May 24, 2018

What Plato Thought of Pinterest | Peer to Peer Review

I have heard a man say perfectly seriously that the Native Americans before the Conquest had no technology. As we know, kiln-fired pottery is a naturally-occurring substance, baskets ripen in the summer, and Machu Picchu just grew there.

—Ursula K. LeGuin, “On Not Reading Science Fiction.”

I have three kinds of memory: short-term, long-term, and technology-mediated. I’m embarrassed to admit how often I click over to something I see in a conference tweet, in my listserv folder, or on a respected professional’s blog, then think “oh! that’s something I should teach about!” and click my Pinboard browser bookmarklet to save it, only to discover I bookmarked it a year or more ago.

If you find my memory lapses and subsequent dependence on Pinboard and Zotero horrifying, you’re in excellent company. Plato, in the Phaedrus, famously puts these words in the mouth of Socrates:

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:  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.

Plato, of course, wrote copiously, though his rhetorical habit of attributing his writings to anyone but himself muddies the waters rather, and suggests ambivalence toward the form. Even so, his distaste clearly did not bar him from doing it!

The transition from manuscripts to print found some noisy detractors as well. I’m fond of Johannes Trithemius, a monastery abbot during Gutenberg’s time, whose De laude scriptorum insisted (among other things) that scribing is monks’ proper work, and that a printed codex can never be as attractive or durable as a scribed one. Familiar talk, in these days of ebooks, not so?

De laude scriptorum was circulated as a print book. Trithemius knew perfectly well it would never find sufficient audience if it only existed in a few hand-scribed copies. Students who initially agree vociferously with the shape of Trithemius’s argument when it is applied to ebooks quiet down and think when I point out this irony.

I find these stories phenomenal teaching tools for new library-school students, so much so that I did my own ugly-but-functional translation of key pieces of De laude scriptorum so that I wouldn’t have to fret over copyright questions on the one translation we have in-library. (I licensed my translation CC-BY, so others are welcome to use it as they see fit at the minimal price of a citation.)

It’s vital for present and future knowledge professionals to know in their bones that arguments over changing forms of and interactions with recorded knowledge have a long history; certain details of the arguments repeat themselves nearly verbatim. It’s vital that they have an expansive personal definition of “technology” (one that includes steles, manuscripts, incunabula, and card catalogs), rather than reproducing the fallacy LeGuin comments sharply upon, or falling into the common lazy mental habit of “it’s only technology if it’s new and I don’t approve of it.”

Difficult though students often find it, they must dethrone any and all technologies—print included—as the be-all and end-all of knowledge representation. They must interrogate moralistic arguments against novel technologies; some hold up under scrutiny, but many don’t. They must know that stated objections to novel technologies are not necessarily the real ones. (A slightly closer reading of Trithemius reveals his real, selfish, and essentially correct anxiety: that monasteries’ lucrative scriptoria would be supplanted, and monasteries themselves impoverished, by the printing press.) Students must then, if they plan to survive a changing information world, turn the same thoughtful, open-minded analysis on library and archival principles, practices, and discourses.

I could try to put all this in a finger-shaking lecture, or have students try to reach the insight through guided discussion, but giving them Plato, Trithemius, and the occasional bit of Web-hostile faux prophecy or librarian contempt for so-called “computerators” gets the message across in much less time.

As for the memory lapses that I backstop with technology, unlike Plato I accept them with equanimity. I remember my trips to the library as a teenager on my anthropologist father’s behalf, making photocopies of recent articles in his field that would disappear into his capacious file cabinets. Those cabinets are a technology-mediated memory-store too, different though their affordances are from Zotero’s. Like my father, I’m a natural-born cyborg, and he and I aren’t the only examples of our kind. It follows, then, that part of my students’ work as information professionals will be to help themselves and others buttress the forgetful but insatiable human brain with useful knowledge technologies of every imaginable variety.

How do I teach them to do that? First, by opening their minds with Plato, Trithemius, and their modern echoes, because everything old is new again.


Dorothea Salo About Dorothea Salo

Dorothea Salo is a Faculty Associate in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she teaches digital curation, database design, XML and linked data, and organization of information.

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  1. I agree with you that library students (and librarians) would do well to consider the historical objections to now-standard information technologies.

    However, the oft-cited passage from the Phaedrus isn’t quite what it seems. Contrary to the popular interpretation, Plato was not actually condemning the practice of writing; the crux of his argument is pedagogical, rather than technological. To Plato, writing was actually a great means for countering forgetfulness (Phaedrus, 276d). The real issue is that, for Plato, learning comes through dialectical reasoning and, once written, words become fixed and “cannot protect or defend themselves” (274e). This is why he came across as ambivalent and, in fact, he later wrote that he would not write his true philosophical theories (Epistle II, 314c) because writing couldn’t capture the “spark” of dialectical argument (Epistle VII, 341c-e).

    I think the lesson to take from Plato’s argument is not that writing begets forgetfulness, but that collaboration, communication, and dialogue beget knowledge. I wrote more about this on my blog a few years ago:

    • I would love to see a Plato-Stanley Fish philosophical cagematch sometime, because the interpretation of writing is anything but “fixed” … but anyway.

      You’re right; I oversimplified the Phaedrus considerably, not least because Plato is a slippery customer (a very early unreliable narrator, he). I will still suggest, though, that Plato’s anecdote betokens a certain amount of cultural ambivalence around writing — perhaps he didn’t personally share it, but he at least felt compelled to acknowledge and respond to it!

      There are other tantalizing hints in Greek cultural memory about ambivalence to writing — Simonides and his loci, the collation of Homer, and suchlike. The transition from oral to written culture was not a smooth one.

  2. I grasp that no one technology is the be-all, end-all. That is why I also get equally irritated with the “print is dead” crowd. One comment I remember reading was that we are moving into a “post-text” society. No. Different means of communication and technology have different strengths and weaknesses, and one does not necessarily supplant the other. It is easier to understand how to process lemongrass for dinner from a video than from text, but the ingredient list is a lot easier to keep track of in text. Heck, there are still storytellers about. These things serve different purposes and to different audiences. Text is a highly efficient way to communicate some types of information, video is better at other things, etc. They are simply different tools.

    I appreciate the fact that technology has made more communication channels open to us, so that the information can be tailored to both the content and the intended audience.

  3. By “fixed”, I mean that Plato argues that writing *itself* (the physical words on a page) cannot speak for itself or enter into a true dialectic. But, as to interpretation, Plato more or less agrees with Fish. Both acknowledge that a given piece of writing can be interpreted in myriad ways. For Plato, that’s a problem because it undermines our ability to learn. For Fish, it’s a benefit, though he’s terribly incoherent as to how that is… but anyway.

    You’re absolutely right that the attitude existed. I guess my point was just that, rather than use the Phaedrus as an example of a particular technological pessimism, it is better used as a defense of a truly collaborative and participatory media environment. In other words, Plato would have been a hell of a blogger.