Today, we have unparalleled access to the entire corpus of human knowledge. The internet has transformed how we appreciate and consume information and content. The recent advent of smart devices allows us to tap into this font of information no matter where we are. There is almost no factual question or query that may arise during the day to which we are unable to find an answer within seconds. The internet allows every person with access to it to expand their horizons and their knowledge to an extent that would have been unimaginable 50 years ago.
Indeed, it is fair to assume that we ourselves have not fully realised the true possibilities afforded by this new technology, and that new and astounding innovations are still to come. It would also seem fair to assume that this explosion of information will lead to a democratisation of knowledge, and to a more learned, wise, and educated population. The internet acts as a sort of extended mind, an infinitely more powerful memory bank which we can draw on and use to expand our capabilities in everyday life. I would like to ask, however, whether this truly is a correct assumption to make. Will increasingly widespread internet access lead to a more informed, literate and intelligent population, or could it, in fact, have the opposite effect?
One reason why we may question this assumption can be drawn from a parable told in one of Plato’s dialogues, written over 2000 years ago. This parable appears in the Phaedrus, and concerns the invention of writing. Plato’s mouthpiece, Socrates, recounts a story about how writing came into existence in ancient Egypt. Theuth, the Egyptian god of invention, came to the Theban king Thamus to present his latest invention: the written word. “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”. The king, however, demurs. Far from being a cure for the problems of memory, he says, those who use writing will instead cease to exercise their memories and will become forgetful. Writing will give people the appearance of wisdom but not the reality; people will be believed to be knowledgeable while remaining ignorant. Writing, Thamus says, will be a remedy for reminding, not remembering.
Does Socrates’s criticism of writing translate to the case of the internet? In Plato’s parable, writing is called a pharmakon for memory. This is a Greek word with no direct translation into English, which can mean either a cure or a poison. Socrates shows that while writing may appear to be a cure for memory (pharmakon), it is in fact a sort of poison (pharmakon) that will prove detrimental to true remembering. Pharmakon may also be the best way to describe the internet as it exists today: it could be either a cure or a poison. In favour of the former, we can point to some of the great innovations we see towards making knowledge accessible to more people worldwide. Many universities are using the internet to start offering MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses. Trinity itself launched its first MOOC this year. These open courses give anybody with an internet connection the chance to see lectures in Yale or Harvard, opportunities which in the past have only been open to a privileged few. Spreading Western culture and teachings in such a way can only be a good thing.
The other side of this, however, is the potential of the internet to propagate negative beliefs, attitudes and outlooks, and that it will in fact increase the level of ignorance amongst vast swathes of the population. How might this happen? The first, most obvious way is that people will use it to disseminate distinctly anti-democratic propaganda. We see organisations such as ISIS using social media to recruit members both in the Middle East and in the West, and to stoke anti-American and anti-democratic feelings amongst the populations of these countries. The internet also allows fringe groups, such as holocaust deniers, to meet one another in ways and in numbers that would not otherwise be possible. This contributes to the propagation of these harmful views.
These uses for the internet, however, for the most part don’t affect the majority of the population. Could widespread internet access have negative effects of the sort Plato had in mind for writing? Does this ease of access not, like writing, change our very attitudes to this information and this knowledge? With ease of access comes the attitude that knowledge is something transitory, something that we don’t need to hold onto in our minds because it is so readily available externally. Information is to be consulted for some definite purpose and then forgotten. Is the internet not, like writing, a false remedy for remembering; really only an outward aid for reminding?
The demise of memory did not, as Plato feared, come so much with the invention of writing but instead came much later, with the invention of the printing press. The art of memory, which was seen as a fundamental part of the intellectual toolkit in the ancient and medieval worlds, lost its importance once texts began to be mass-produced. Near constant access to the internet seems likely to diminish its importance even more, although only time will tell. Some signs of this happening can be seen in new school curriculums, which are starting to emphasise the move away from “fact-based” or “rote” learning, to new teaching methods based around “critical thinking”. In the so-called knowledge economy, actually having the knowledge in your head is not as important as being able to access it at will. While this is no doubt good for worker productivity, we must not mistake the outward signs of knowledge for true understanding.
Like the ancient god Theuth, the inventors of the internet proudly trumpet the benefits of their creation while neglecting its possible harmful effects. They claim it will help to disabuse people of misguided notions and decrease ignorance in the world. This could potentially be true. However, we must also be cognisant of its dangers, and be careful how we incorporate its benefits into our lives. Encouraging an over reliance on outward signs for reminding in children, instead of fostering true knowledge and memory, is most certainly a mistake. Perhaps by always treating the internet as a pharmakon, as both a poison and a cure, we can best manage its inevitable continued expansion.
Illustration: John Tierney