The Guardian view on knowledge in an information age: take it to heart | Editorial

The Knowledge has been saved, for now. Despite the fact that a smartphone can get you around London with very little skill required, licensed taxi drivers will still have to spend years learning streets by heart. This can seem like an absurd luddite fantasy, of a piece with the cabbies’ resistance to any less-guild-like competition, from the likes of Uber.

What’s not to like about outsourcing to technology the tedious facts that clutter our brains? We now use calculators for mental arithmetic, Wikipedia instead of libraries, and – most fundamentally – we read the written word instead of memorising epic poetry. Who could object to such progress? Socrates, for one. He would have detested Wikipedia. In a passage of unsurpassed irony, Plato wrote into the Phaedrus Socrates’s objection to the written word: that it allowed people to parrot facts without understanding and assimilating them. He even put in a word for the poor texts themselves, helpless to defend themselves against misunderstanding when the author was not there to clarify.

Yet without writing, of course, we would know nothing of Socrates’ objections to reading about him. What Plato, as a literary artist, understood and Socrates did not, because he only talked, was something that any devoted reader knows today: it is possible to have conversations with books. Books can talk back if we ask them questions the right way. Since the enlightening effect is exactly what Socrates’ conversations had aimed at, we can comfortably see that he was wrong.

Not entirely wrong, however. For one thing, the technology of writing can itself aid memory: a note hand-written is more likely to be remembered. There is a difference between a disaggregated collection of facts pulled in and out of storage as needed and the kind of knowledge built through learning by heart. To learn by heart is to bring knowledge into the centre of our being, and into the imagination which knits everything together. The difference between what can be learned from a map and the knowledge gained by walking over the territory is profound. If you can play a piece of music, you know it in a different way from mere listeners. A poem learned by heart has a different working than one read and forgotten.

Of course, smartphones mean that a London cabbie could now find his way around New York or Rio de Janeiro. But only the Knowledge can ensure that a cabbie knows his or her city by heart. Rote learning exercises the mind, and remains the only way to learn the alphabet, much English spelling, the building blocks of mental arithmetic, and the basics of foreign languages. Once phones can translate fluently between you and anyone you meet, it may never be necessary and soon never possible to think in a foreign language. What a loss that would be. Star Trek translators are for talking to alien species, not to other human beings.

Technology is worthwhile when it gives us capabilities we otherwise lack, even if it can be badly used. Alfred Nobel thought dynamite would be remembered for its peaceful purposes. The internet was once expected to spread enlightenment everywhere. But the technology that replaces, rather than augments, our capacities should be regarded with suspicion. Just as cars make our bodies flabby, too much technological memory degrades the real thing, and related thinking. Whatever can be looked up instantly can be instantly forgotten.

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