In ancient Egypt there lived a wise king named Thamus. One day he was visited by a clever deity called Theuth. Theuth was an inventor of many useful things: arithmetic and geometry; astronomy and dice. But his greatest discovery, so he believed, “was the use of letters.” And it was this invention that Theuth was most eager to share with King Thamus.
The art of writing, Theuth said, “will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit.”
But Thamus rebuffed him. “O most ingenious Theuth,” he said, “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.” The king continued: “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 themselves.”
Written words, Thamus concluded, “give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things but 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.”
Welcome to Facebook.
The tale I’m citing here comes from Plato’s Phaedrus; the words, attributed to Socrates, are about 2,400 years old. They are apposite again recently thanks to a lengthy investigation by The New York Times into Facebook’s cynical and self-serving calculations as it tried to brazen its way through a year of serial PR disasters: Russian dezinformatsiya, Cambridge Analytica, and a gargantuan security breach.
Now we learn that the company also sought to cover up the extent of Russian meddling on its platform — while quietly seeding invidious stories against its business rivals and critics like George Soros. Facebook disputes some of the claims made by The Times, but it’s fair to say the company’s reputation currently stands somewhere between that of Philip Morris and Purdue Pharma in the public toxicity department.
To which one can only say: About time.
The story of the wildly exaggerated promises and damaging unintended consequences of technology isn’t exactly a new one. The real marvel is that it constantly seems to surprise us. Why? Part of the reason is that we tend to forget that technology is only as good as the people who use it. We want it to elevate us; we tend to degrade it. In a better world, Twitter might have been a digital billboard of ideas and conversation ennobling the public square. We’ve turned it into the open cesspool of the American mind. Facebook was supposed to serve as a platform for enhanced human interaction, not a tool for the lonely to burrow more deeply into their own isolation. It’s also true that Facebook and other Silicon Valley giants have sold themselves not so much as profit-seeking companies but as ideal-pursuing movements. Facebook’s mission is “to make the world more open and connected.” Tesla’s goal is “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” Google’s mantra was “Don’t Be Evil,” at least until it quietly dropped the slogan earlier this year.
Finding what’s hard and easy
But the deeper reason that technology so often disappoints and betrays us is that it promises to make easy things that, by their intrinsic nature, have to be hard.
Tweeting and trolling are easy. Mastering the arts of conversation and measured debate is hard. Texting is easy. Writing a proper letter is hard. Looking stuff up on Google is easy. Knowing what to search for in the first place is hard. Having a thousand friends on Facebook is easy. Maintaining six or seven close adult friendships over the space of many years is hard. Swiping right on Tinder is easy. Finding love — and staying in it —is hard. That’s what Socrates (or Thamus) means when he deprecates the written word: It gives us an out. It creates the illusion that we can remain informed, and connected, even as we are spared the burdens of attentiveness, presence of mind and memory. That may seem quaint today. But how many of our personal, professional or national problems might be solved if we desisted from depending on shortcuts?
To read The Times’ account of how Facebook dealt with its problems is to be struck by how desperately Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg sought to massage and finesse — with consultants, lobbyists and technological patches — what amounted to a daunting if simple crisis of trust. As with love and grammar, acquiring and maintaining trust is hard. There are no workarounds.
Start over, Facebook. Do the basics. Stop pretending that you’re about transforming the state of the world. Work harder to operate ethically, openly and responsibly. Accept that the work will take time. Log off Facebook for a weekend. Read an ancient book instead.
— New York Times News Service
Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist.