Monday, November 26, 2012

Luddites: Fearing Technology's Impacts for a Long, Long Time

I've been reading "The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood" by James Gleick, and in it, he has a quote that I had to dig a little deeper on. Here is a slightly longer version of something Gleick quoted:
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 [this technology] 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,....
So, who was this Luddite railing against technology? Though this could easily be my mother or father, it was actually Socrates in Plato's Phaedrus. He was warning of the perils of written language, just as others would eventually complain about the printing press and then radio, film, TV, and every other transformative information technology.

What's funny is that I had already captured this quote and saved it in a blog draft when I read a FB post by one of my fraternity brothers in which he said:
"He seemed to think that [...] statements might be accepted without the test of dialogue -- of people asking ʻIs this really true?ʻ" Some Luddite skeptical of the Internet/Google/Wikipedia? No, Plato skeptical of literacy. (Quote from Joan Acocellaʻs piece on the history of female literacy, in "The New Yorker" 10/15/12 issue.)
Anyway, I had connected this thought to my thoughts about My Life, My Crutch, but this issue is broader. This isn't just about how each of us do or don't use technology to manage our daily lives. This is also about education. What skills do we need to teach? What does it mean to be educated, and how does that definition change over time? 

In Plato's time, you could be considered educated even if you were illiterate. In the 1970's you needed to know how to read, but could still be considered well-educated if you had no clue about how to use a computer. What about now? More importantly, what about 10, 20, or 30 years from now?

Note: I am not trying to wade out into the depths of the battles about whether technology is making kids worse students. New York Times has Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say, which does wade out into those scary waters. I just think the changing nature of what it means to be educated is an interesting thing to keep an eye on.

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