Winners, Losers, and One-Eyed Prophets

The ur-text of media criticism is the section in Plato’s Pheadrus where Socrates tells the legend of Thamus, an Egyptian king, and Theuth, the god who invented writing and presented it as a gift to Thamus. In the story, Thamus surprises Theuth by failing to joyfully embrace the gift of writing. Here is a portion of that exchange:

But when it came to writing, Theuth declared, “Here is an accomplishment, my lord the King, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom.” To this, Thamus replied, “Theuth, my paragon of inventors, the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. So it is in this; you, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your off-spring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.

The story of Thamus and Theuth is discussed at length by Neil Postman in the opening chapter of his 1993 book, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. While Postman is ordinarily thought of as the sort of thinker who would be inclined to agree with Thamus, he first points out that Thamus has erred. “The error is not in his claim that writing will damage memory and create false wisdom,” Postman explains. “It is demonstrable that writing has had such an effect. Thamus’ error is in his believing that writing will be a burden to society and nothing but a burden. For all his wisdom, he fails to imagine what writing’s benefits might be, which, as we know, have been considerable.” Every technology, he adds, is both a blessing and a burden.  This much should be obvious, but it is not:

“[W]e are currently surrounded by throngs of zealous Theuths, one-eyed prophets who see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo … They gaze on technology as a lover does on his beloved, seeing it as without blemish and entertaining no apprehension for the future.”

Postman grants that there are one-eyed skeptics, too. They see only the new burdens of technology and fail to reckon with the blessings. The point, of course, is to see with both eyes wide open.

Further on in the opening chapter, Postman wrote of another principle to be learned from the judgment of Thamus:

“[N]ew technologies compete with old ones—for time, for attention, for money, for prestige, but mostly for dominance of their world-view. This competition is implicit once we acknowledge that a medium contains an ideological bias. And it is a fierce competition, as only ideological competitions can be. It is not merely a matter of tool against tool—the alphabet attacking ideographic writing, the printing press attacking the illuminated manuscript, the photograph attacking the art of painting, television attacking the printed word. When media make war against each other, it is a case of world-views in collision.”

Finally, here is Postman’s discussion of how there are always winners and losers in the game of what would later be called technological disruption. It is instructive to read this and remember that Postman is writing before the birth of the commercial internet and before digital media has come into its own. Some of it will sound a bit dated, but much of it resonates nonetheless.

“We have a similar situation in the development and spread of computer technology, for here too there are winners and losers. There can be no disputing that the computer has increased the power of large-scale organizations like the armed forces, or airline companies or banks or tax-collecting agencies. And it is equally clear that the computer is now indispensable to high level researchers in physics and other natural sciences. But to what extent has computer technology been an advantage to the masses of people? To steelworkers, vegetable-store owners, teachers, garage mechanics, musicians, bricklayers, dentists, and most of the rest into whose lives the computer now intrudes? Their private matters have been made more accessible to powerful institutions. They are more easily tracked and controlled; are subjected to more examinations; are increasingly mystified by the decisions made about them; are often reduced to mere numerical objects. They are inundated by junk mail. They are easy targets for advertising agencies and political organizations. The schools teach their children to operate computerized systems instead of teaching things that are more valuable to children. In a word, almost nothing that they need happens to the losers.”

I recommend Technopoly to you. It’s 25 years old, but holds up pretty well in my view as an accessible, well-written primer on thinking critically about technology.

Final word to Postman:

“New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop. As Thamus spoke to Innis across the centuries, it is essential that we listen to their conversation, join in it, revitalize it. For something has happened in America that is strange and dangerous, and there is only a dull and even stupid awareness of what it is—in part because it has no name. I call it Technopoly.”

4 thoughts on “Winners, Losers, and One-Eyed Prophets

  1. Thanks for this post, and the reminder to read Postman’s ‘Technopoly’ again; it’s been a long time.
    Ivan Illich’s ‘Tools for Conviviality’ is worth a look, too, even if Postman often disparaged him.

    1. Happy to oblige! And, yes, I very much appreciate Illich’s work (named my newsletter The Convivial Society!), but I’d not come across where Postman critiqued him. I’d be really interested in reading that. Do you happen to know where I could find Postman interacting with Illich? He gets a passing mention in the Intro to Technopoly, but it’s in a positive light.

      1. Good to hear you appreciate Illich, as I do, and to hear that Postman had spoken positively of him.
        What I recall, pre-internet of course, were a few brief but acid mentions; one where he said Illich
        was anti-school (OK), and then pointing out that Illich “runs a school”, is the only clear memory I
        have, though. I will have a look around in my too many old, saved papers and see if I can find
        anything more.

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