By Catherine Wagley
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By Amanda Lewis
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By Bill Raden
Art by Peter BennettAT A TIME WHEN ILLITERACY IS BEING DECRIED AS A national crisis, it is interesting to reflect that no less a wordsmith than Plato was deeply suspicious of the very acts of reading and writing. In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato recounts the story of the invention of writing, which he attributes to the Egyptian god Theuth. So powerful is writing that surely it must have a divine origin? But in Plato's tale, the Egyptian king Thamus, to whom Theuth presents his innovation, is disdainful, saying it offers only "the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom." Thamus' reaction mirrors the doubt Plato and his fellow Athenians felt about acquiring knowledge from any source other than the direct presence of a wise and learned teacher.
Fifth-century BCE Greece was the first society in which reading and writing were the skills not just of a small guild of scribes or priests but of an entire social class. At the heart of Plato's qualms about the written word was a recognition that, in modern parlance, this was a major step toward the virtualization of knowledge. For Plato, abstract symbols on a page were a retreat from engagement with "reality."
Like Plato, Albert Borgmann is worried about the increasing virtualization of knowledge. In his new book, Holding On to Reality, Borgmann, regents professor of philosophy at the University of Montana, examines the nature of information throughout human history and the ways in which, in his view, our mastery of symbolic systems has distanced us from direct engagement with reality. Like Plato, he thinks we are in danger of losing touch with "real" wisdom and retaining only its simulation.
Unlike so many books on the "information age," Borgmann's tale begins long before the invention of computers. Thousands of years ago, before the advent of any formal symbolic systems, nature was the system of signs in which humans were embedded, and which they had to learn to read. A stand of cottonwoods signaled the bank of a river. A group of twigs arranged in one of the trees signaled the presence of ospreys, who in turn signaled that there were trout in the river. As Borgmann notes, in nature things are also signs, and likewise signs are always things.
But around 6,000 years ago, signs became separated from things, taking on a life of their own, and in the process changing the foundation of human culture. In the fertile valleys of ancient Mesopotamia, people kept track of their goods by the use of small clay tokens. Sheep would be indicated by one kind of token, bushels of wheat by another, and so on. Groups of related tokens would be kept in a baked-clay envelope. The drawback of this system was that you had to smash an envelope in order to see the tokens inside, and so the practice began of impressing signs of the tokens onto the outside of the envelopes. Soon it was realized that the signs alone were sufficient and that the tokens could be abandoned. Thus was the stage set for the emergence of writing.
THE FIRST WRITING SYSTEMS WERE LOGOGRAPHIC, with a separate symbol for each different concept or thing -- much as in Chinese today. In logographic systems, a strong relationship remains between signs and the things they stand for, but gradually more condensed and less iconic systems evolved, culminating in alphabetic writing, in which each thing is represented not by a unique symbol but by different arrangements of a few dozen basic symbols, called letters. It was the alchemical power of alphabetic writing that seemed so suspect to Plato.
From the late 17th century, philosophers wondered whether there was a minimal set of symbols necessary for linguistic representation; the great German philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz was the first to suggest that just two would do. Borgmann tells us that in Leibnitz's view, "Binary notation demonstrates that out of divine unity (one) and formless nothing (zero) everything could be generated." The second half of his book describes mankind's attempts ever since to articulate reality in the parsimonious and wildly abstract language of binary digits.
Using the simple Erector set of zeros and ones, computers today can represent and manipulate a staggering array of phenomena -- from Bach cantatas and the Louvre's collection of paintings to topological maps of whole nations and complex problems in fluid dynamics. From computer-generated blueprints of buildings to virtual-reality walk-through simulations of those buildings (which may not even exist in real life), binary notation has proved itself insanely powerful.
But Borgmann suggests that modern society has become drunk on this power and that Leibnitz's belief that everything could be generated from zeros and ones is ultimately illusory. The fact that we can, for example, reduce a performance of a Bach cantata to a string of zeros and ones on a CD-ROM has fooled too many people into believing that binary signs can become a substitute for physical reality. The apotheosis of this madness is the notion that we may one day download ourselves into computers, where we will live forever in a digital domain.
It is more pragmatic fantasies, however, that really worry Borgmann. In particular, he is concerned about the growing tendency in academic circles to think that education will be better handled by taking it off-campus -- out of the hands of learned teachers -- and onto the Internet. In the fantasies touted by prophets of Internet-based learning, Borgmann notes that students become like supermarket customers, picking their educational products off the digital shelves, while teachers become merely the store clerks who produce and package the merchandise. This might maximize customer (i.e., student) choice, but Borgmann is rightly skeptical about its efficacy.