Amon to Thoth on Writing

I am reading Harold Innis’s Empire & Communications. Innis was suspicious of writing; he felt that in many ways an oral tradition is superior to a written one. This is illustrated best when he quotes Plato’s Phaedrus, in which Socrates comments on writing and explains how the god Amon criticized Thoth’s invention of writing:

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. The specific you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your desciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. . . . I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question, they preserve a solemn silence, and the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer.

Socrates complaint is that writing is only a static simulation of life. Writing is the granddaddy of technologies, so it is appropriate that it be the first to be so accused. We find the same problems today with telephone answering machines and automated touch-tone systems. Television is used as a nanny to babysit children. We feel the Friends on TV are our friends, even though they are not real and would never recognize us if they were.

So how does this apply to blogs? Blogs are less bound by the permanence of the written word: in contrast to Plato’s static writings, blogs are part of an ongoing discussion, in which comments and references are linked to the original work. In fact, blogs often try to be less dynamic by selecting URLs which will not change and by annotating additions and deletions. But some of Plato’s criticisms still ring true: blogs often do seem like simulations of reality, and like television, they make us feel as though we know people when in fact we do not.

This made me think of another medium also lately on my mind, one which is more of a throwback to the oral traditions Innis extols: pen & paper role-playing games. In their narrative form, these are a form of collaborative open-ended story-telling. They leave no permanent record on paper, but rather are worked out and developed in the interplay and dialog between the players. Most such games focus on action and adventure, but a few of the rarer ones, such as Nobilis, revolve around philosophical questions, such as what is the nature of deceit and what makes one thing sharp and another dull.

2004-08-05

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