Postman (1992) begins his book, Technopoly, with The Judgment of Thamus from Plato’s Phaedrus. Thamus, an Egyptian king, judges the god Theuth’s invention of writing. Although Theuth claims that writing will improve wisdom, Thamus predicts that writing will create false wisdom. Postman builds on Thamus’ prediction by claiming that modern writing technologies, such as the Internet, have falsified the concept of wisdom by downgrading wisdom to mere knowledge and by allowing those with access to quick and convenient information the right to undeservingly consider themselves among the wise.
The Oxford English Dictionary (2010) defines wisdom as the “capacity of judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct; soundness of judgement in the choice of means and ends; sometimes, less strictly, sound sense, especially in practical affairs: opposite to folly.” If wisdom is the ability to judge, or think critically about issues or problems and the ability to make sound decisions in real situations, then the mere receiving and memorization of information and facts is not wisdom. Remembering comparatively useless or impractical information, whether purposely or unwittingly, may actually be considered an act of folly. Thamus states that receiving information will give people the façade that they are gaining wisdom when they are in actuality only remaining ignorant (Postman, 4). Postman, who does not actually completely dismiss technology as Plato dismisses writing, elaborates by explaining that the danger of holding onto a façade of wisdom is not only that it creates factions of egotistical elites, but that those elites continue to assume more and more power as technology advances, while societies without access to information remain or are kept powerless (Postman, 9).
Because Plato was able to spread his teachings through oral means, he perhaps did not see the use in writing to teach. Plato valued the ability of the mind to remember actively, as oral cultures do. Thamus, therefore, expressed his worries to Theuth that memory would be downgraded to mere “recollection” with the introduction of writing. Through this parable of Plato’s, Postman is able to bring light to the issues concerning human dependence on technology for retaining information. An active human mind, or an active memory, is one part, or the basis of, a wise mind, therefore, artificially stored memory challenges the value of human memory. Perhaps Plato feared the invention of writing because it challenged his own regard as a wise man: “By storing knowledge outside the mind, writing and, even more, print downgrade the figures of the wise old man,” (Ong, 41). Ironically, it may be that because of the spread of writing and information, that Plato’s wise philosophies have existed to this day.
Certainly, writing technologies such as the Internet have helped speed the spread of knowledge and information. Education that does not include at least a hint of technology may be quickly and inaccurately judged as inadequate or insufficient. This is the view that Plato and Postman are warning about, that technology is bought into blindly, even by knowledgable educators, without critical evaluation. Without being instructed on what wisdom is, without learning how to apply new knowledge, there is little meaning to increasing the quantity of information one holds. In “The Balance Theory of Wisdom” in The Brain and Learning, it is argued that wisdom should be included in the school curriculum, that providing only knowledge, information and facts, is not sufficient, that in order to allow students to build better lives and a more harmonious world, wisdom is what needs to be taught (Sternberg, 2008: 141).
As technology, such as writing, makes its shifts and changes, so do the terms that are associated with those technologies, such as “memory,” “information,” even “technology” itself. Perhaps the meaning of “wisdom,” need not be regarded in the same sense it was in Plato’s day, the exercising of one’s own memory (Postman, 4) and the ability to rely on one’s own internal resources (information) instead of external resources (Postman, 12). “Wisdom,” however, ought to mean that a person is able to think critically about how new information effects how they view the world around them. In the preface of Brabazon’s (2002) book, Digital Hemlock, she states that “ignorance of history and political debate will cut the heart out of education. Without attention to social justice, critical literacy and social change, our students will know how to send an email but will have nothing to say in it.” The job of educators is not so much to impart knowledge or information and its retainment, but to ensure that students think critically about that information and find a beneficial way to apply it through discourse or practice. By doing so, educators who use writing and technological aids may be able to prove that Plato’s prediction on the invention of writing is the real falsity.
Brabazon, T. (2002). Digital hemlock: Internet education and the poisoning of teaching. Sydney: Griffin Press.
Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. New York: Routledge.
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.
Sternberg, R. J. (2008). “The Balance Theory of Wisdom” in The Brain and Learning.
Wisdom (2010). In the Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved from: https://dictionary-oed-com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/cgi/entry/50286109/50286109se7?query_type=word&queryword=wisdom&first=1&max_to_show=10&sort_type=alpha&result_place=2&search_id=wnWq-Xl0SEp-11059&hilite=50286109se7