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Socrates Wouldn’t Trust the Web. Should We Trust Him?

Thinkers worried about the Web rotting our brains would find an ally in the ancient Greek sage. But are their fears justified?

What’s the Big Idea?

In a 2010 Big Think interview, technology writer Nicholas Carr (The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains) argued that the Web has made its users proficient at searching and browsing, but lousy at reading and remembering. The distraction-filled online world, he claimed, has transformed us on the neurological as well as the cultural level, eroding our attention spans and even our capacity to form long-term memories.

Now a new study, recently reported in Scientific American, has found that excessive online time can literally rewire our brains, causing mental health problems as well as shrinkage of surface-level brain matter. While the study focused on genuine Internet addiction, it joins a growing body of evidence suggesting that frequent computer use may impair students’ academic performance.

Some commentators argue that such findings provide little cause for concern—and that the fears surrounding them are nothing new. In his review of The Shallows in the New York Times, science writer Jonah Lehrer compares Carr’s anxieties to those of Socrates, who “started what may have been the first technology scare” by openly distrusting the written word. “The preponderance of scientific evidence,” Lehrer insists, “suggests that the Internet…[is] actually good for the mind.”

What’s the Significance?

The Times review alludes specifically to a passage from Plato’s Phaedrus, in which Socrates approvingly quotes an Egyptian king’s skepticism about 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…you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing. (Phaedrus, Benjamin Jowett trans.)

Lehrer grants that Socrates’ fears of cultural loss were not totally unfounded, noting that “the rise of the written text led to the decline of oral poetry.” But he points out that “every technology comes with trade-offs. Look, for instance, at literacy itself: when children learn to decode letters, they usurp large chunks of the visual cortex previously devoted to object recognition…[and] are less able to ‘read’ the details of the natural world.”

The question remains: is this particular tradeoff worth making? In a 2009 Big Think interview, essayist and journalist Laurence Gonzales took perhaps the most moderate stance on the issue, contributing a little philosophical wisdom of his own:

“It’s a good thing to question these technologies the way Socrates questioned the new technology of writing at that time. And if he saw what was going on today, he would probably say, ‘You know, this Internet is a really bad idea.’ And he’d probably be right in certain ways. He would be wrong in certain ways…He would be right in the sense that it tends to make us shallower if we’re not careful—if we don’t use it to augment our scholarship and our thinking, if instead we use it to replace our scholarship and our thinking.”

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