one - our grasp on these as necessary but not sufficient conditions for
judgment and wisdom can likewise increase.
There's also the phenomenon: writing something down - whether on paper or on
our computers - helps many of us remember it better than if we had not
written it down at all.  I often find that I'll make an appointment on my
PDA - and then not need to look at it because I remember it.  (But I also
forget to look at it sometimes - and miss appointments!)

In my mind, Clifford Geertz has made the point well.  From stone-age tools
through writing to these latest technologies - our minds produce and are
thereby expanded by our physical artifacts. Our minds are not, as Descartes
argued, some internal homunculus entirely divorced from our bodily ,
machinery but are rather "in the world" outside our bodies, i.e., precisely
in the artifacts - including the tools of memory - that we produce and use.

The issue is _not_, then, whether our memory - much less our wisdom - is
better served with pure orality, print and literacy, and/or the technologies
of electronic culture.  Rather, the trick, in my mind, is learning how to
use the capabilities of the new tools - alongside the capabilities of the
more traditional ones - to foster judgment, reflection, and wisdom.  It can
be done - but I think it's probably rare.  These lovely visions and ideals
of fostering judgment, reflection, and wisdom have always been rare - and it
seems difficult to remind ourselves of them in our fascination with the
spectacle and endless distractions of our newer toys.

I hope other AoIR-ists will balance this philosophical speculation with some
good empirical studies!


Charles Ess
Distinguished Research Professor, Interdisciplinary Studies
Drury University
900 N. Benton Ave.                          Voice: 417-873-7230
Springfield, MO  65802  USA            FAX: 417-873-7435
Home page:  http://www.drury.edu/ess/ess.html
Co-chair, CATaC: http://www.it.murdoch.edu.au/catac/

Exemplary persons seek harmony, not sameness. -- Analects 13.23

> From: "Serge Courrier" <serge.courrier at pobox.com>
> Reply-To: air-l at aoir.org
> Date: Tue, 8 Jul 2003 14:29:06 +0200
> To: <air-l at aoir.org>
> Subject: [Air-l] Impact of intense technology use on memorization's quality
> Hi, 
> Ones could think that the intense use of technology could lead to a
> impairment of our memory.
> Immediate information finding through Web queries, automatic calendar alerts
> via PDA, telephone numbers memorized by cellular phones, access routes
> computed by GPS, and so on.
> Do you know if anybody published a study or an article about this subject.
> And what do YOU think about it ?
> Best regards
> _________________________________________
> Serge Courrier
> Scientific journalist, Paris, France
> _______________________________________________
> Air-l mailing list
> Air-l at aoir.org
> http://www.aoir.org/mailman/listinfo/air-l

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