Why Socrates thought writing was a bad idea

I hadn’t expected Socrates to appear in a book titled, Personal Connections in the Digital Age. But there he was, on page 25. 

The author, Nancy Baym, was quoting one of his famous dialogs in The Phaedrus, from about 370 BC. He was telling a story about the invention of writing, and I was surprised at how one of the leading thinkers in history could have such an opinion:

“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 which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples 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.”

Socrates wasn’t wrong. (The way we use our capacity for memory has changed fundamentally from the days we recited 12,000-line poems by heart.) But he also couldn’t foresee the wide range of benefits that came from a different form of communication.

It turns out that’s how we generally react to almost all new forms of communications, whether it’s the printing press, telegraph, telephones, television, email, texting, and now the Internet in general. When I introduced an enterprise social networks at work, many colleagues in our global, 100,000-person company longed for the day when “people would just talk to each other.”

“Throughout the history of electronic communications, some have celebrated the ability to form new relationships across time and space, but others have seen it…as offering pale substitutes for authentic connection.”

I’m no wiser than Socrates. I recently caught myself proclaiming, for example, that “Snapchat is ridiculous!” without ever having tried it or endeavoring to learn why so many people find it useful. I’m horrified at how my children use their phones. “It’s addictive!” “It’s ruining their attention span!” “It’s rude!”

Is that true? Maybe. But it’s also true that the constant interactions they have with each other and with their friends have created a feeling of genuine closeness and familiarity I can’t deny.

The lesson for me applies to life in general: Be open to possibilities. Approach new things with more curiosity and less judgment.

I think it’s time for another session with my favorite social media adviser, the one who helped me get started on Instagram. She’s turning 12 next week. 

Socrates