When all at once…

c3500BC, Mesopotamia… 

In the land which today falls largely within modern Iraq and Iran, in the ‘cradle of civilisation’, long after the discovery of how to control fire, but also long before over thirteen hundred videos featuring the admirable Ray Mears teaching fire making  become available on YouTube,  from marks made to tally and track trades and accounts, Sumerian culture evolves the invention of writing.

It’s not the only time this happens, but it is thought to be one of the earliest.

Bear with me, I am going somewhere with this…

c370BC, Athens/Syracuse?…

Writing in the ‘Phaedrus’ dialogue, Plato has Socrates tell a story of the invention of writing by the Egyptian God Theuth.  The god is warned by King Thamus of Egypt:

“…this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it; they will not exercise their memories, but, trusting in external, foreign marks, they will not bring things to remembrance from within themselves.”

The warning to poor trying-to-be-helpful Theuth continued quite relentlessly:

“You have discovered a solution not for memory, but for reminding. You offer your students the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom. 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.”

Plato highlights a debate about the merits of written versus oral cultural memory. Of course, we only know this story, and we are only able to pause to reflect on Plato’s consideration of the human implications of writing, because it was written down.

Cultures of a predominantly oral tradition must be very rare today. Perhaps their members do retain valuable cognitive and other skills which our dependance on written language to store culture knowledge works against.   However, centuries of civilisation are predicated on the ability to record and transfer knowledge and experience over distances and over time without person-to-person contact.   We are all a little like Isaac Newton, ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, if not quite at his dizzy heights.

While we can be confident that, although its precise origins are obscure, writing wasn’t invented by a birdy-headed Egyptian deity, it seems reasonable to consider written language as one of the most significant examples of what might now be called human ‘cognitive augmentation’.

Technology changes how we do things.  How we hunt, eat, travel, fight, communicate – everything.  We think largely in words and images, and there seems to be a growing body of evidence that, over time, technologies which change our ability to use language and pictures end up changing how we ‘do‘ thinking.

Anecdote: Edinburgh, c1971 …

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once…

The start of ‘Daffodils’ by William Wordsworth. What does it mean to you? Open spaces? Romanticism? The English Lake District? Or pained eleven-year old attempts to learn poetry by heart?

I went over lines over and over again, getting more tense and uptight, and not understanding why I could not make the words stick.  It hurt like trying to squeeze my foot into a boot two sizes too small.  Why did my brain have to be so dumb? Driving my anxiety was the anticipation of standing up in class and speaking the poem out loud.  Dread grew not from the speaking, but from the certainty of not being able to remember more than a few stumbling words in front of the rest of the class.

During class, waiting while others performed their appointed pieces, I felt what few words had managed to linger fading like morning mist.  The only hope was the clock ticking towards moment when the bell that could postpone the fateful call to stand and recite, and, as a reprieve, drag this agony out for another day.

You decide:  the pre-teen embodiment of King Thamus’ warning, or just a memory better suited to working in different ways?

Anecdote: the outskirts of Prestwick, c1990 …

A car with a camera crew looking for a shoot at a sports centre that nobody had recce’d.  They are running late.

‘Next left, then go past the phone box and it we should be able to see it…’

Somewhat stressed already, the driver turned and looked at his passenger as if he is possessed with demonic powers.  ‘You’ve never been here before.  How the @#÷? do you know that?’

I grinned and held up hold up the area OS 1:50,000 – ‘It’s on here.’

TomTom was invented about the same time, but before sat-navs were widespread, you could still occasionally impress people who were uninterested in maps with your ability to plumb the arcane knowledge of those who had surveyed before.  In the absence of robot spacecraft, there could still be a mate in the passenger seat with a decent map.  The driver decided to accept my voodoo map-reading skills, and the crew arrived in good time.

The meat at last: AR …

Augmented reality (AR) is something of a buzz phrase these days.  We have already danced several steps of the augmentation tango either Teuth’s apocryphal or Mesopotamia’s actual invention of writing, but in recent years the rhythm has accelerated.

It was a long time from the scribe to widespread use of the printing press, and a long time from printed paper to electronic storage of information.  But a comparatively short time from magnetic cores to where we are now – wireless networked to vast galleries of image and information.

In image recording also, a long time from drawing painting and carving to photography, less from photography to film, and much less from film to video, and from analogue to digital imaging.

Has it changed us? I’m fairly sure it has changed me.  I have seen myself looking at an unknown word in a (printed) book and mentally highlighting it in order to see a pop-up definition and etymology because I can do this when reading on electronic gadgets.  Conceptually I don’t see this as being very different from taking a dictionary off the shelf  and looking the word up.

But I do have a strong feeling that some real incarnation or other of ‘Google glasses‘ will make acts like this real commonplace before long.  And of course, looking up words will be the least of an environment where all kinds of things (and people) can carry a virtual gloss.

Science fiction has been there for a while.  Charles Stross’s ‘Halting State’, and Karl Schroeder’s ‘Ashes of Candese’, are stories where incidental examples of this kind of technology are imagined – I’m sure there are many more. While Google glasses spoofs add to many ‘serious’ scifi movie incarnations to make healthy fun of the whole idea.

Smart phone in my pocket I already feel pretty well augmented… Remembering has changed for me – a person who was never good at it. Diary, camera, dictaphone, notebook, reference library, global atlas, gps and much much more.  If I notice its absence from my pocket I am momentarily an information cowboy with an empty holster. In some way, great or small, I am less.

I believe that in under two hundred years, the technologies of photography and film have definitely changed how we remember.  Setting aside all those defining decisive moments of documentary for a moment, and concentrating on the personal, Lucile Ball’s famous no.3 item-to-save-in-a-house-fire, after the kids and the pets, was the photograph albums.  Many people agreed with her choice – the treasure chest of our already external memories (at least until image making went digital).

It’s no surprise.  By-and-large we are most of us are now very visual creatures.  So how much more intimate will the integration between intellect and internet be when the interface shifts the intimacy of information from the lap, the hip pocket, or the palm, to a projection integrated directly into your line of sight?  That must be as immediate a gateway into your consciousness as it’s going to be possible to get, at least until humans have cortical wireless connectivity built-in.

You might draw some comfort from Mario Aguilar’s assertion that ‘Google Glasses will be lamer than promised‘, but it seems that, limping or otherwise, extended augmentation is staggering towards us apace.   It is a little scary, to be sure.  Augmentation is going to continue to change, and probably to change the way we think.  It always has.  As with so much in present times, perhaps it is the pace of change makes it seem particularly frightening.

And what happens when the power goes off?  If a solar flare takes out the grid for six months?  Will it all fall down about us one day and leave us wandering, bereft, stupider, and lonely as clouds?

Perhaps, just in case, I should quickly check YouTube for one of those excellent Ray Mears survival videos about how to make fire.

Mea culpa …

I did not remember about Thamus and Theuth, nor Wordsworth and when TomTom was invented, nor many other things … augmentation helped.

Sticks for your fire …

About stevedsmart

Steve Smart is a poet and visual artist who also has experience in information design. View all posts by stevedsmart

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