So I’ve been hearing about Obama’s bemoaning of new media & tech today. It made me think of Plato’s bemoaning of poetry and other imitative arts.
from The Republic Book X, by Plato:
This was the conclusion at which I was seeking to arrive when I said that painting or drawing, and imitation in general, when doing their own proper work, are far removed from truth, and the companions and friends and associates of a principle within us which is equally removed from reason, and that they have no true or healthy aim. . .
We too are inspired by that love of poetry which the education of noble States has implanted in us, and therefore we would have her appear at her best and truest; but so long as she is unable to make good her defence, this argument of ours shall be a charm to us, which we will repeat to ourselves while we listen to her strains; that we may not fall away into the childish love of her which captivates the many. At all events we are well aware that poetry being such as we have described is not to be regarded seriously as attaining to the truth; and he who listens to her, fearing for the safety of the city which is within him, should be on his guard against her seductions and make our words his law. . .
Thus far, we have spoken the truth concerning her as she appears at present, but we must remember also that we have seen her only in a condition which may be compared to that of the sea-god Glaucus, whose original image can hardly be discerned because his natural members are broken off and crushed and damaged by the waves in all sorts of ways, and incrustations have grown over them of seaweed and shells and stones, so that he is more like some monster than he is to his own natural form. And the soul which we behold is in a similar condition, disfigured by ten thousand ills. But not there, Glaucon, not there must we look.
At her love of wisdom. Let us see whom she affects, and what society and converse she seeks in virtue of her near kindred with the immortal and eternal and divine; also how different she would become if wholly following this superior principle, and borne by a divine impulse out of the ocean in which she now is, and disengaged from the stones and shells and things of earth and rock which in wild variety spring up around her because she feeds upon earth, and is overgrown by the good things of this life as they are termed: then you would see her as she is, and know whether she has one shape only or many, or what her nature is. Of her affections and of the forms which she takes in this present life I think that we have now said enough.
At the time that Plato wrote his Republic, written word was still a fairly new medium. This can be seen in Plato’s treatment of his own writings—they are laid out in dialogue as a record of an older medium: oral tradition. Plato saw the new medium (written word) as a mere extension of the old medium (spoken word) rather than a medium with its own possibilities, and so limited his content by the antiquated treatment of the new medium.
Plato valued written word mainly as a vessel for one of two types of literature; as described in books 2-3, and 10: the fable and the imitation. Further, he proposed that all text that is not honest fable or imitation be banned entirely from his ideal Republic. Though this may have been a practical idea within the context of Plato’s intellectual environment, it is insufficient for poetry and other written word in today’s intellectual and cultural environment.
His stance on the purpose of literature is understandable; oral tradition was often used as a form of didacticism. When written word entered the culture, it became a new medium by which one could educate people. So of course, it was a very influential medium. However, Plato’s solution of censorship (of untruths) is proposed as a tool of social control, so that the people must think in a certain manner. Plato also relies on a total lack of skepticism from the reader, and lays the responsibility of the discernment of truth entirely upon the author.
In order to embrace Plato’s ideal literature, one must also abandon many modern epistemological views and embrace Plato’s philosophy that truth is both static and specific. Other epistemologies might posit that truth varies, that there are many truths, or that truth itself is unknown or unknowable. The censorship of untruths does not allow for these philosophies.
from “Transcript of President Barack Obama’s Commencement Address at Hampton University” WTKR
And meanwhile, you’re coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t always rank that high on the truth meter. And with iPods and iPads; and Xboxes and PlayStations — none of which I know how to work — (laughter) — information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it’s putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy.
Class of 2010, this is a period of breathtaking change, like few others in our history. We can’t stop these changes, but we can channel them, we can shape them, we can adapt to them. And education is what can allow us to do so. It can fortify you, as it did earlier generations, to meet the tests of your own time.
Obama suggests that the solution to media overload is education. But does education teach skepticism? Yes, education is important, but I think it must be specified that critical education is what truly allows one to filter through media. In addition to this, truth can, at times, be dynamic. This is where I want to critique Obama’s critique of new media.
Both Plato and Obama see their own respective forms of new media as deviations from the truth; they focus on statements and arguments–and in this way, I think they ignore a fundamental characteristic of new media: its plasticity. New media does not just state truths, it questions them as well. New media is extremely interactive, so that those who read also write. In the current media environment, content comes and goes, but only the most powerful content sticks.
And it is not as if people don’t realize that new media is only as reliable as its authors and sources, either. Yes, some rumors (read: “vaccines cause autism“) are a bit more tenacious than others, but it seems that the strongest of those come from trusting good ole journalism–which has a great deal of fact-checking, but has, in some cases, become loyal to various parties and to its own success more than to the sharing of useful information. As a result, entertainment invades news. People start to watch the news for celebrity adoptions as much as they do for updates on politics or disasters or other more relevant things.
But in reading Obama’s statement, I’m a bit confused. He touches on the blending of information and entertainment (which, as a side note, has the potential to be a very good thing) but then blames “iPods and iPads; and Xboxes and PlayStations” for the media’s deviance from truth. And then continues to joke about how he doesn’t even know how to use them. At which point, I think:
Either the POTUS is confused about what these technological wonders do, or he is misguided in his criticism of them. It’s like saying “And with books and scripts– neither of which I know how to read. . .” or ” And with CD players and MP3 players; and VCRs and DVD Players — none of which I know how to work. . .”
So first off, he blames the technology itself rather than the content. I question the relevance of my PS3 to the “truth scale” of media. Next, he categorizes them as distractions.
What I use my iPod for:
-Listening to Music
-Scheduling and organizing my life
-Finding directions to places
-Communicating with other people
-Checking the weather
-Reading my friends’ blogs
-Taking down memos
-Surfing the Web
-Looking at the Astronomy Picture of the Day
-Seeing what time it is
-Playing a rousing game of solitaire
-Watching/listening to lectures from MIT Open Courseware
-Participating in online forums (forums, in ancient Rome, were originally marketplaces in the centers of cities, but came to be places for public gatherings and discussion of important things such as politics)
What I use my PS3 for:
-Playing games that challenge my brain
-Playing games that are like literature
-Storing personal photographs
-Viewing more pictures of space in really high quality
-Listening to music, be it classic rock or classical masters
-Making games to share with other people
I would argue that these things do more to empower me than to distract me. In some cases, I use these things specifically for education. I also believe that having technology with which one can rapidly communicate with others (and with which many people can share their combined knowledge and efforts) has great potential to empower everyone.