[EAS] from Theuth to Google -- Still

Peter J. Kindlmann peter.kindlmann at yale.edu
Sun Jul 15 14:19:35 EDT 2012

Dear Friends and Colleagues -

This is a remailing from July 2008, on a subject of continuing 
concern to me. And the 2008 mailing in turn refers to an earlier 2005 
one (whose link below I've fixed). TL Infobits from UNC Chapel Hill 
no longer exists 
but the the link to the Atlantic Monthly article still works.

Going back into the past on occasions like this, I am struck by how 
little change there really is despite so much "supposed progress," 
and how little comment and constructive criticism is really taken to 
heart. We live in a world measured by velocity, or even just 
acceleration or deceleration. It isn't just financial derivatives 
that are too much with us.

If my 2008 recommendation for summer reading didn't work for you 
then, perhaps it will this year.

Have a good summer,    --PJK

>Date: Wed, 2 Jul 2008 22:52:44 -0400
>To: eas-info at jove.eng.yale.edu
>From: "Peter J. Kindlmann" <peter.kindlmann at yale.edu>
>Subject: [EAS] from Theuth to Google
>(from TL Infobits -- June 2008 <http://its.unc.edu/tl/infobits/bitjun08.php>)
>"Recommended Reading" lists items that have been recommended to me or
>that Infobits readers have found particularly interesting and/or
>useful, including books, articles, and websites published by Infobits
>subscribers. Send your recommendations to carolyn_kotlas at unc.edu for
>possible inclusion in this column.
>"Is Google Making Us Stupid?"
>By Nicholas Carr
>ATLANTIC MONTHLY, July/August 2008
>"For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the
>conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears
>and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an
>incredibly rich store of information are many, and they've been widely
>described and duly applauded. 'The perfect recall of silicon memory,'
>WIRED's Clive Thompson has written, 'can be an enormous boon to
>thinking.' But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist
>Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive
>channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they
>also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing
>is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My
>mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it:
>in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in
>the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

Dear Colleagues -

As I can affirm from my teaching in the last decade, student 
attention spans are indeed shrinking. Quiet, solitary, contemplation 
is for some a scary isolation cell. The college experience should, 
and can, teach "solo think" instead of letting students stay in 
"group think" mode. The often academically encouraged "team work" is 
seldom worthy of the name.

The Atlantic Monthly article is also about connectedness of thinking, 
how deeply what you read connects with other material you already 
"own" in your head. Ideas grow from those associations.

Technological progress should always have its critics, because the 
transition periods are messy and wasteful of human capital. 
Insightful criticism taken to heart can lessen the waste. I'm put in 
mind of an older mailing 
Richard Sennett, referred to there, has a new book just out, "The 
Craftsman," possibly the capstone of his career.

I also urge every advocate of technological progress to read Neil 
Postman, particularly "Technopoly" (1992) which begins with this 
story from Plato's "Phaedrus" (yes, I've actually looked it up in 
Yale's Cross-Campus library and read some more of Phaedrus in the 

>  You will find in Plato's Phaedrus a story about Thamus, the king of a
>  great city of Upper Egypt. For people such as ourselves, who are
>  inclined (in Thoreau's phrase) to be tools of our tools, few legends
>  are more instructive than his. The story, as Socrates tells it to his
>  friend Phaedrus, unfolds in the following way: Thamus once entertained
>  the god Theuth, who was inventor of many things, including number,
>  calculation, geometry, astronomy, and writing. Theuth exhibited his
>  inventions to King Thamus, claiming that they should be made widely
>  known and available to Egyptians. Socrates continues:
>    Thamus inquired into the use of each of them, and as Theuth went
>    through them expressed approval or disapproval, according as he
>    judged Theuth's claims to be well or ill founded. It would take
>    too long to go through all that Thamus is reported to have said
>    for and against each of Theuth's inventions. But when it came to
>    writing, Theuth declared, "Here is an accomplishment, my lord the
>    King, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the
>    Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and
>    wisdom." To this, Thamus replies, "Theuth, my paragon of
>    inventors, the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the
>    good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. So it is
>    in this; you, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness
>    for your off-spring attributed to it quite the opposite of its
>    real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their
>    memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring
>    things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their
>    own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for
>    recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will
>    have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive
>    a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in
>    consequence be thought very knowledgable when they are for the
>    most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the
>    conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to
>    society."
>  I begin my book with this legend because in Thamus' response there are
>  several sound principles from which we may begin to learn how to think
>  with wise circumspection about a technological society. In fact, there
>  is even one error in the judgment of Thamus, from which we may also
>  learn something of importance. The error is not in the claim that
>  writing will damage memory and create false wisdom. It is demonstrable
>  that writing has had such an effect. Thamus' error in in his believing
>  that writing will be a burden to society and nothing but a burden. For
>  all his wisdom, he fails to imagine what writing's benefits might be,
>  which, as we know, have been considerable. We may learn from this that
>  it is a mistake to suppose that any technological innovation has a
>  one-sided effect. Every technology is both a burden and a blessing;
>  not either-or, but this-and-that.

One cannot, of course, help substituting the word "computer" for 
"writing" in the above, as Postman well knows. And Thamus's last 
sentence "And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom 
instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society" has a 
deliciously contemporary flavor.

I hope this sample entices you to seek out "Technopoly", whose 
clarity of language and exposition are a pleasure muted only by the 
gravity of its message. If you need practice reading a whole book 
again this summer, this would be a nice choice. (I read much of it on 
a small island one reaches by canoe, in a lonely lake in Maine.)

And let me mention a final apt element in the legend of the inventor 
god Theuth. He is one-eyed, implying a lack of depth perception 
unless one moves adequately with respect to one's subject.


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