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Socrates said writing would destroy human thinking processes: are the Internet and Web 2.0 having a more profound effect on cognition? by Mind Map: Socrates said writing would destroy human thinking processes:  are the Internet and Web 2.0 having a more profound effect on cognition?
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Socrates said writing would destroy human thinking processes: are the Internet and Web 2.0 having a more profound effect on cognition?

Can Web 2.0 really change the way we learn?

Providing a visually rich and interactive environment for collaboration, networking and sharing.

Should textbooks still have value in a 21st Century educational system?

Teaching writing Following on from Rob's point I would go one step further perhaps - is writing now dead? Do we need to teach children to write long essays or even letters when the large majority of them will communicate by SMS, through social networking sites, blogs, emails and word processed documents. Exams could be taken using word-processing software (my son had to do this) and it worked well. However we need not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, there is indeed something special about a handwritten message - or am I just showing my age! Tom Henzley, in his blog – makes some good points on this. Terry Handley

Should we look to youth for the answer? Loved David Longman's summary to date. As always, I look to the youth for the answer. My students no longer ask for books. Even their other teachers say to me – they can get it all on the Internet. We need to teach them how to use the Internet to research more efficiently. I recently offered to buy some psychology books for someone doing a degree in Zimbabwe. Her answer, "What would really help would be a computer. Then i can get all the information I need". It doesn't matter where in the world you are. The internet is where everyone goes for the answers. (Well, almost). Profound affect on cognition? No, just a different source of information. Different skills needed maybe to filter what is available. Andrée Jordan (Mrs) International Coordinator; Head of Faculty, Social Sciences

Firstly we need to ask what do we mean by value

And we need to ask - how do different stakeholders value textbooks, and whose interests are paramount

should we consider e-textbooks too?

Is the school day on the way out?

Should there a place for social media in class?

A new Dualism? A great summary of the Socrates-Plato viewpoints. However we are still treating this issue dualistically. The fact that writing increased the representative modes available has had an obvious impact. I think the effects of Web 2.0 and Internet technologies on cognition now being explored will have similar impacts but the time frame is still quite short as regards to the observation of long-term effects on cognition. In an inaugural lecture at Plymouth Univ. neurosciences department Prof. Susan Greenfield was also interested in cognitive impacts of ICT. One reference she made was to the possible effects on depth of field and the ability to pull focus due to extended use screen technology. The problem is that empiricism requires long-term studies to observe any significant impacts. After all we now have a better understanding of the effects of writing on thinking and cognition: after 6-8000 years!!! Perhaps we should consider the fact that there will be significant effects on cognition and use more creative scientific perspectives to consider this, such as embodied cognition (enaction). After all this would be a departure from the dualist approach of Socrates / Plato. Our perspectives should perhaps also reflect the fact that environmental factors now involve highly influential mental concepts and ideas, as well as physical components, like weather and technology. We only need to look at the secular / non-secular polarisations taking place now to realise the less than positive effects of dualism. Most evolutionary changes are based on 'success' in the free market of environmental factors available at certain moments in history (and prehistory). Maybe the 'success' of Web 2.0 and the Internet can be accepted as a basis for change rather than arguments based on notional understandings. This may provide a more positive and creative approach to its use in education. Regards  to all Nigel Riley Senior Mirandanet Fellow  

Is the Internet increasing our capacity to think collaboratively?

Socrates: teaching, facilitating, collaboration – and social media I’m far from an experienced teacher (let me get the NQT part out of the way first so that none of this is misconstrued), but for all the teachings of Socrates form the basis for much of my own thinking regarding how teaching (read>facilitating) should exist and self-perpetuate; we are considering the world itself as a very different place. The very idea of committing something Socratic to writing ‘then’, contextually belittles our processes of sharing and learning through today’s 2.0 technologies. But our concept of audience and feasible differentiated pace, belittles theirs. In that sense I find it hard to imagine how the well managed application of Web 2.0 technologies cannot change the way we learn, and moreover, change the way that we think about learning. As in fact I believe it already has. However It’s perhaps as much about the interaction of those being taught, or rather, those whose learning is being facilitated, with Web 2.0 as it is about facilitators opinions of it. It is more likely they who will decide whether for example text books still have value (regardless of whether they remain in use or not). Based on that, perhaps one movement forward in the general discussion would be a separation of groups – as in ‘who’ will ‘actually’ decide the answers to the questions you have posted? And will that then in fact define how we react to and adapt to the changes. Social media already exists in classrooms everywhere, ask any student. I would however suggest that what does not exist (or appears very limited) is the interaction between that and us as facilitators, likewise the reverse ... Social media through us to students as a way of facilitating. How could it when the local/national policies are archaic in comparison (Often with good reason, but too often without and without scope to do otherwise – possibly based on restrictions and policy that I am too naïve to know about). I believe that I may have digressed slightly there, however I still think that the wider discussion could be of relevance within the scope of yours. Rgds, rob

Writing weakens memory? I think Socrates was more specific. I think the reference (is it in the Phaedrus?) is about the way that writing weakens memory. He did not say that writing would destroy thinking processes. That's a bit too extreme, even for him! In the context of the time  when he supposedly said it  around 500BC, you can understand why he was concerned. Socrates was an oralist, stepped in the traditions of orality. By his time orality as a dominant method of transmitting and reproducing social, cultural and political power was already proving more limited in the context of the new kinds of societies and economies that were emerging. Plato of course was the new generation, the Google Generation of his day! For Plato, writing things down had great advantages that far outweighed the apparent losses. And writing was not merely a matter of poetry, philosophy and drama. It was also a tool for mathematics, commerce and engineering. The power of writing far outweighed the power of oralism as a method of transmitting, developing and creating knowledge. Socrates was wrong and right and the same time. Clearly writing would undermine the mental and intellectual basis of oralism as no-one needs to rely on human memory alone to pass knowledge through the generations (imagine how difficult our lives would be if we had to remeber everything!). But writing also makes possible a different kind of approach to knowledge and thinking, among other things an approach which is more reflective, discursive and analytical. Writing continues to develop over about 1500 years and was pretty much entirely based on handwriting or manula forms until about 1400 when for a number of reasons (political, bureaucratic, economic) printing technology emerges in Europe. Scribal culture is then further transformed by printing which enables amplifying effects such as large scale accurate reproducibililty of data, information and ideas (and thus the increased possibility of critique and debate) ; or the increased democratisation of putting data and thoughts into printed, and thus shareable, form. (however such democratising effects have always been  subject to the hierarchical power of kings, tyrants, parliamentary oligarchy etc. (and continue to this day in political arguments about how to, or how not to, control the internet). Print culture is now transformed once again by the emergence of 'digitalism' and because the future is so hard to predict we don't really know where this transformation is taking us. Though we can make some good guesses, we cannot know if this is a progressive development or not. But our question really is: Are we Plato or Socrates? Plato who looks forward (though even he did not know how far his vision would reach) or Socrates, the melancholy one who could see that his way of doing things - e.g. the Socratic dialogue, an oral technique! - was giving way to something new, something quite different as a way to think and to learn. When I complain about the pointlessness of the spell checker in Word as it clearly doesn't improve spelling perhaps I am behaving like Socrates, regretting the loss of things I regard as intrinsic to the educated mind (such as accurate spelling and grammar) but when I enthuse about the virtues of Twitter as a tool for nano-thought, or the engaging power of podcasting, I am more like Plato, grasping an inevitable, risky, future, but one in which I can see new possibilities for thinking and learning. Of course Socrates could be right. We could in fact be moving into a cultural form that makes us unfit for survival. That's always possible, e.g. look no further than how environmental degradation threatens our survival.  So, I really do worry that our digital culture can create and is creating simulations of real life that could  come to replace important aspects of our real life (and note that this has already started even before the internet if you listen to the debate that has raged since the 1950s about the impact of television on our constructions of reality). If this happens how can we solve the very concrete problem of environmental degradation? But leaving aside these worries and reservations and speaking as an educator my specific vision is that digitalism can enable an interesting revival of oralism which is, after all, a hidden but underused aspect of human learning eveb today. A new oralism supported by an amplifying, globalised and reproductive technology. A more fully audio-visual culture than hitherto. As Socrates I shake my head in sadness. As Plato I leap enthusiastically into the unknown.

which memory? long-term, short-term?

I am curious about … Socrates again! As an educator steeped in ICT, teacher training, learning and teaching, as a politcal citizen concerned about the future, and finally as someone in the autumn of his career somewhat jaded by the avoidable futilities put in the way of successful education by the very organisations of delivery - Universities, colleges, schools and secretaries of state for education - I am, this evening, inclined to say that Socrates is at least partly right. For is it not ironic that with all the powerful network systems available to us, and with all the powerful software that is at hand to help us keep records, organise our time, recruitment and resources our organisations are less and less able to cope with the data on which their futures depend. Proof? Well, that may take some doing but it is out there and I sure it could be provided! One problem as I see it is that too few people in education understand the basic power of a networked computer for managing the routines of everyday life, let alone the higher order project of intellectual growth and development. It is not so much that computers destroy thinking, but that people do not really know how to think about these sorts of real, everyday issues. It is ignorance, poor education perhaps, rather than cognitive decay but organisational life is often riddled with a kind of insanity about data and information. That is really worrying. Here's a small example told to me by a colleague from another institution. Place A runs a large central database of student records. This is the formal database required by the funding councils on which basis HE funding is released. There are often many issues even here - the records are never up to date, and there are always many hundreds of errors - but for this story the key feature is that this central database is not allowed to be used for any other purpose (don't ask me why, supposedly data protection concerns), so that every other administrative department in Place A is required to develop their own local, bespoke databases for such things as applications, issuing of joining and recruitment information, student names, addresses and so on. This might not be so bad if all those other databases were well designed and well run - but they are not. The net effect of all this poor data management is huge inefficiency - e.g. students waiting years for a transcript; fees unaccounted for; applications simply lost in the system, recruits not notified of interviews, late admissions, missing students etc. No wonder some places get poor results in the NSS. Drill deeper. Here's a more specific example of how these fragmented systems fail. Place A has a number of postgraduate certificate courses so these course titles are entered into the database along with a range of other data about the course. My colleague described to me how a new PG course he had started was failing to attract the recruitment he expected from international students. Then he discovered that all the applications for his course were being diverted to a different programme with a similar name. He found this out by the way because a colleague told him over lunch that thought he might be receiving student applications that were really intended for his course (I note here in passing the crucial role of the lunch table - or the corridor come that - in providing effective information and communication). After lunch he visited with the office and said "Look, can we check the applications for my course. Shall I give you the course code?" (i.e. the unique identifier for the course) to which the adminstrator replied "Oh no, we don't use that in our database." ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! I rest my case. It turns out that the folks in this particular office are using text-based searches on their database to locate courses, rather than the unique id for the course (which their database doesn't even contain). This is not just an error, it is a profound error, but few notice it as such. Why, how does this sort of everyday situation arise in organisations? Should we not expect people who work with databases to understand the essential importance of unique IDs when storing, retrieving and using strategically important data? I know that there is growing interest in such coming developments as the 'semantic web' or 'intelligent agents' which may seem to promise a way around this sort of issue (e.g. semantically driven data retrieval), but that seems to me to be a weak, if not dangerous approach - instead of finding ways to ensure that people keep their wits about them and figure out how to use technology cleverly, we design and sell tools that apparently reduce the need to think at all. That's not a solution and in this respect Socrates was right - technology could destroy thinking by eliminating its necessity. And wouldn't the bosses just love that! Sorry, just lapsing into class war ... LOL! { By the way I think that this is partly what Jaron Lanier is going on about in "You Are Not A Gadget". And I also like Ted Nelson's "Geeks Bearing Gifts". } ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ David Longman Senior Lecturer in ICT / Uwch Ddarlithydd TG School of Education / Yr Ysgol Addysg University of Wales, Newport / Prifysgol Cymru, Casnewydd

And what about the role of technology?

Hi everybody, I've been avidly following this discussion, although, until now, I had little to contribute other than confused thoughts and puzzled looks :) Anyway, as I was reading David Longman's post, I was put in mind of the fear that greeted calculators when they were introduced into schools. Immediately (or so the common folk lore goes), parents, educators and the community were horrified that children were going to forget how to add and subtract. For an example, have a look at this post: I'm not about to disprove that, although it is worth noting that mathematics education is of particular concern in the UK and the US at the moment (as well as Australia, where I'm based) with growing worries over the number of students completing secondary and tertiary level maths. In Australia, apparently, we face a mathematical disaster ( ). I ask the question, is this the effects of a generation of students being taught by a generation of teachers who grew up with the calculator? In my personal opinion, I don't think so, but still, it must be considered. Getting back to the question at hand, then, I suspect that technology will not eliminate the need for thinking, but it will require a different way of thinking. Much like children today might have no idea about setting a fire or planting crops due to a highly urbanised existence but have skills that their predecessors would never have considered (often closely linked to this urban existence), I think traditional forms of 'thought' and in particular its expression will continue to alter. Personally, I don't see much of an issue with this - I'm a champion of the way that the English language continues to adapt and change over time and I certainly don't hold to the idea that one form of English should be priviledged over another. (Now I sound like David - next I'll be talking about capitalist hegemonies!) Of course, there is a growing research about 'thinking' and what that might look like - here's a recent article from the BBC: It certainly promises to be interesting to see how our brains will develop, should technology exert that much influence.

Personal and Social Implications I was very struck with David’s comments relating to Socrates’ observations on the human condition. “One problem as I see it is that too few people in education understand the basic power of a networked computer for managing the routines of everyday life, let alone the higher order project of intellectual growth and development. It is not so much that computers destroy thinking, but that people do not really know how to think about these sorts of real, everyday issues. It is ignorance, poor education perhaps, rather than cognitive decay but organisational life is often riddled with a kind of insanity about data and information.” I think you may have hit a raw nerve here, David. Is poor education in computer systems to blame for the increasing evidence that our government institutions are not able to cope with the scale of the paperwork they now receive? Are computers the answer or should we break down all the submissions to organisations down into small units and have one person responsible for all the dealings who responds to each clients with a quill pen and enters all transactions in a leather bound book? Can the average human brain actually not handle the concepts that go with data volume and the remoteness of data without the client context? Or is education at fault? I provide this following example about the tax office in England which is under serious review, not to elicit more examples about the tax office which must be legion, but to illustrate the kind of data handling problem that David discusses in further and higher education from a different perspective. A Kafkaesque example – in England my generation have always believed that, by and large, the tax office know what they are doing. And we largely pay tax demanded after inspecting the potential loopholes. However, I have just had the taxman at my door wanting to serve a court order for money MirandaNet does not owe. When I proved this I then spent an hour listening to the tax man’s tale of woe about how his branch of the tax office is not fit for purpose. I ended up commiserating with him because they are likely to be privatized after October. This might, of course, mean a more bullish bailiff who will not listen to the clients’ version of events, but impound assets straight away as he was proposing. At the core of his story was the lack of understanding about how computers can and should be used – a clash of old methods and new, as well as no method at all. He blames a management that, as David says, “is less and less able to cope with the data on which their futures depends ” or in this case the diminishing trust of the English in state operations. The situation was that the MirandaNet accounts, on paper, had been delivered by hand to the  Croydon tax office where MirandaNet is based twelve weeks before. No receipt available and no opportunity for electronic submission. The tax man told me they are all then put in a large crate and sent  to the Sheffield tax office. No record is kept of which accounts had been delivered to Croydon and send to Sheffield. My tax man did not know why the accounts, on paper, from Croydon are sent to Sheffield and questioned the logic. Meanwhile the computer recorded that MirandaNet had not submitted any books and sent a balliff to collect a cheque for the tax office estimate of what was owed or impound my assets. Four clients at my accountant’s practice had been wrongly accused by the same tax man of owing money that week. The tax man, an honest guy, was distraught. I was so worried I offered to pay the estimate and get it back later rather than have a black mark against MirandaNet. He advised against this, as he was not confident that right would be established. Who could I write to? He did not know who his line manager tax inspector was. Nevertheless my accountant took in more books to Croydon that day with a letter addressed ‘to whom this may concern’. Not encouraging. Two days later my accountant received the first set of books just sent back from Sheffield because I had signed and dated, but not printed, my name. Clearly their existence has still not been recorded in Croydon or Sheffield. The new rule on printing your name they have just instituted but failed to mention on the official form. Two days later four million English citizens get letters mainly asking for significant sums of money to be sent to the tax office a year after the closure of accounts because the tax office has made mistakes in their tax coding. The BBC programme, Money Box, advised taxpayers to challenge the letters. This is the stuff of revolution. My concern is that once the English get the idea that the tax man does not know what he is doing less tax will be paid and our services will deteriorate. Those who live in countries where this is the case know how this can devastate the social fabric of life that in England, and Europe, we take for granted. We hear enough about failed IT systems – but we do not hear enough about lack of education in the more profound issues and responsibilities that relate to requesting, holding and responding to data. This is surely everyone’s concern not just the systems manager. Data management has always seemed rather boring to me until now. But referring again to Socrates wisdom about life as he lived it then who has some concrete suggestions for balancing the power of networks against the individual human condition? How can we, as educators, encouraging profound thinking in this area? Are we doing enough in schools? Does anyone have some good news about inspired thinking in this area? Please cheer me up! If you are not busy filling in tax forms on Friday night why not join in our debate streaming from Korinthos? See you there?

The Reification of Technology and the Decay of Responsibility Ah - great example! And more worrying still than my own. Yes, your example is pure Kafka - which should remind us that this sort of experience is not intrinsically related to IT but has been with us forever. He perceived and was sensitive to this sort of exercise of state power through a bureaucratic system that cared nothing for the logic of information and data, and even less for the mind and heart of the individual - and he felt all this in the early 20th Century. (I think Sennett talks a little bit about this form of bureacratic power in The Culture of the New Capitalism) So what is different today? Has the growth of social technologies made us more or less alienated? Christina's example is much more frightening than mine because as she says taxation is the lifeblood of a society (like it or not!) and it is also one of the areas of socio-political life where state power can be exercised most extremely (the counter-example of US attitudes towards taxation - e.g. the Tea Party 'movement' - only reinforces the point). If our taxation system does not work, then our society cannot work. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose ... which is a such a shame because in education in particular we are encouraged to see ICT as a transformational opportunity, an outlook I have always tacitly subscribed to even while retaining a sceptical stance. (E.g. I do not accept the general argument that ICT in schools is a waste of money and has had little impact on learning outcomes – as discussed in a recent, brief exchange on MirandaNet). Notwithstanding the immense and convivial power of such phenomena as social networking or the many wondrous enhancements to our entertainments it seems to me that ICT does not have much positive effect on the fabric of our socio-political life. Whereas Kafka saw a bizarre form of logic at work in the Bismarckian social world of his day, a paradoxical logic combining both sense and nonsense in the pursuit of ipsative knowledge, perhaps we are today even more conscious of the irrational tyranny of informational discontinuities - on the one hand we have a technology that is supposedly joined up (i.e. networked; socially networked) and we expect, as a result, more transparency, more dialogue, a more ehanced traceability of thought; but on the other hand the discontinuities, the hiatuses, the air gaps in our use and management of information are a warning that we are not in control ... and to return to the class war theme for a moment, nor are 'they' in control ... which I guess is how 'they' like it. And like poor old K in the The Trial (or try Orson Welles' film version) we can never really know the answers to who, what or why. So thanks Christina - now I won't stop thinking about Kafka! Move over Socrates. PS I have been reading a little bit about Google as an organisation, about how it has grown and the data engineering principles on which it has apparently been built. I will stick my neck out here a bit and suggest that if only we could roll out a Googlesque approach to social data management we might be better off (I know, not perfect, not ideal, but a heck of a lot better than the snafu of the Inland Revenue described by Christina). PPS I used the word 'convivial' above intended as a reference to Illich (Tools for Conviviality). I would not wish to overstate the negative effects of social technologies on our lives it's just that in our affluent society we really should know better and I worry that ICT is making our socio-political lives more risky, less transparent, more rigid. By contrast I am convinced that the transformational power of ICT is, as we speak, being realised in such contexts as the agricultural market economies of countries such as Kenya where on-the-ground small-scale farmers can plug into the market quickly and cheaply via their mobile phones. In that context the mobile phone (ICT) can really change things but for us there is a a considerable diminishing return - we need better, faster, glossier technology just to stay in the same (Kafkaesque) place. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ David Longman Senior Lecturer in ICT / Uwch Ddarlithydd TG School of Education / Yr Ysgol Addysg University of Wales, Newport / Prifysgol Cymru, Casnewydd Following up on the conversation developed by Christina and my response to her I think there is another take on the "technology is destroying thinking" discussion, one I forgot to mention, and that is the ambitions and aspirations of the singularitarians: See and also this item in the Indie: Men of the Future: Sorry women, that's not my title! I assure you I know plenty of crazy women who ought to line up with this bunch! :) What concerns me here is the very hope that somehow technology will surpass human thought and emotion. Are they bonkers? It's all done in the name of humanistic ideals ... but that could be nothing more than sheep's clothing (or to use another image this could be Pandora's box that when first opened, showers us with all the good things, but which are followed by the endless, consuming black smoke of hell). No time to analyse this idea now, but maybe as another response to Socrates we should be saying that the problem is not technology but of course people and how they aspire to use technology - it is people who destroy thinking not technology ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ David Longman Senior Lecturer in ICT / Uwch Ddarlithydd TG School of Education / Yr Ysgol Addysg University of Wales, Newport / Prifysgol Cymru, Casnewydd

The Philosophers: Socrates; Plato; Aristotle

Some words of Socrates (in various texts)

Aristophanes: The Clouds

Plato: Apology

Plato: Crito

Plato: Euthyphro

What's working memory?

"If there's stuff on Google why do we need to stuff it into our heads?" @islayian

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