September 16, 2007
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.