Saturday, April 9, 2011

Socrates, literacy, and the 21st century library

Part of the planning for the future of Otis library involves assessing the services we provide, including the technologies. This is especially important now, in a time of complex transition from the unquestioned dominance of print to one where the common wisdom is digital formats will predominate. Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain compares our current situation to the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, a time when questions about literacy were raised by Socrates and mirror concerns equally resonant in the protean environment of the early 21st century. As she eloquently observes, the questions raised more than two millennia ago by Socrates about literacy in the context of the transition from an oral society to a literate one are similar to her own concerns about the immersion of our children in a digital world: “Like the ancient Greeks we are embarked on a powerfully important transition-in our case from a written culture to one that is more digital and visual.”
Socrates felt passionately that written words posed serious risks to society, and posited 3 critical objections that deserve thoughtful consideration as we examine our own intellectual transition to new modes of acquiring information. I will discuss one in this post. Socrates embraced the probative value of orality, specifically its efficacy as a dynamic means of expression, “full of meanings, sounds, rhythms, ready to be uncovered through examination and dialogue.” Written words by contrast were mute, incapable of riposte. This inflexibility of written words doomed the dialogic process Socrates saw as the heart of education.
With the benefit of 2 millennia of evidence Socrates misgivings were demonstrably unwarranted. The process of reflection, writing, revision and committing ones thoughts to paper creates an inner dialectic similar to that he espoused and valued so highly. The dialogue remains, albeit in a modified form.
Whether the essence of the dialogue persists or mutates in the “interactive dimension of communication in the 21st century” as Wolf phrases it, remains a matter of speculation. Perhaps, like Socrates assessment of literacy versus orality it is too early to judge the efficacy of communications often circumscribed by a few hundred characters. There is no sin in brevity or glory in prolixity. I do like Wolf’s closing comment on this matter: “whether [the essence of dialogue] are being developed in ways that sufficiently reflect the true, critical examination of thought would be for Socrates and for us the essential question.”
Socrates articulated a second, more subtle concern which resonates with Wolf, the illusory nature of words. Words, he feared, would be mistaken for reality. Shorn of the probing and modifying effects of the dialogue, written words would delude people into “empty arrogance, leading nowhere, contributing nothing” because words “seem…as though they were intelligent” While the dialogic component of writing is demonstrable, the same remains unproved for the digital environment. In this worry Socrates anticipated the misgivings of “thousands of teachers and parents who watch their children endless hours before computer screens, absorbing but not necessarily understanding all manner of information.”
My purpose is not to deny the need for or usefulness of digital formats vs. analog. However, Socrates fears and Wolf’s open ended speculation regarding the “powerfully important transition” described above are part of the equation we must contemplate as we plan and implement our vision of a responsive, responsible and sustainable 21st century library. Our planning requires a carefully framed and forthright dialogue, featuring decisions based on examination, discussion, and understanding rather than by default, on the allure of new formats and platforms.

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