Plato, Phones, and That Embarrassing Silence

How technology can become ethical.

Posted Aug 02, 2017

Imagine Plato, and Socrates, his teacher, going out for a drink. After half an hour they are already running short of things to say (very difficult to imagine, but nevertheless let’s try) and an awkward silence descends over the conversation.

Hoping to shake things up a bit, Plato decides to invite Phaedrus to join them. He pulls out his phone and sends Phaedrus a text message. Then, for the next 5 minutes Plato checks his phone obsessively, looking to see if Phaedrus has responded.

Socrates, annoyed, thunders against his pupil, “Enough is enough! I think I deserve at least a bit of your attention, for Zeus’ sake!”

Eventually, Phaedrus arrives, but there’s a strange tension in the air.

Reality or Imagination?

In fact, this vignette isn’t just comedic fantasy. In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato relays an experience that’s really quite similar. But there’s a further similarity—Plato disobeyed Socrates’ teaching in using a technology that his teacher strongly disliked.

In that case, the new advanced technology was writing!

Even though Plato did what he could to appease Socrates by writing only dialogues, which did keep alive the meaning of a real exchanges between human beings, he knew he was still surrendering to a deplorable temptation.

In Pheadrus, Plato narrates the story of this temptation through the myth of Theuth.

The Myth

Using Socrates’ voice, Plato tells the story of an ancient Egyptian god, Theuth, who discovered “number and calculation, geometry and astronomy, as well as the games of draughts and dice, and above all else, writing” (Phaedrus, 274d). One day, the god orders Thamus, King of Egypt, to disseminate these arts throughout Egypt. Though Theuth praises writing with these words–“O King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom.” (Phaedrus, 274e)—Thamus is also aware of what his people would lose with this invention. In the end, writing would increased forgetfulness rather than memory. Instead of internalizing and fully understanding concepts, students would rely on writing as a cheap memory trick. Moreover, people would be exposed to a multitude of ideas without thinking about them and assimilating them effectively. This would give them the “appearance of wisdom” while “for the most part they will know nothing” (Phaedrus, 275a-b).

With this in mind Socrates explains to Phaedrus that writing is a narcissistic technique that is built “to signify just the same thing forever” (Phaedrus, 275d-e). The dialectician “chooses a proper soul and plants and sows within it discourse accompanied by knowledge—discourse capable of helping itself as well as the man who planted it, (…) such discourse makes the seed forever immortal and renders the man who has it as happy as any human being can be. (277a)”. Writing, on the other hand, is repetitive, aloof, and does not encourage essential human interaction; rather, it leads the conversant toward a meaningless vacuum in which thoughts and feelings are disconnected from each other. Writing emphasizes the illusion of solitude and disconnection.

Technological Necessity and Care

I know: There’s no way for us to halt change or even influence the direction it will take. It’s almost impossible today to imagine a society without writing. In work, school, and in life in general we are measured by our ability to write. In fact, in the 21st century we barely remember what it was like before the newest writing technologies, instant messaging and online communication. Time marches on, and we have little choice but to keep pace.

Still, it’s essential that we always pay attention to where we’re going, what we’re likely to lose, and what limits we need to put on the use of new technologies in order to live a harmonious life. In this sense Socrates’ complaint is timeless. There are basic human needs that do not change with time—for example, to be cared for and to be understood.

We need to care and be cared for by others. If we allow pieces of technology like our phones to become another mask we use to hide our need for companionship, then we will lose our chance to develop any real companionship.

I know that owning a cell phone isn’t necessarily as serious as I’m making it out to be. You check your phone out of habit, but why did you get into the habit in the first place? And why is it so difficult to give up? When you’re by yourself and surrounded by faces you don’t know, that phone in your pocket is a sort-of Linus blanket, ready to reassure you with a familiar network of contacts.

We would never think of writing a book or reading a magazines while we’re having a beer with a friend, so why not refrain from checking our phones every other minute while we’re spending time with a friend. And no, leaving the phone face down on the table wouldn’t be enough for our friend Socrates. Even if the conversation isn’t the most brilliant one ever and you’re running the risk of not being as entertaining or entertained as you could possibly be, have the strength to keep that phone in your pocket. It’s infinitely better to be your real, sometimes-dull self than a thin projection of you hovering in cyberspace.