Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Remembering, Phaedrus, and other IT issues

Last night I had dinner with Bob and "the Doctor", and the conversation turned to videoconferencing -- more broadly, the impact of technology on how we do our jobs.

The doctor asked us, when you visit another office (Waltham, Durham, etc.), what's the main purpose? Is it to see people face to face? You use video conferencing sometimes, yes?

Well, yes -- but it's really not the same. For one thing, it doesn't work all that well. Bob and I then went into all the ways it doesn't work. It's not full-motion video; sometimes it's just a few frames per second. Sometimes the video doesn't work at all. The audio is often fuzzy.

The Doctor talked about remembering patient histories and so on. In the old days, charts were hand-written. "I'd write the patient information," she said, "writing" with an imaginary pen in her right hand, "and the act of writing is what helped me remember." The physical motion, in other words. Kinesthetic memory.

Then came printouts. She'd circle this or that piece of information on the printout, and that would help her remember. Now everything's on a screen, and she's got a different way of remembering that information.

This put me in mind of something Plato wrote (!) about writing. In... Phaedo? No... eventually I found Phaedrus. In this dialogue there's a discussion of how, once some young punk learns how to read, he will sound wise, but he won't necessarily be wise. He won't have had the experience of hearing words in context; he'll see only what's on the papyrus. It has, in other words, lots of disadvantages.

And so it's been with every information technology ever invented. Personally, I think writing was the greatest invention of all time. How about electronic calculating-machines? Is google making us dumber? Smarter? Both?

This blog is in favor of new technologies that improve learning outcomes; who could disagree with that? Personally, I'm afraid of technologies that leave one always connected. I suppose it could become like a drug -- hard to quit. (I don't have an iphone but I'm using a mobile wifi device on the train as I type this.) Always the balance...

1 comment:

millersbran said...

If you step back one more level, I believe Socrates refused to write down his own words, because he believed that the new-fangled invention of writing would lead to the demise of the true treasure of oration. I've scratched my head over this quite a few times, and tried to open my mind up to technology when age and weariness threaten to shut me down :)