Socrates And His Thoughts on Technology

Socrates And His Thoughts on Technology

A former Facebook executive is not happy with the side-effects of Facebook and social media in general. He believes it is "destroying how society works."

In an interview at Stanford's School of Business, Chamath Palihapitiya, the former Facebook VP of user growth, said with tremendous guilt, 

The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse. No cooperation. Misinformation. Mistruth. And it's not an American problem. This is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem. So we are in a really bad state of affairs right now, in my opinion.

He went on to say that his children "aren’t allowed to use that shit." 

"(...) the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. (...) for this discovery of yours 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. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality." This was said by Socrates to Phaedrus, in Plato's Phaedrus (370 BC). In his trademark Socratic method, he was talking about the invention of technology to print books.

Socrates' primary concern was the nonhuman nature of books, in that it allows for a faceless communication between teachers and students. A student is an individual; and Socrates believed, generic books cannot replace the inter-personal engagement between the master and the student.

One could imagine him saying that about the Internet, which was invented hundreds of years after his death. The rapid advancement of technology has changed our relationship with space, time, and people. Facebook is making us narcissistic. Fake news spreads like wildfire on Twitter. Google effect has made us lazy. Political discourses on Reddit and 4chan are influencing the political climate of America. Texting has made us impatient. 

Was Socrates right? Noam Chomsky seems to agree with him. 

On technology, Chomsky says,

It's kinda like a hammer... the hammer doesn't care whether you use it to build a house or a torturer uses it to crush somebody's skull... same with modern technology like the internet. The internet is extremely valuable if you know what you're looking for." He continues, "If you don't have [an idea what you're looking for], exploring the internet is just picking out random factoids that don't mean anything.

There's no denying that technology has made lives better, but it comes at a cost. Artificial intelligence and machine learning will bring us many advantages, and also swallow many jobs while obliterating traditional human values. Free online education will continue to make us smarter. But recent onslaught of technology on society's well-being is forcing us to rethink our relationship with technology. The real challenge is not the technology itself, but how we choose to use it. How much technology do we need? How fast is fast enough? What do we really need that will advance societies? A Socratic dialog about technology and innovation may help us get back on the track and reclaim our sanity. If we can create robots and the social networks of the world, we can also modulate its use. 

Chamath Palihapitiya in interview with CNBC (Dec. 2017)


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