This commentary is intended to explore the possible liabilities of the technologies of writing on human memory and retention.
“Writing, Plato has Socrates say in the Phaedrus, is inhuman, pretending to establish outside the mind what in reality can be only in the mind. It is a thing, a manufactured product. The same of course is said of computers. Secondly, Plato’s Socrates urges, writing destroys memory.” Ong, W. (2000, pg.78)
From inception, writing projected a fear for memory loss. In the wake of modern technology, we can say that these fears were not unfounded, from writing journals to using computers to store information on events and experiences, it would appear that the human memory has been externalized and moved from being intangible and demystified to being tangible and mobile. This may have created the possibility of a lack of or little effort to remember.
“What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filed with conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.” Postman, N. (1993. p 4)
By this statement, it appears that Thamus would have been referring to originality and what would be referred to as copyright issues of present civilization. Indeed, this is a valid point made by Thamus. The statement has proven to be prophetic following the advent modern day technologies of writing. The advent of the Internet and its plethora of web 2.0 technologies have served Thamus’ fears right. He may have been expressing a fear of the possibility of stripping down the art form (writing) and turning it into something devoid of its “supreme” qualities and making mediocre out of it. It would seem like these tools may have taken the art out of the techne.
Centuries after Thamus’ rant, writing has evolved in ways unprecedented online. Writing skills have been learned, unlearned and relearned over the years, Words are being simplified to their barest minimum and mixed up with symbols, abbreviations and numerals. The result is an emergence of new online or digital shorthand It has become a creative work of art, a form of techne that can also be unique to a group of online family or friends. A good example of this evolution of words (writing) include the following substitutions,
Talk to you later: TTYL
This digital revolution of writing has crossed the boundaries of online or digital social media and has found itself in academia via the text of students in school work. The spelling skills of students are affected as many are using wrong spellings learned from their digital activities in their school work. It is a dilemma of sorts because this may be a new way of writing for the future generation. The results of this revolution maybe a complete re-write of the English language as we know it. Hence online social skills are beginning to wield an influence on academic excellence- the results of which are yet unclear. Original spellings of words are no longer required in writing online thanks to the need to multi-task and maximize time. The power of recall has been undermined. It is easier to “create” your own form of a word than to remember the actual spelling of the word. A new word which has emerged from this exercise is “texting.”
Texting has become the new attention deficit disorder syndrome in classrooms particularly amongst the high school age students. The old doodling and daydreaming classroom culture has been taken over by texting. Students are busy making connections via texting and a lot have become so adept to it that in order not to offend the lecturers, they have learned to text without looking at the screen.
The result is that we have students in classrooms that appear to be paying attention but are actually engaged in a different communication. They are in a “virtual” world, having their own little “lecture” with friends and classmates. The impact of this exercise on retention and memory would make a good topic for study.
We can assume from Ong’s assertions that man became scientific from becoming literate. This literacy (writing and print) have led to further technological developments of which the computer and Internet are major catalysts today. The precipitate of these technologies for reading and writing can be said to be a different way of literacy. A definition of literacy used to be “an ability to read and write” but in today’s world, that definition can be said to have morphed into, “an ability to read, write, present concept and use a computer.” The effects of the writing technologies (computers and its dependent devices) are still ongoing.
Google has affected the way we learn and retain information. Any school age child would readily go to Google for help with an assignment. Google becomes a first stop for researching material for homework or otherwise. Google has become the “How to” Encyclopedia for everyone. You do not have to leave your home anymore to do research.
Prior to the advent of Google, research was mostly mixed mode. It involved oral interviews and visits to the library and learning about indexing and how to find titles by looking through a library index- thus learning a new skill in information organization or architecture. A lot of arguments have come up on the veracity of the information found on Google. These questions range from how the information can be verified to how original they may be. Students are in peril over copyright and plagiarism issues.
The GPS tool which is so widely used in cars and different modes of transportation is also another by-product of literacy. It is a tool that allows the user to enter an address and the GPS maps it electronically using satellite feeds from space. The only thing the user has to do is key-in start and end addresses.
During a Dr. Oz television show in early November, the audience was asked which activity would keep the brain young. Driving a new route or memorizing the fastest route to the grocery store? The answer, learning a new route to the grocery store- it challenges the brain and improves memory. A study found that taxi drivers have more brain matter because the nature of their jobs demanded that they always come up with new routes. The reason being that with such exercise of tasking your brain to discover gives the brain some form of work out by keeping it actively engaged. We can deduce that the GPS tool does not avail the user the opportunity to give his/her brain a workout thus could impact memory negatively. In the end the user does not need to actually know the route since the GPS does that work of knowing the route. It is almost like having an external memory.
In all the instances above, the human memory seems to be getting more breaks than it actually needs from “active duty.” The mental gymnastics which the human brain needs to keep it functioning seems to be minimized and thus maybe in danger of getting weaker much like the human muscles that lack exercise get weaker.
Literacy has assumed a sense of immediacy especially since the advent of computers, the internet and web 2.0 tools and applications. People want what they want right away and in a convenient mode. One of the results of this is the use of hand-helds eg, cells phones to make calls and send SMS messages or chat in real-time access to whoever, wherever. In the fast and furious literate culture of these days, the need to multi-task is ever so ubiquitous. While these are tools of “advancement’ as we would like to put it, these tools have wielded a firm control over our attitudes. People make calls and text and drive at the same time. A recent survey showed that texting and driving resulted in a higher accident rate than DUI’s. The accident rates resulting from cell phone habits while driving, resulted in the creation of bill 118 by the Ontario government sometime in April, 2009.
We all seem to be dancing to the tune of the creatures of the literate culture instead of having them dance to our tune.
“More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness.” Ong, W.(2002, p.77)
Bill 118 passed, cell phones banned in Ontario. Accessed online from:
Bolter, Jay David. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print.
Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. Routledge; New York.
Ontario introduces bill to ban cell phone use while driving. Accessed online from,
ServiceOnatrio: Making it easier, Government of Onatrio, Canada. Accessed online from,