Technology and Humanity

There was a bishop named Augustine who lived in the late 4th century. We know a great deal about him from his autobiography, which survives to this day. Augustine had a mentor named Ambrose. One day, according to Augustine, he saw Ambrose looking at an open book, just staring at it. After staring for two or three minutes, Ambrose turned a page and continued staring at the book. So Augustine finally came out and asked, “What are you doing?”

Ambrose replied that he was reading. Augustine said this could not be the case because he could neither hear him nor see his lips moving. Ambrose said that he was looking at the words and reading them that way.

Augustine tells us that this idea blew his mind, although those were not his exact words. You see, in a society where everything was transmitted orally, where books were very uncommon; the only way a person learned things was by hearing them.

We have plenty of ancient records telling us about ancient libraries, such as the one at Alexandria, which contained reading rooms because when a person read a book, he read it out loud. The practice was to read it quietly when alone but still to process the information aurally.

If you think about it, we still do this today. Imagine you are putting together an office chair, and you are sitting on the floor with the instructions in front of you, and they’ve been translated through four different languages before they make it to something we shall generously call “English.” Now, when you reach a step you do not understand, do you not start reading out loud really slowly? You say, “insert the left buckle into the V-shaped grommet…” What you’re doing is processing aurally, which is much slower but more focused.

Evidently this was not done much before Augustine’s time. Or if it was done, it was forgotten. So this was revelatory to Augustine; it was so noteworthy that he recorded it in his autobiography.

Now, try to guess the response you would get from someone from that era if you told him, “There is going to be a day when you are going to look at a page and the ideas on that page are going to come up through your eyes, and they are going to be written on your brain, and although you are never going to hear them, you’re still going to know them.”

I think they would have said, “That is kinda creepy. I will have lost some of my humanity. That is just so alien to me. I don’t want that.”

This case, and another I write about on this site, show how a technology came along that actually changed the way people think. In one case, the technology was writing and it caused our memories to get worse, but we gained much more than we lost.

The next case was the technology, that is, a technique, of reading without vocalizing. This allowed for faster reading and a new visual way to process verbal information.

When technology comes along that helps us make better decisions, or saves the information regarding our activities to advise us later, or has us speaking to machines as if they were creatures, I think this is simply more of the same. It will change us in a way that we will appreciate then, but if you could look ahead from today and see it, it would be a bit unnerving.

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