In Phaedrus, Plato wrote about the invention of writing
And so it is that you by reason of your tender regard for the writing that is your offspring have declared the very opposite of its true effect. If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls. They will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.
What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only the semblance of wisdom, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much while for the most part, they know nothing. And as men filled not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom they will be a burden to their fellows.
What Plato is describing here is the idea that the written word takes something away from the practice of learning. It reduces the need to really use your brain, not only to remember but to really understand, to create wisdom. But, why is this relevant today?
Writing has of course brought tremendous benefits to humanity over the last 2500 years. It is not only indispensable in carrying knowledge across time, but also through space, to be able to share an idea, a discovery, or technique with people that live far from you. In today’s world, it would be absolutely impossible to imagine us humans making all the scientific discoveries and progress without being able to stand on the shoulders of the giants that came before us, and their writings.
This progress really started to gain steam in the 15th century, in Europe, with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. Before that time, there were of course writings, but they were not readily available for the average person. Copies needed to be made by hand and this task took a great amount of time, and therefore was very costly and only available to a select few.
Gutenberg’s invention and the tremendous effect it had on society had a dark side. It threw the world into chaos for about 100 years. Old power structures were threatened. The Pope threatened ex-communication for anyone who printed anything without the church’s approval, and Martin Luther and John Calvin spread their “heretical” ideas to just that effect. Copernicus published “On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres”, again heresy in the eyes of the church, and of course, erotic texts started to be printed and shared everywhere.
None of this would be considered evil by today’s standards, and this chaos was probably necessary to move from the level of consciousness at that time to the next level. It has also been argued that the printing press was one of the most important inventions to make the renaissance possible, or at least that it had an accelerating effect.
In the 19th century, the productivity of the printing presses made a giant leap. Because of improvement in construction and the invention of steam power, the printing of books and pamphlets could be done even faster and cheaper than before and an explosion of new printed materials occurred. From travel books, stamps, the first illustrated newspaper, Christmas cards, and even the introduction of Braille for blind people, the 19th century prototyped a lot of the printed material we know today.
Something else also took place in the 19th century (and for a good part in the 18th century). For the first time, outside of the texts of the Bible, people were able to publish philosophical and idealogical texts with great ease and cost-effectiveness. This is the time when people like Karl Marx, for instance, were able to print the Communist Manifesto and spread it easily among a large group of people. In this way, he was able to share his written truth and create a loyal following, a loyal and ideological following. The abstract ideas of the 19th century, attractive fancy theories, took hold of people, in a hypnotic way, and the results have been devastating.
Something strange seems to happen when we put words to paper. If it is written down, we are more inclined to believe it to be true. The more abstract those words on paper are, the fancier they seem to sound, the more value people seem to attribute to those words. One thing, though, all those fancy words are not able to do properly, is convey real human emotion.
So, what has all this to do with Plato and evil?
For millennia, we used to learn in mainly three ways. From apprenticeships, experience, and storytelling, often from our elders. In the 19th-century people started educating the masses from the written word. This is the time when most public schooling was introduced and school books were printed to be more easily able to teach a great number of new students. Before this, only the elite was educated.
This has changed the way most people are taught and today it can be argued that apprenticeship, experience, and storytelling have almost completely been replaced by reading of the written word. Literacy is of course a great good and has brought tremendous prosperity to humankind, but literacy alone is very unbalanced. Writing diminishes your emotional understanding of what you are learning and emphasizes abstractions and theory.
What we are missing is the human touch. The wisdom being passed down by previous generations. The nuances of context, when learning something from an experienced mentor. This has of course not been completely lost. Civil engineers, pilots, and naval officers are examples of professions where, next to certificates, apprenticeships are still alive and extremely important. However, an area where these three pillars of ancient teaching seem to be completely gone is in academia.
Our most esteemed universities, where the most highly educated people come from, are in the business of consuming and generating theories. The more abstract, the more valued. It’s most likely not by design, but academia seems to distance itself as much as possible from the human condition and the real world, in favor of an abstract, algorithmic, technocratic view of the world. In this world view, there is no place for human emotions, only formulas, graphs, charts, and calculated conclusions, in written form. Academics almost behave like members of a religious group: “It is written …”.
This is where all our leaders come from. They have been taught, hypnotized, possessed, by a worldview, and idealogy, where genuine experience is frowned upon. Knowledge about things is absolute, knowledge of how to do things is decried. Bureaucracies are erected, with rules that do not take people into consideration, and the guardians of all this, the bureaucrats, show no human emotion while grinding down the spirit of those that come in contact with them.
Our leaders, by their education, believe in a socially engineered society. All problems can be understood in a reductionist fashion, by applying algorithms, abstract models, and written reports that tell them what to do. No experience of the real world is needed. Rules and regulations are concocted, which sounds great on paper, and when they turn out not to work, it is because not enough of it was done. Double down! Human casualties are rationalized away. Even more, people would have been hurt without their technocratic intervention. The technocrats are never wrong.
We are captive by this class of academics all around the world. People that have most likely never had to deal with other people, as human beings. They only attend meetings and read reports to help them make decisions. They feel nothing if their decisions turn out to hurt thousands, or even millions of people, after all, it was written that it was the right thing to do at the time. The evil perpetrated by the technocrats around the world has been made possible by the written word and the dehumanization effect it has on those that lack the guidance of a mentor, or the wisdom of an elder.
Gutenberg could not have foreseen this effect of his invaluable invention.
As a bonus, a quote by Karl Marx about the press:
“Up till now, it has been thought that the growth of the Christian myths during the Roman Empire was possible only because printing was not yet invented. Precisely the contrary. The daily press and the telegraph, which in a moment spreads inventions over the whole earth, fabricate more myths (and the bourgeois cattle believe and enlarge upon them) in one day than could have formerly been done in a century.”