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September 16, 2007

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The Memory Police

Whenever I think about our reflexive distrust of emerging technology, I remember Plato’s Phaedrus, in which Socrates argues that writing is inferior to rhetoric. Socrates recounts a legend in which the Egyptian king Thamus refuses the gift of writing from the god Theuth, saying that writing will be deleterious to true wisdom. We will read, but never know, Thamus says. Writing may remind us, but it can’t educate us, the way a speaker can. The irony in this passage, of course, is that Phaedrus is itself a written work.

There’s a lot to be said about the curious intersection between technology and memory — how technology seems to allow us to both retain more and forget more — but Jenny Lyn Bader managed to leave out all the interesting parts in her NYT Week in Review essay (“Britney Spears? That’s All She Rote”) on how people can’t remember anything anymore. And along the way, she manages to fit Britney’s lip-synching, organ transplant recipients, and “The Vagina Monologues” into this tortured half-argument. it’s kind of a train wreck. I really have nothing especially profound to say about this essay, it just seemed a blogworthy exemplar of the awful our-culture’s-going-to-hell/wasn’t-it-better-when form. And she cites Phaedrus too, with no nod to the irony therein.

Posted September 16, 2007 at 1:28 | Comments (4) | Permasnark
File under: Braiiins, Briefly Noted


My favorite part was when Bader writes "While it used to be possible for one person to know all there was to know, with our current explosion of information, one person could never know it all."

Yeah, um, when was that? The Victorian era? Sometimes I think "Victorian" just means "sometime in the indefinite and outmoded past" to most people.

I also thought this was dumb.

@Tim -- Yeah seriously. Our concept of the past, and what people knew & dealt with in the past, is so wacky. One of the reasons I liked "Rome" on HBO/BBC so much, for all its weirdnesses, was that it actually portrayed the ancient world as this totally weird, chaotic, multifarious place... not the kind of environment where one could "know all there was to know," not even close.

Hmmm, I dunno. Although for "one person to know all there is to know" is absurd, I do think there's a lot more to know now, or at least a lot more known. To put it another way, "the more you know, the more you realize you don't know" has probably always been true. But nowadays "the more you know, the more you realize you don't know but someone else already does".

That being said, I was just watching Cosmos clips on YouTube the other day and I think the Dark Ages probably contributes hugely to our attitude towards classical knowledge. One of the attractions of studying the classics from a modern perspective (at least for me), is that it is possible for one person to know every extant Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes play by heart. In Cosmos though, Carl Sagan points out that before the burning of Alexandria, the library was known to contain 123 Sophocles plays.

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