The historical moment that best approximates the present transition from a literate to a digital culture is found in the ancient Greeks’ transition from an oral culture to a literacy-based culture. Socrates, who was arguably Greece’s most eloquent apologist for an oral culture, protested against the acquisition of literacy. And he did so on the basis of questions that are prescient today—and, in that prescience, surprising.
Socrates contended that the seeming permanence of the printed word would delude the young into thinking they had accessed the crux of knowledge, rather than simply decoded it. For him, only the intellectually effortful process of probing, analyzing and internalizing knowledge would enable the young to develop a lifelong, personal approach to knowing and thinking, which could lead them to their ultimate goals—wisdom and virtue. Only the examined word—and the examined life—was worth pursuing. Literacy, Socrates believed, would short-circuit both.