plato, writing, and computers | walter ong

More from Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy (1982). (long I realize, but try it anyway)

Most persons are surprised, and many distressed, to learn that essentially the same objection commonly urged today against computers were urged by Plato in the Phaedrus and in the Seventh Letter against writing.

Writing, Plato has Socrates say, is inhuman, pretending to establish outside the mind what in reality can be only int the mind.  It is a thing, a manufactured product.  The same of course is said of computers.  Secondly, [Socrates] urges, writing destroys memory.  Thos who use writing will become forgetful, relying on an external resource for what they lack...  Today, parents and others fear that pocket calculators provide an external resource of memorized multiplication tables.  Calculators weaken the mind, relieve it of work that keeps it strong.

One weakness in Plato's position was that, to make his objections effective, he put them into writing.

Writing and print and the computer are all ways of technologizing the word. Once the word is technologized, there is no effective way to criticize what technology has done with it without the aid of the highest technology available. Moreover, the new technology is not merely used to convey the critique: in fact, it brought the critique into existence. Plato's analytic thought...was possible only because of the effects that writing was beginning to have on mental processes.