So, our garbage disposal got stuck; all it did was hum. It was clear that something was jammed in it but I couldn’t find anything to pull out. I really didn’t want to have to pay a plumber to fix it, so I did some very quick research on the web and found a site that gave some advice. The most important bit was this:
“If you find a very small item, such as a staple or other non-metallic object that just won’t go through and defies all attempts at removal, there is a trick I learned from my middle daughter. Load the disposal with ice cubes and turn it on while running cold water through it. The ice stops the small object from jumping away from the grinders so they can pulverize it. Again, this is only good for smallish objects, not for little stones or coins!”
It worked like a charm. (It was also very satisfying and I needed to crow. And since we try not to endorse traditional gender roles too much in our house — notice that the origin of the tip was a “middle daughter” — I instead declared to my family that “I am a God!” Hyperbolic, perhaps. But fulfilling nonetheless.)
This minor incident got me to thinking about Plato’s critique of writing. In his dialogue Phaedrus, he argues, among other things, that writing will make the younger generations rely less on their memories. That writing will, in essence, make people dumber. It is a complaint that anticipated virtually every fear of new technology throughout history.
But Plato was wrong. Written knowledge is what helps human beings progress. I do not discredit orality — my wife, the literacy scholar would never let me get away with that — but writing certainly does allow us to record techniques and details that would otherwise get lost or distorted in the history-long game of telephone that human beings have played for millennia. It also allowed me to get advice from someone I never met and someone who I will likely never meet. I read the post in about 30 seconds, ran downstairs, tried it, and the rest is history.
I would also argue that this incident emphasized the community-based nature of the internet. Someone wants to help and puts up a website. People write to that person to have their questions answered. The discussion is archived for future use and people like me find it. I’m not very handy. The house we live in is not only the first house we ever owned, it is also the first house I ever lived in. I grew up with landlords and superintendents and owning our house has been a crash course in fixing things. (I can’t say I like it, but I can say I feel good about the skills I acquire.) So, when I needed help, I contacted the digital community, the people who complement my neighbors, the group that plays the role of village elders, so to speak. Kim makes fun of me because I once looked up how to split wood. (I was a boy scout, but it didn’t take.) Yes, the internet can be anti-social, but it does not have to be.
The questions before us, therefore, are two-fold. First, are critics correct that new technology harms more than helps us? And second, Is an internet community somehow less valuable, or less real perhaps, than those we create with face-to-face interactions?