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Digital mutations and cognitive mutations, 1. The writing revolution

The emergence of a cognitive technology disrupts and rearranges the deliberative processes that govern the practices of a given community or society. Such a disruption can have an impact on the architecture of deliberation networks, on the organizations and individuals who participate in deliberations, or on the standards and conventions that structure them. Or it can have an impact on all at once. As for the current digital revolution, one can understand it better considering the previous great historical mutations, paying a special attention to the debates and criticism they have ignited in their day.

March 2012
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Executive Resume

The expression “cognitive technology” encompasses technologies that handle, store and disseminate signs: language itself, writing, printing, the rotary press, the telegraph, the telephone (fixed or mobile), radio, film, television and the Internet are all cognitive technologies. This list is not exhaustive, even though in this area, technological disruptions are rare.

By looking back into these disruptions, as well as into the debates and criticism they have ignited in their day, we shall better understand what is at stake with the current Internet revolution. Historical distance and comparison enable us to pinpoint the changes brought about by the social deployment of cognitive technology in the way we look at things, the way we judge, discuss and think. Leaping into the past and scrutinizing history allows us to draw upon the work of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers and to borrow the ideas, concepts and methods that can help to decode this digital mutation.

The first and perhaps the most important of these disruptions came with the revolution of writing.

Oral culture and written culture

In a book that has become a classic, The Domestication of the Savage Mind, Jack Goody shows that cultural differences between societies are partly explained by a command or a lack of command in writing. Oral expression involves the physical presence of the audience, and in its very performance, the act of communication is exhausted in the “here and now”. No trace whatsoever is left nor inscribed elsewhere than in the memory of listeners, no examination or review of the text is taking place, no confrontation with other texts – only through confrontation between speakers may viewpoints get to contrast. Goody notes that it is certainly easier to perceive the contradictions in a written text than in a speech, in part because we can formalize the clauses in syllogistical manner, and partly because writing fragments the oral flow. This makes it possible to compare utterances issued at different times and in different places.

The transformation of political practices

How did this experience impact the political field? The inscription and conservation, through writing, of political statements that until that time had been exclusively oral allowed the construction of complex political objects such as peace treaties or a declaration of human rights.

Written circa 1245 BC, the tablet of the Egyptian-Hittite peace treaty preserved in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul is considered the first and oldest peace treaty to have reached us. The treaty provisions were engraved on two large tables of solid silver; Ramesses II retained one of them and sent the other, struck with his seal, to the Hittite king. Thus the two sides kept the same signed document – the foundation of peace and confidence restored.

The Gortyn Code, in Crete, is considered to be the first declaration of human rights to have come down to us. Dating back to 480-460 BC, engraved on a stone, it is written in Dorian on 12 columns of 621 lines in boustrophedon – a writing that goes back and forth from left to right, then from right to left. This set of laws is actually a family code. It deals with contestation over slave status, sexual crimes, divorce and widowhood, inheritance; separation of property between two lineages, the epikleros (daughter of a man who had no male heir), and adoption.

This code was posted on the wall of the Odeon, in the heart of the public space of Gortyn, accessible to all literate people, according to the democratic principle that policies must be of a public nature. The definition of rules, their inscription in an immutable text, and the provision of this text to all citizens form an inextricably political and technical device designed to protect rights: ideas, their inscription, their dissemination, the network of the community concerned, with the whole forming at once a system and a society.

Pursuing our journey through time and space, we are now in Pompeii, on August 24th, in the year 79 A.D. This day was infamously a tragic one as the Vesuvius erupted and buried the city. But as fate would have it, this day also happened to be a day of campaigning to elect the duumviri. This drama has thus allowed historians to gain exceptional insight into the way election campaigns took place in the Roman Empire. 1600 political posters, a hundred candidates, logos, pressure groups – all this got to be documented. Writing played an essential role in the campaign: it allowed to display the candidate’s names, their sponsors, their networks. Among many others, one poster read: “All fruit merchants, under the direction of Helvius Vestalis, support the nomination of Helconius Priscum for his appointment as duumvir.” Even brothels took part in the campaign. Painted on the institution’s very wall, an inscription read: “Asellina and her girls ask you to vote for Gaius Lollius Fuscus for his appointment as duumvir.”

The scriptores, the professionals who designed the banners, logos and posters of merchants or traders, also conceived and realized the political dipinti. In ancient Rome, with striking similarity to today’s website designers or political advertisement agencies, the media used by politicians were similar to those employed by business spheres, and the professionals in charge of creating them were the same.

The rise of the scientific spirit

As for the relationship between writing and science, it is powerful. Because only a cognitive technology that enables critical examination can give rise to the scientific spirit. Jack Goody therefore argued that: writing opened the possibility for a new way to examine the discourse, owing to the semi-permanent form it gave to the message. This new means of inspection of discourses allowed to expand the scope of critical activity. It promoted rationality, skeptical attitude, and logical thinking.

The possibilities of critical thinking were thus augmented, since the discourse was literally right under the eyes of the reader; simultaneously it increased the opportunity to accumulate knowledge, especially abstract knowledge, because writing modified the nature of communication by extending it beyond the mere personal contact and transformed the conditions of information storage: from this point onwards, a wider intellectual field became available for those who could read. The problem of memorization ceased to dominate intellectual life: the human mind could devote itself to the study of a static text, freed from the shackles inherent to the dynamic conditions of enunciation, and this allowed man’s mind to look at whatever it created with hindsight, and to examine it in a more abstract, more general, more rational manner. By enabling the examination of a succeeding set of messages spread over a much longer period, writing encouraged both critical thinking and the art of commentary on the one hand, and on the other, the spirit of orthodoxy and respect for books.

Writing allows to extract an utterance and to submit it to individual critical analysis. It brings both a decontextualization and an individualization to the act of thinking. Myth and History, these two opposing ways that societies use to tell the tale of their own past and origins, are bound up with writing. History only begins to make sense through the documents which allow to keep, archive and index one same event, as well as to confront different versions of the same tale. And the historian can capture and retain a witness’ oral account to confront it to other accounts. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides already points to this opposition between marvelous narratives and history and offers a lesson in historical method: “From the evidence I have reported, one shall not err in judging the facts as I have reported them to be. No trust shall be given to the poets as they amplify events, nor to logographers who, more to charm the ears than to to serve the truth, gather the facts that are impossible to check rigorously and ultimately lead to a most amazing and wonderful story. One has to think that my information comes from the most reliable sources and, given their antiquity, provide sufficient certainty.”

A little further, he writes: “As for the events of war, I have not seen fit to report them on the basis of the first comer’s account, nor after my opinion; I have only written that what I had witnessed, or regarding the rest, what came to my knowledge after information as accurate as possible. This research was not without difficulty, because those who attended the events did not tell them in the same manner and spoke according to the interests of their parties or variations in their memories. The absence of marvels in my stories will perhaps make them less pleasant to hear. It is sufficient to me that those who want to see through events of times past with clarity, and therefore through similar events that the future, governed by the law of human affairs, will no doubt bring about, deem my story to be useful. This is a work of strong and lasting benefit rather than a ceremonial piece composed for a moment’ satisfaction.”

This text, remarkable for its concision and precision, would deserve a detailed analysis that I shall not elaborate for lack of of time. I will only emphasize one point. In the fourth century B.C., Thucydides feels and knows his rivalry with logographers and poets, those who invent wonderful tales to tell wars, and he knows they are still very powerful – they are the representatives of oral tradition opposite a cognitive technology that is still nascent: writing. He knows their strengths: they are charming to the ears, they are pleasant to hear, and they bring the satisfaction of the moment. Whereas his own text cannot be spoken, it can only be read, it is durable and useful for understanding the past as much as the future. How could anyone better express the difference and opposition between these two cognitive technologies: speech and writing?

The emergence of critical discourse

And so this opposition leads us to the first philosophical criticism of the cognitive technology that is writing: in Phaedrus, Plato depicts a dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus on the invention of writing. This dialogue has been repeatedly analyzed, most recently by Yves Jeanneret with a very interesting approach (Is there [really] an information technology?). The depth of this text is such that one must choose one question to ask. Here is the one I propose: why does Socrates consider that the invention of writing does not constitute progress but, quite the contrary, a risk for true science and philosophy?

He first mentions an “antique oral tradition” that he has been told about. In Egypt, the god Thoth “invented numbers and calculus, geometry and astronomy, not to mention the backgammon and dice, then precisely the letters of writing.” This inventory is in itself interesting by what it tells us of the proximity between mathematics and writing. Thoth presents his invention to the king Thamus and tells him, “Here be knowledge that will provide Egyptians more science and more memories, for the want of memory and lack of science have found their cure!” The critical response coming from Socrates/Thamus will take several directions. First he states that the creator of the invention cannot and should not to praise it himself – he must leave it to others to judge its value, its interest and its risks. Then he comes to the central issue, that of inscription and memory, by contrasting true and false memory: “This invention, by excusing men from exercising their memory, will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have acquired its mastery; confident in writing, they will seek the means of once more remembering outside, in external sources, not within themselves, and thanks to themselves; it is not a cure for memory that you have found, but rather for the process of recollection.”

Socrates considers that the only real memory is biological memory, the brain’s, which forces us to re-experience the cognitive effort of thought, while written text is like a prosthesis that gives the illusion of knowledge because this knowledge is stored in an accessible manuscript, but it fails to irrigate the mind of one who must learn to think for himself. He contrasts natural memory with artificial memory, experienced memory with stored memory. Worse yet, imbued with this illusion of knowing, some pseudo-scientists will combine incompetence and arrogance. Socrates then proceeds to compare the merits of spoken education and written education and on this occasion shows that each cognitive technology constructs a different interlocution.

First, the public is indeterminate in the case of writing, whereas it is chosen in the case of orality: “once written, every speech goes rolling in every direction, equally reaching knowledgeable people, and those for whom it is in no way appropriate, it ignores what people it must or must not address.” The immutability of the text then, that prohibits dialogue between teacher and pupil, and that prevents an immediate response to criticism or misunderstanding. Socrates rightly observes that writing is a technical device of distancing, mediation, that cools down discussion and makes it indeterminate. He insist that this new device does not mechanically guarantee an increase of intellectual abilities. And he subtly indicates the loss brought about by the end of the golden age of oral transmission.

This critique of writing is somehow the matrix of all the criticisms of cognitive technologies that followed. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Sergei Brink are similar to the god Thoth when he praised his invention, and the critique of mass culture technologies by the Frankfurt School echoes Plato's Phaedrus.

The advent of a cognitive technology rearranges the discussion networks, it transfoms the conditions of producing, storing and accessing knowledge. It thus changes the ways of seeing the world, of thinking, of dialoguing. Its insertion in the society reveals specificities of other cognitive technologies, their forces and qualities, generating both nostalgia and criticism. And this criticism is necessary to work on regulation and governance of the new technology.

Jean-Louis Missika
Professor, Chair of Economy and Management of Digital Industries and New Media, CNAM (Paris)