Previously, I shared a curmudgeonly 1889 article about the menace of electricity and the telephone and its spiritual cousin, a fifteenth-century screed lamenting the printing press. I’m collecting data here in service of a hypothesis that progress is universally despised, that the “get off my lawn you whippersnappers” feeling that we all occasionally experience is more tied to our makeup as humans than the technology and the changes themselves. These feelings, I posit, are universal, and perhaps make us feel disconnected — we see others doing things differently, and experiencing life in a different way, and we can’t understand it, or all we can see is what they’re missing. If only they would realize! But those people are not bad — they are simply native to the next thing, perhaps, and they experience the world slightly differently. And so the world turns.
When I mentioned that I supposed this curmudgeonly sentiment against progress was common all throughout history, some commenters pointed me to the Phaedrus, a Socratic dialogue of around 370 B.C.
In it, Socrates recounts to Phaedrus the Egyptian legend of Theuth, the god who invented “numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters.” Theuth presents the Egyptian king Thamus with his many inventions, and Thamus
…said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.”
But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess.
“For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.” (Phaedrus 274c-275b)
To which Phaedrus calmly replies: “Socrates, you easily make up stories of Egypt or any country you please.”
He who thinks, then, that he has left behind him any art in writing, and he who receives it in the belief that anything in writing will be clear and certain, would be an utterly simple person, and in truth ignorant of the prophecy of Ammon, if he thinks written words are of any use except to remind him who knows the matter about which they are written.
Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.
Now tell me; is there not another kind of speech, or word, which shows itself to be the legitimate brother of this bastard one, both in the manner of its begetting and in its better and more powerful nature?
What is this word and how is it begotten, as you say?
The word which is written with intelligence in the mind of the learner, which is able to defend itself and knows to whom it should speak, and before whom to be silent.
You mean the living and breathing word of him who knows, of which the written word may justly be called the image.
Exactly. Now tell me this. Would a sensible husbandman, who has seeds which he cares for and which he wishes to bear fruit, plant them with serious purpose in the heat of summer in some garden of Adonis, and delight in seeing them appear in beauty in eight days, or would he do that sort of thing, when he did it at all, only in play and for amusement? Would he not, when he was in earnest, follow the rules of husbandry, plant his seeds in fitting ground, and be pleased when those which he had sowed reached their perfection in the eighth month?
Yes, Socrates, he would, as you say, act in that way when in earnest and in the other way only for amusement.
And shall we suppose that he who has knowledge of the just and the good and beautiful has less sense about his seeds than the husbandman?
By no means.
Then he will not, when in earnest, write them in ink, sowing them through a pen with words which cannot defend themselves by argument and cannot teach the truth effectually.
Socrates lays out an argument that the written word cannot defend itself in dialogue, and thus cannot effectively teach anything worth knowing. For only through banter, through back-and-forth discussion and rhetorical argument and the working out of problems, can true knowledge be conveyed. Reading mere words, in his mind, is akin to looking at a lake rather than swimming in it — or worse, looking at a lake and thinking that now you know how to swim.
Plato (the transcriber of this dialogue) expounds further on the concept in his Seventh Epistle:
After much effort, as names, definitions, sights, and other data of sense, are brought into contact and friction one with another, in the course of scrutiny and kindly testing by men who proceed by question and answer without ill will, with a sudden flash there shines forth understanding about every problem, and an intelligence whose efforts reach the furthest limits of human powers. Therefore every man of worth, when dealing with matters of worth, will be far from exposing them to ill feeling and misunderstanding among men by committing them to writing…
Anyone who has followed this discourse and digression will know well that, if Dionysios or anyone else, great or small, has written a treatise on the highest matters and the first principles of things, he has, so I say, neither heard nor learnt any sound teaching about the subject of his treatise; otherwise, he would have had the same reverence for it, which I have, and would have shrunk from putting it forth into a world of discord and uncomeliness.
Dionysios here is Dionysios the Younger of Syracuse, a brutal tyrant, who has written a treatise on philosophy. Plato argues that he must have done it for fame or glory, because it’s clearly a scam — philosophy can’t be taught in writing; it can only be felt, experienced, argued out and sensed.
In a way this is an argument very similar to that of Trithemius against the printing press — that a perceived flattening or automating of a form necessarily involves a loss; that truth (whether it be philosophy or Scripture) is best consumed and absorbed experientially. I think this is a great sentiment and one worth considering even now.
Where I think they misstep, however, is in their belief that it’s either/or: the old way is superior ergo the new format has no value. Though often conflated, in my mind those are two separate arguments; one can’t necessarily measure a new thing by how great the old thing was. (And of course, we wouldn’t have Plato’s records at all if he hadn’t written them down — which Socrates, true to his word, never did — and similarly, Trimethius had to have his treatise printed in order to achieve any sort of mass circulation.)
Interestingly, the speech-vs-text argument appears again in the 1880s, but in reverse: with the advent of the telephone, hands are wrung that communication will become rife with error and misunderstanding because unlike the telegraph, the newfangled telephone leaves no written record!
This is a particular problem in the case of business transactions that may end up in court, and also, curiously, in the rarefied world of railroad switching, where track orders are routinely communicated ahead of a train by an army of telegraph operators. Without written records of each communication, any errors that cause accidents down the line couldn’t be tracked to their source.
Luckily for the telephone, smart people were on hand with sure-fire solutions:
At the recent meeting at Detroit of the Association of Railroad Telegraph Superintendents. Mr. M. C. Selden of the Baltimore & Ohio read a paper upon the subject of the telephone in railroad service. The objection made to the telephone in comparison with the telegraph, that there would be no written record, is answered by Mr. Selden. He calls attention to the fact that the ordinary telegraph instrument gives no written record, and that the element of personal fallibility is present in its use; and that if a telephone message is written before sending and spelled out, as it should be if of importance, the receiver will have ample time to write it out while receiving it, and records are thus preserved at both ends of the line. In matters of less vital importance the telephone offers advantages which can not be approximated by the telegraph. — Railway Age magazine, 1894
In other words, to create a written record on the telephone, the sender should write down what he’s going to say, and the receiver should write down what he hears. Perfectly convenient!
In fairness, most of the documents I’ve been able to uncover only obliquely reference the supposed problem, and treat it as minor. Another suggestion:
Although the telephone is thus largely availed of as a time-saver, there is still a curious prejudice in many minds against telephoning telegrams all the way, without any intervention of the telegraph with its record — that supposedly holy talisman against errors in transmission. Considering the enormous amount of important business that is daily transmitted by telephone, without an appreciable percentage of error and at an immeasurably greater speed than that of the telegraph, it is remarkable that this unreasonable prejudice against telephoning written messages should still obtain in circles where there is sufficient common sense to use either the telegraph or telephone at all.
That it does still exist, however, is indisputable. No doubt this is largely due to the fact that the telephone companies, having had so far as much as they can do to attend to their immediate business of supplying telephone service pure and simple, have not yet taken any steps to cultivate a profitable field that lies ready to their hands, the transmission and delivery of local telegrams. In every large town there is plenty of demand for a cheap telegraph service, and the telephone company has just the plant and organization to furnish such a service. It will yet be many years before every man with whom occasional quick communication is desired by someone else has his own telegraph station in his own place, in the form of a telephone. Meanwhile the telephone company has its wires and stations, public and private, in all directions, its messenger force and its supervisory force, all the machinery, in short, with which to organize in a few days a rapid, efficient and cheap local telegraph service. At, say, 10 cents a message of twenty words of text, such a service would be profitable to the telephone company and would meet with a ready demand from the public. — The American Telephone Journal, Volume 6 (1902)
In other words, if folks think telegraphy is less convenient but more secure, then the answer is to make telegraphy just as convenient as telephones have become.
We have now, 100+ years later, 2000+ years later even, come full circle on this issue once again, with the issue of texting. I’ve noticed that most people of my generation and younger now prefer to text rather than talk on the phone, and this is borne out by some data:
The decline in voice communications is well documented. “The fall of the call is driven by 18 to 34-year-olds, whose average monthly voice minutes have plunged from about 1,200 to 900 in the past two years, according to research by Nielsen.
“Texting among 18 to 24-year-olds has more than doubled in the same period,” wrote Ian Shapira of the Washington Post earlier this year.
The Nielsen Co. also notes that folks below the age of 24 text more often than they call, viewing the out-of-the-blue call as tantamount to an intrusion. (Source)
But I know not everyone agrees. A quick Google was all it took to uncover more modern-day curmudgeons:
…People always say texting is more convenient than talking on the phone, but in many situations, it would take less time to do it the old-fashioned way. Why not just call the person and get the conversation over in five seconds rather than continuing a long string of text messages that takes 10 minutes? It’s called efficiency. — Minnesota Public Radio, January 2010
Which is not to minimize the legitimate issues with communicating via text — for example, sarcasm and tone of voice can often be misinterpreted.
In fact, for everyone who’s sent an email or Facebook message that’s provoked the opposite reaction than you intended (myself included), I don’t mean to add insult to injury here, but…
Socrates is laughing at all of us.