A recent study that made waves found evidence of people recalling less information, and instead store the location of the information in memory. How much should we freak out about this?
This issue is not entirely new. Plato warned against the written word proclaiming it would produce forgetfulness:
For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.
– Plato’s Phaedrus
Was he right? Surely the benefits of writing outweigh the fact that people were relying on their ability to find the text as opposed to recalling the text itself. Writing was the first form of communication with durability. However, the fleeting nature of orality had benefits (encourage strong community, adapt to information changes, and embody information), as do the exercise of human memory (creativity and academic performance). We are now posed with same question. Knowing what we know now, can we make a better decision?
What is the difference between supplanting memory with physical writings and digital content? Books required money to print -quality control and censorship were an inherent part of the process of being published (more similar to human memory). Physical books were not full-text searchable. They relied on a card catalog to be found – the book could be found by subject, author, and title. Once the text was found, the index was the finest level of search detail. Libraries and book stores had limited space, which required collections management to determine what was the most valuable to their patrons and customers. Information in a book was not instantly accessible anywhere.
Do these differences, and others, matter? Would Plato be satisfied with the way writing shaped society? Would he have said he was wrong? Writing has created a different type of thinker, and the Internet will certainly do the same. We must be reflective as this change occurs and ready to react the signs of disappearing social values.