Gains and losses

A 13th-century diagram of the branches of philosophy, lavishly decorated to serve as a memory aid, Chantilly, Musée Condé, 433

Over the last 2,000 years, there have been improvements in nearly all technologies. There have been cultural improvements, inventions and discoveries around the world, at every point in time.

While many things have improved, some haven’t changed. Others have even deteriorated.

It would be difficult to give an account of the improvements in the transmission and dissemination of knowledge and information – from the village to the global village. The same for countless others, from mechanics and chemistry to government and justice.

On the other hand, there has been practically no change in the way we read text. Granted, we read more, we read in a variety of new contexts, while commuting, even while running, if audiobooks can be read. But we still read, from left to right, from right to left, on paper or otherwise. We read faster and more easily, but that is because of improvements in writing and publishing, not in the way we read. Basically, we still read the way Aristotle read 2,300 years ago.

Some things have arguably even declined and deteriorated. While many of our cognitive operations have improved, memory and memorisation have degraded. We are substantially less able than our ancestors to commit information to memory. Having outsourced memorization to artificial storage, human memory has become a beautiful empty room. The treasure-room of the mind which the ancient and the medieval masters extolled as the most important cognitive asset has been relocated to an SSD or databank, guaranteed by electric current and microchips. We have gained from keeping the room in splendid vacuity, ready to walk to the next for answers to age-old questions, but we have lost the pleasure of furnishing the room, of spending time playing on the floor of our own inner temple, the Holy of Holies of our mind.

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