"The discovery of the alphabet will create
forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because
they will not use their memories; they will
trust to the external written characters and
not remember of themselves... You give your
disciples not truth but the semblance of truth;
they will be heroes of many things and will have
learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient
and will generally know nothing."
Socrates never put his teachings into print. Why
would someone as wise a Socrates be against writing and
by extension books? Even Christ refused to write although he
could have. Saint Thomas Aquinas in question 42 of his
"Summa Theologica" wrote:
I answer by saying that it is fitting that
Christ did not commit his teachings to writing.
First on account of his own dignity; for the
more excellent the teacher, the more excellent
his manner of teaching ought to be. And therefore
it is fitting that Christ, as the most excellent
of teachers, should adopt that manner of teaching
whereby his doctrine would be imprinted on the
hearts of his hearers. For which reason it is
said in Matthew vii, 29, that, "he was teaching
them as one having power'. For which reason even
among the pagans Pythagoras and Socrates, who
were most excellent teachers did not want to
It is more than obvious that these wise men were very
concerned that the written word would somehow change their
message. In short that the medium would change their message.
Let us go back before the written word to even before
there was language. What was it like to think before words
were invented. Like most of us I can't remember anything
before the time I learned to speak.
Aldous Huxley in his book "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and
Tomorrow" considers the fact that in the few rare cases
of children who were lost and raised by wolves; once they
learned to speak lost all memory of their time spent in the
wilderness. Huxley continues and proposes that without
words we would not be able to think at all; and that words are
what make us a higher life form. The first medium, language,
changed us from an unconscious being into a conscious
being. Try to think any complex thought without words, it
would be impossible.
In 1961 Prof. John Wilson of the African Institute of
London University published "Film Literacy in Africa" (Canadian
Communications v1 #4 summer 1961) describing his experiences
in trying to teach non literate tribes to read using
film. The following are some excerpts from that paper:
We showed this film to an audience and asked them
what they had seen, and they said they had seen a
chicken, a fowl, and we didn't know that there was
a fowl in it! So we carefully scanned the frames one
by one for this fowl, and, sure enough, for about a
second, a fowl went over the corner of the frame.
Someone had frightened the fowl and it had taken flight,
through the right hand, bottom segment of the frame.
This was all they had seen. The other things he had
hoped they would pick up from the film they had not
picked up at all, and they had picked up something
that we didn't know was in the film until we inspected
it minutely. Why? ...
Question: Do you literally mean that when you talked
with the audience you came to believe that they had
not seen anything else but the chicken?
Wilson: We simply asked them: what did you see in
Question: Not, what did they think?
Wilson: No, what did you see?
Question: How many people were in the viewing audience
of whom you asked this question?
Wilson: 30 odd.
Question: No one gave you a response other than "We saw
Wilson: No, this was the first quick response- "We saw
Question: They did see a man, too?
Wilson: Well, when we questioned them further they had seen
a man, but what was really interesting was that they hadn't made
a whole story out of it, and in point of fact, we discovered
afterwards that they hadn't seen a whole frame they had
inspected the frame for details. Then we found out from
the artist and an eye specialist that a sophisticated
audience, an audience that is accustomed to the film,
focuses a little way in front of the flat screen, so
that you take in the whole frame.
When showing photographs to the Dowayo tribe in Africa,
noted anthropologist Nigel Barley reported similar difficulties.
Pre-literate people cannot see the image until they have
"learned" how to focus above a flat surface. Without realizing
it we teach our young to see photographs when we show them the
pictures and say, "Look there's Daddy!" or "That's Aunt Mary."
An excellent illustration of "learning" to see in new
ways is to look at a "Magic-eye" image. There is one at the
bottom of this web page. Magic-Eye images are patterns that
you will sometimes see in the Sunday Comics, on cereal
boxes or in advertisements. You can also view some at their
web site. (www.magiceye.com) When you first see one
of their images it appears to be a meaningless montage of
colors and patterns. You place the image near your face and
move it away slowly, the trick is to "unlearn" linear sight
and look through the picture as if it were a window to a
three dimensional world. This is exactly what Pre-literate
cultures have to do in reverse when confronted with Western
linear images such as photographs and moving pictures. They
have to learn how to focus in front of an image and with
Magic Eye you have to learn how to focus behind the image.
Marshall McLuhan said, "1984 began in 1928" that was
the year radio came of age. Radio has the ability to generate
hysteria as was made clear by the Orson Welles "War of the
Worlds" hoax of 1928. Radio is a "hot" medium as Adolf
Hitler must have understood, his fiery speeches and shouting
tribalized Germany and turned into a violent experience.
In the 1950's Senator Joe McCarthy tried to use radio
to spring himself into a position of power. He was seen
by the public at large as a knight in shining armor defending
the American ideal, hunting down traitors and unearthing
conspiracies. Things were going so good for Sen. McCarthy
that his committee hearings were soon brought to the new
media of television. Sen. McCarthy's tactics didn't change
just the media which carried him. When his media changed
so did the Senators message. The knight in shining armor
was now the Spanish Inquisition complete with thumbscrews
and hot irons. Seeing those angry faces right there in their
own homes turned people off. The accused were no longer horrible
faceless villains but ordinary Americans with ordinary
faces full of anguish and fear. Sen. McCarthy's career went
ka-put and the word "McCarthyism" was entered into the English
language as a synonym for "Witch Hunt". You cannot use a
"cool" medium like television to convey "hot" topics and images.
The United States Military has clearly learned from the
media mistakes of the Vietnam War. The Gulf War and Somalia
News coverage was clean and bloodless, no images of bodies or
burned civilians no public outrage. You can show violence on
television you just can't show "real" violence.