Thamus' curse*, redux

CNET News has a thought-provoking article on the potential effects of technology on human capacities. It's a VERY old idea, of course - but still quite relevant.

I tend to fall into Engelbart's side of the matter - while it's possible for these tools to make us weaker, I think that's only likely to happen if we fail to use them to expand our capabilities. Internal combustion helped make us (Americans) fatter, but it also expanded our horizons.

I would argue a similar dynamic is true of IT. If we only use it as a substitute for the real world, we'll turn into pudding cups. But if we push ourselves, expand our ability to work together, or increase the breadth and transparency of our knowledge, that's probably a good thing, no?

* From Plato's Phaedrus (translated by B Jowett)
"At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions ... It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for 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."

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