ebooks, Plato, and the unchanging agony of change

In a belated, post-Battledecks orgy of reading the judges’ blogs, I came across the strange librarian’s post on ebooks vs “real” books. She’s very much on the it’s-the-content-not-the-format side of things:

“Tree*” books, “real” books or just plain “books” as they’re often called have been around for 5,000 +/- years and now i swear there are more “ebooks vs books” writings than curls on my head. Why is that? Why does anyone care what format our stories, facts, conversations, and fun come in? Why are we so worried that tree books might be going away? Is it because they are “tradition”? Is it because “books” are what libraries are known for and if they go away, we think we’ll disappear too?

The mention of historical context got me to thinking this is not the first time I’ve heard a debate about how the changing format of our texts will destroy the way we think:

For your invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it, through lack of practice in using their memory, as through reliance on writing they are reminded from outside by alien marks, not from inside, themselves by themselves: you have discovered an elixir not of memory but of reminding. To your students you give an appearance of wisdom, not the reality of it; having heard much, in the absence of teaching, they will appear to know much when for the most part they know nothing, and they will be difficult to get along with, because they have acquired the appearance of wisdom instead of wisdom itself.

The author here is Plato (Phaedrus, 274-5, C.J. Rowe translation). The entity being addressed is Thoth; his invention is writing.

And from the vantage point of today, the argument looks, at first, ludicrous. Anyone who has felt the quiet electricity of standing in a reference section — or the frenetic sparks of the internet — knows that our outboard brains, our ability to offload the details of our knowledge without losing capacity to use it, our conversations with people far separated from ourselves in space and time (vide, say, Plato) has enriched us beyond measure. I cannot imagine — literally cannot imagine — my existence in a world without written text; who I would be, how I would be any good at anything.

But let us look again. Plato — or, at least, his Socrates — laments that the invention of writing means that we will lose the prodigious capacity for memory that characterized oral cultures, that by learning through reading alone rather than in conversation with a learned teacher we will lose the substance of wisdom. And we see, today, concerns that there are things you can learn and do face-to-face that perhaps you lose online. And I know, from Walter J. Ong’s mind-blowing Orality and Literacy (ironically, one of the few books whose margins I have ever written in), that there was a prodigious capacity for memory in oral cultures, ten-thousand-word epics memorized, whole ways of thought that we have, in fact, lost.

I think the gain was worth the loss. No, let me be firmer: I know that the incomprehensible explosion of human knowledge and economy and technology, the expansion of our conversations and horizons, the unlocking of potential, the, yes, collective memory, has showered on us such literal and metaphorical wealth that our losses clink all-but-inaudibly in the scale by comparison.

But it does not mean there were not losses. And insofar as some people have concerns about what we may lose if we become an overwhelmingly ebook world — those concerns may be nothing but the blindness we all have in the face of change or they may be prescient and terrifically important — but there will be some kind of loss, and it won’t go away even if what we gain is — orders of magnitude — more important.