The problem with computer literacy

basoliA recent post on Boing Boing is titled Paper and pencil better for the brain than software?  The gist of the article and its associated links is that software, in guiding us through common tasks, actually makes us dumber.  The Dutch psychologist Christof van Nimwegen has performed studies demonstrating the deleterious effects of being plugged-in.  From the post:

“Van Nimwegen says much software turns us into passive beings, subjected to the whims of computers, randomly clicking on icons and menu options. In the long run, this hinders our creativity and memory, he says.”

This certainly sounds right to me, from personal experience.  About a year ago, my company gave away GPS navigation devices as Christmas gifts to all the consultants.  The results are twofold.  On the one hand, we all make our appointments on time now, because we don’t get lost anymore.  On the other, we have all lost our innate sense of direction — that essential skill that got the species through the hunter-gatherer phase of our development.  Without my GPS, I am effectively as blind as a bat without echolocation.

In Charles Stross’s novel about the near future, Accelerando, this experience is taken a step further.  The protagonist Manfred Macx is at one point mugged on the street, and his connection to the Internet, which he carries around with him hooked up to his glasses, is taken away.  As a man of the pre-singularity, however, his personality has become so distributed over search engines and data portals that without this connection he is no longer able to even identify himself.  This is the nightmare of the technologically dependent.

Doctor van Nimwegen’s study recalls Plato’s ambivalence about the art of writing.  His mentor Socrates, it may be remembered, never put anything to writing, which he found inherently untrustworthy. Consequently all we know of Socrates comes by way of his disciple Plato.  Plato, in turn, was a poet who ultimately became distrustful of his own skills, and railed against it in his philosophical writings.  From the modern viewpoint, however, whatever it is that we lose when we put “living” thoughts down to writing, surely it is only through poetry that we are able to recover and sustain it.

It is through poetic imagery that Plato explains Socrates’s misgivings about letters in the Phaedrus:

At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

We can certainly see aspects of Manfred Macx’s experience of disorientation in our dependence on tools like Google and Wikipedia, which provide us all with the same degree of wisdom, or at least the same show of wisdom.  In tracking down the above quote about Theuth, I had to rely on a vague reminiscence that this memory passage occurred in either the Timaeus or the Phaedrus. I then used my browser search functionality to track down the specific paragraph.  Very handy, that search feature.  But how much more wonderful it would have been had I been able to call that up from my own theater of memory.

My only stand against the steady march of progress (from which I make my living, it should be remembered) is that I turn my spell-checker off when I write emails and articles.  A consulting manager recently chastised me for this practice, which he found error prone and somewhat irresponsible.  To this I could only reply, “but I already know how to spell.”  

I should have added, “…for now.”

2 thoughts on “The problem with computer literacy”

  1. Indeed.

    "Le corps de l’homme sauvage étant le seul instrument qu’il connaisse, il l’emploie à divers usages, dont, par le défaut d’exercice, les nôtres sont incapables, et c’est notre industrie qui nous ôte la force et l’agilité que la nécessité l’oblige d’acquérir. S’il avait eu une hache, son poignet romprait-il de si fortes branches? S’il avait eu une fronde, lancerait-il de la main une pierre avec tant de raideur? S’il avait eu une échelle, grimperait-il si légèrement sur un arbre? S’il avait eu un cheval, serait-il si vite à la course? Laissez à l’homme civilisé le temps de rassembler toutes ses machines autour de lui, on ne peut douter qu’il ne surmonte facilement l’homme sauvage; mais si vous voulez voir un combat plus inégal encore, mettez-les nus et désarmés vis-à-vis l’un de l’autre, et vous reconnaîtrez bientôt quel est l’avantage d’avoir sans cesse toutes ses forces à sa disposition, d’être toujours prêt à tout événement, et de se porter, pour ainsi dire, toujours tout entier avec soi"
    – Rousseau, Second discours

  2. Detailed article and statement on The problem with computer literacy. Not everyone can have the identical sentiments or knowledge. I suppose I agree with this sites positioning. A post a day keeps the commentaries arriving.

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