Thinking about Media with Socrates and McLuhan
“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.” – Marshall McLuhan
A gradual externalization of human knowledge began with the advent of written language, the first alphabets arising around the 3rd millennium BC, and the old Latin alphabet around the 2nd century BC. Invented smack in the middle of a world thriving on oral traditions, alphabets gave humans a revolutionary tool for sharing and preserving information, knowledge, and wisdom. This new vehicle for human thought seriously influenced not just how we communicated and documented our world, but it changed the ways that we understand and respond to reality. The brilliant and prolific writer, Marshall McLuhan, known best for his memorable statement “the medium is the message,” commented on how the invention of writing laid the foundation for our modern mode of thinking:
“Western history was shaped for some three thousand years by the introduction of the phonetic [alphabet] .… Rationality and logic came to depend on the presentation of connected and sequential facts or concepts.”
The advent of writing also relieved individuals of what was likely an ongoing and challenging task—that of memorizing and internalizing all of their stories, myths, rituals, poetry, recipes, and inter-generational knowledge. What once only travelled by means of memory and the tongue, now could be written down and spread across great distances, enduring the test of time with acutely consistent messages. Socrates spoke of this transition, and Plato wrote of it. However, these two thinkers were not quite so keen on the convenience of writing, but rather wary of its effects on man.
“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.”
In Plato’s writing entitled Phaedrus, Socrates claimed that his true teachings would never in fact be transposed into writing, but spoken only. So, can we say that we know anything of (the already very elusive) Socrates? He feared the disembodiment of learning which he believed came with writing, including the loss of context, intonation, and response. Still, it proceeded thus onward with the invention of the printing press, the telegraph, the photograph, and so on to the virtual age, each technological medium bringing with it great strides for the collective human thought-pool.
With such elaborate conveniences, however, one must wonder which muscles of ours have been allowed to rest, and to what atrophy?
Living alongside the Internet, for example, we today need remember little because Google will always recall it for us at a moment’s notice. Nothing need be internalized or set to memory because it’s already stored in the mind of the global village, in the external memory of our collective consciousness. McLuhan, who referred to these inventions as extension of man — a reaching outward, beyond oneself. He was aware of and wary of this disembodiment, and yet he knew that this was the direction into which humans would need and choose to venture. (And indeed we have–from living through online avatars, to visiting art museums via robots, to the Voyager space probes–humanity has created a multitude of extensions of our selves and species which enable us to reach further and with greater and more creative facility out into the universe.)
We expand adventurously outward into the universe with our tools as our tightropes. Alan Watts once said that we “…are a focal point where the universe is becoming conscious of itself.” From this perspective, our man-made extensions only reveal an ongoing natural progression of extensions and connectedness between us and the universe. Whitman, in his epic Song of Myself reminded us that we are “not contain’d between [our] hat and boots.”
Still, what other effects are included in this abundance of extensions? Socrates went on to describe the burden of too much information:
“And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”
Many of us have so little time today to spend in quality research of a topic in order to really understand it. So we trust various news sources, reporters, writers, or journalists to garner for us information synthesized into an understanding. And this sates many of our hunger pains or the social pressures to stay “informed.” Yet these are second hand opinions, often from perspectives containing ulterior motives. If we are seeking to learn online, the distractions alone can turn many sincere pursuits of knowledge into scenarios of kids in candy stores.
So, how we learn about the world around us is a tricky and mysterious process. We learn whether or not we intend to. One thing is certain, as McLuhan points out:
“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.”
Education specialists suggest that educators and learners need to bridge the gap between theory and practice—that is, to practice what is referred to as Experience Based Education. We need more opportunities to practice and have experiences with a body of knowledge in order to effectively transform it into useful insight or wisdom. We must embody it: try it on, touch it, maneuver it. If we try to build knowledge with bits of information which are housed—to varying degrees—outside our heads and out of our hands, it becomes significantly harder to synthesize these bits into meaningful, larger ideas, projects, or movements.
This synthesis produces all of humanity’s great emergent art forms and includes the alchemy necessary for making meaning in, improving, and contributing to our world. Maria Popova, an articulator of interdisciplinary thought and a prolific author, writes:
“In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles.”
Our memories and experiences are qualitative and exponential “castles” which continuously build upon themselves. Though it’s wonderfully exciting to live vicariously through film and sitcom and bloggers and vloggers, it is essential to remember that they cannot earn for us our experience or or make for us our art. And though it is convenient to allow our technology to temporarily remember for us our stories, recipes, quotes, and poems, we must keep in mind that it cannot earn for us our wisdom.