What would Socrates think of Google?

Posted on December 8, 2011 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion

I was discussing with a college student I’ve been advising whether it was a good or a bad thing that Google makes access to answers so easy. To my surprise, she opined that it’s a bad thing – because people who use Google to answer a question are more likely to forget the answer they find, whereas if they have to think the problem through and discover the answer for themselves they will remember it in the long term.

An interesting insight from a Gen Y. But what struck me as remarkable was the fact that this is not a new argument; I’ve seen it before – in Plato’s dialog Phaedrus (written ca. 370 BC), where Socrates tells an Egyptian legend wherein the god Thoth invents Writing and presents in to the Pharaoh as a gift. This, says Thoth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories and more wisdom. The king replies:

“… this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves … they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing … they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality”.  [Source]

Looks like my student was of the same view as Socrates! And she may have a point – some of the methods young people use today to compile class assignments can be disturbing, to say the least. On the other hand, in the hand of a smart and conscientious student Google is a powerful tool indeed, and I think that its shortcomings are handsomely offset by its benefits, notably access to unprecedented quantities of knowledge. Besides, with all respect to Socrates, Writing has been around for millennia and nobody seems to complain…

But as the clincher, I must disclose that I did remember reading somewhere about the Thoth story, but I had to Google it to get the details for this post. Score one for Google!