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July 12, 2008

Plato and chat

Im reading Julian Warners “From Writing to Computers,” published in 1994. In a wonderful chapter he looks at the senses in which the Western tradition thought documents contained or were intelligent — written documents “appear to understand what they are saying,” Plato says. Warner looks carefully at Platos Phaedrus, a seminal text for those concerned with the transition from oral to written cultures. Thats the one where Plato worries that the onset of written documents will ruin human memory: Those who acquire the skill of writing “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 on their own internal resources.”

Plato has another complaint: Writings cant respond to questions: “writing involves a similar disadvantage to painting. The productions of paintings look like living beings, but if you ask them a question they maintain a solemn silence.” Ive taken these quotes from Plato from Warner pp. 58-59.

Makes you wonder what Plato would have made of chat, IM, and SMS.

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