A couple of months ago, this essay in the Atlantic asked whether Google was making us stupid. At the same time, we have a whole bunch of people complaining that high school and college graduates seem to be uninformed and incompetent. And, comedians like Jay Leno routinely joke about the prevailing dumbness in society. I suspect that we are only beginning the next iteration of discussions. Why do I say this is the "next iteration?" According to Brian Cathcart, this is nothing but a reformulation of a situation from 2400 years ago:
... the story of the Egyptian god Thoth. I looked it up, and it was told by Plato. It goes like this: Thoth has invented writing and proudly offers it as a gift to the king of Egypt, declaring it “an elixir of memory and wisdom”. But the king is horrified, and tells him: “This invention will induce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it, because they will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written…rather than, from within, their own unaided powers to call things to mind. So it’s not a remedy for memory, but for reminding, that you have discovered. And as for wisdom, you are equipping your pupils with only a semblance of it, not with truth.”But, yes, as much as I am a HUGE fan of the web, Google, and many other widgets out there, I wonder whether we are outsourcing away too much of what we ought to be doing ourselves.
That was written 2,400 years ago, and Lloyd pointed out that similar arguments about inevitable damage to human thinking and memory attended the arrival of printing in the 15th century AD. We seem to have survived both shocks with our capacity for general knowledge intact, indeed enhanced. That puts modern concerns into perspective.
What does Cathcart say?
There will always be dimwits, and their feats of stupidity will always make news. Equally, there will always be teachers and parents who shake their heads at the supposed ignorance of the young. We need to be careful before we construct trends from such things. But the internet is different, and it lifts the discussion onto a different plane. We are bound to tap into it for general knowledge, and the young will do it first. Schools are surely right to encourage them. The story of Thoth tells us that the curmudgeonly response—“This invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it”—is a waste of breath.