Josh’s Socratic Dialogue

Wednesday, November 2, 2005


The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David

So. Our most recent ICM assignment (here at sunny ITP) was to write a Socratic dialogue dissecting some issue involving interactivity and communication. Plato’s Phaedrus was our example.

This isn’t a genius piece, or anything, but I enjoyed writing it. And I’ve so far avoided posting any of my homework to my blog, but since it seems relevent to the blog and internet communication specifically, I figured I’d go ahead and throw it out there for you.

There’s a major logical flaw in the discussion, you’ll probably notice. But I kind of think it’s on the right track.

Without further ado:

Josh’s Socratic Dialogue

[Posted to a fictional weblog…]

So I’m supposed to think about interactivity and authorship and the relationship between the two. And I’m supposed to think about literacy versus orality and the benefits of communication via recorded text and communication via interactive conversation.


We live in a authored world. I get my news from some website, the television, or a newspaper. I read novels written by men and women dead for scores of years. I watch movies featuring stars who would have nothing to do with me in “real life.” Articles and textbooks for school broadcast information at me and expect me to understand and remember.

But I think it has become fashionable to criticize this, to remember back to the “good old days” when men and women delivered information in an interactive form. Conversation. I have a bit of news and I tell you. You want to know more, so you ask a question. Or you think maybe I’ve misinterpreted something, so you tell me why. Or, I have an argument or political criticism of some sort. I tell you. You ask me to explain a finer point, some angle that I may not have previously considered. And I do. And I refine my idea. And then I have a much better argument or criticism to work with. I am better off. And so are you.

So the idea is that interactivity allows one to question and refine piece of thought — a meme. Such a meme grows and evolves and adjusts to the world. It’s always fresh as long as it’s in use. A meme that has been physically recorded, printed as words, remains static, gathers dust.

But I don’t fully buy this. For one thing, a written word can be responded to with another written word. And part of learning to live in an information-flooded culture such as ours is learning how to judge the validity of a piece of information by considering the author or reporter of that information, the way that piece of information was put together or reported, and when that piece of information was recorded. I read Plato, for example, and I know that he was writing around 400BC and that — without diminishing his achievement — I can know that certain ideas of his have been outmoded and refined during the past 2400 years. So many people have responded to Plato’s ideas. And the responses to these ideas are as integral a part of our cultural thought as Plato’s original ideas were — more integral, possibly (if something can, in fact, be “more integral,” anyway).

So that’s a snapshot of my thoughts on the matter. Feel free to respond in the comments.

Posted by Josh Knowles on October 31st, 2005


Sock Radish writes:
So it seems like you consider any form of communication to ultimately be interactive, right? Like, the only difference between having a vocal conversation and writing a series of articles with different points of view is the media (voice versus printed text) and the period of time over which the discussion occurs. Right?

Josh Knowles writes:
Yeah, exactly. Anything can be responded to. You can tell me I’m a fool to my face and I’ll respond right there with words. You can write an article in the newspaper about how I’m a fool and I’ll write a letter to the editor the next day with a response. Which the newspaper would print if they had any sense of fairness.

Sock Radish writes:
You hit on an interesting point when you mention the newspaper. In a conversation two people have equal footing (more-or-less), right? When we both only use our voices we are equal partners in an argument. But when a newspaper prints a piece of information, they broadcast that information out to possibly millions of people. If you know that the piece of information is wrong or could be refined, you can only broadcast your response to those around you (unless you have control over a media outlet of some sort). So, in this scenario, most people will never hear your response. They will never hear any conversation. Effectively, there can be no conversation. And this matter is even worse when a text has been around for thousands of years and read by billions of people. No one person could ever have enough power to respond to that. Especially if the author is long dead. Right?

Josh Knowles writes:
That seems true, but I guess I don’t consider the method of broadcasting a piece of information to be a part of the response. It’s like discussing the record label marketing techniques when reviewing a jazz CD.

Sock Radish writes:
Don’t you get frustrated sometimes when a really good albums goes overlooked because it’s not sold properly? Or because the record label can’t get it out there?

Josh Knowles writes:
Sometimes, yeah. But that’s meta information. The core of any discussion of music is the discussion of the actual sounds themselves.

Sock Radish writes:
Really? Just the sound waves as they hit the ear? That’s the only thing that matters in the discussion of music?

Josh Knowles writes:
Yes. That’s what music is.

Sock Radish writes:
Context doesn’t matter? What happens when you listen to the same song that you really, really like on repeat one hundred times?

Josh Knowles writes:
Of course context matters. I’d get sick and tired of hearing even a really great song on repeat all day.

Sock Radish writes:
So it seems that a piece of music isn’t simply the data contained within a waveform. A piece of musical information carries along with it meta-information — information about context — which communicates enjoyment or boredom or annoyance. Right?

Josh Knowles writes:
I see where you’re taking this. You’re trying to say that a piece of information has a contextual component no matter what. That information can’t be stripped of context. And that an opinion printed in a newspaper carries certain contextual information along with it. And though I can reply to the opinion easily enough by calling my mom and telling her my views or writing about it in on my blog, I can’t respond to the contextual information. That’s too powerful. So, maybe, while responding in a permanent medium to another permanent medium (such as the written word) may be structurally similar to responding in conversation, really they’re quite different because in there’s a vast imbalance of power with the written word (for example) that doesn’t exist when we’re sitting across from a table from each other exchanging words.

Sock Radish writes:
You said it, not me. But now that it’s been said, it does seem like there’s one very popular venue of communication these days that does seem to bridge the gap between conversation and the written word, orality and literacy.

Josh Knowles writes:
Let me guess: the web? Websites? Weblogs with comments? Because even if my weblog gets 1,000,000 visitors a day, if I allow comments then I grant people the ability to respond to both the information and the power with which the information has been communicated.

Sock Radish writes:
Yes, it does seem like this ability to properly respond to permanent communications such as the written word (or even songs or movies) is one of the major benefits of this new interactive global medium.

Josh Knowles writes:
Yeah, and I guess you do see this in the way people have informalized language for conversational venues such as chat rooms. And discussion forums. And personal websites. Spelling, punctuation: all optional. And the language is very compact and streamlined. Like spoken language. But, it’s definitely recorded. What an odd hybrid…

Sock Radish writes:


Posted Wed, November 9, 2005, 11:33am EST by Brian

Dammit, I keep hitting enter after the title. Obviously, my interactive, non-conversational (even conversational) skills are lacking. I have problems with the context of this medium. I can yak up a storm but can't type worth a lick.

Hope everything's fine. I hear you're really getting into school. Actually, I just read it.


Posted Wed, November 9, 2005, 4:36pm EST by Josh

Yeah, there's always that. A certain generation -- one that's probably a few years younger than I -- will start exhibiting the opposite tendency: the ability to communicate with text with much more precision than with words. It's kind of weird that it's become very trendy for kids and young people to write -- and write often and publicly. And cool. Unless you're the sort of person who doesn't feel "OMFGLOL!!!" belongs in written discourse...

But I digress.

Thanks for the birthday card, by the way!

Only Vaguely Related TO Topic

Posted Sat, November 26, 2005, 3:49am EST by Steve Basile

I saw your post on Socratic dialogue and thought these might amuse you. Last year, believe it or not the joint meeting of the HSS/PSA was held in Austin--the History of Science Society and Philosophy of Science Association. We ran an ad in their convention program, and I had some fun with variants of them which you can find here

We ended up using variant 1b, and several historians and philosophers came in and commented on the ad which they found amusing.