Plato and new media

Posted by jerry on March 8th, 2007 — Posted in History, Journal, New media, Technology, Theory, Writing

Plato, one of the first new media analysts was concerned about the then new technology of writing. And he understood the potential (and actual) pitfalls of this new operating system. The same has been true of all subsequent new technologies. Always there remains the need for a meta-helper – one who understands the new technology to help later adopters make full use of the new technology.

This wonderful skit on medieval helpdesk support to a new user switching from scrolls to folio books is truly one of the internet video classics!

helpdesk

There is a wonderful parable here that speaks to one of Plato’s greatest concerns with writing over face-to-face communication. And that is that when something is written you can no longer query it or interrogate it – a bit like the user manual in the video here.

Plato, writing between 411 and 406 BC in the Phaedrus noted five key concerns with new information technology:

  • Education will suffer because it presents information rather than promoting thought
  • Information security will be compromised
  • Authorship will be difficult to authenticate;
  • It will be nothing more than a shallow distraction, devoid of serious purpose; and
  • people will stop interacting with real people.

Quite prescient really when you consider the many criticisms of the internet and with web 2.0. His objections were raised almost 2500 years ago, but remain true today, and form the basis for the key themes of almost any information technology seminar whether about censorship or eLaw or online banking or copyright.

In popular discourse, the internet is often presented as a dangerous and anarchic space. At the heart of the arguments against the internet lies the issue of authenticity.

The point is that virtual communities, like SecondLife, are real communities that exist in a virtual space. But people are still talking to people, albeit mediated by computers. It is no different from peopletalking on telephones, excpt that the interface is different.

In addition, the real/virtual distinction breaks down because human idiscourse is already mediated through language and social conventions – we can no longer harken back nostalgically to a ‘state of nature’.

There’s a lot more about this in chapter 9 of my book Virtual States, but there are elements here that will form the basis for my next book – more on that later.

Thanks to Angela Thomas for the YouTube link (though I haven’t yet figured out how to embed it properly into my self-hosted WordPress blog) *sigh*.

Cheers
Jerry

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