Chapter 3: The Birth of an Alphabet and Socrates' Protests
What distinguished our ancestors in ancient Greece from us was the great value the Greeks placed on oral culture and memory. Just as Socrates probed his students' understanding in dialogue after dialogue, educated Greeks honed their rhetorical and elocutionary skills, and prized above all almost everything else the ability to wield spoken words with knowledge and power. The astounding memory capacities of our Greek ancestors are one result.
Various influential twentieth-century scholars have argued that the alphabet represents the apex of all writing and that, consequently, alphabet readers "think differently."
...three claims about supposedly unique contributions of the alphabet...
(1) the alphabet's increased efficiency over other systems;
(2)the alphabet's facilitation of novel thoughts, never before articulated;
(3) the novice readers' ease in acquiring an alphabetic system through their increased awareness of the sounds of speech.
Every child, [whether using an alphabet, hieroglyph, or other, "nonalphabetic logosyllabary"], who learns to read someone else's thoughts and writer his or her own repeats this cyclical, germinating relationship between written language and new thought, never before imagined.
From a cognitive perspective, therefore, it is again not that the alphabet uniquely contributed to the production of novel thought, but rather that the increased efficiency brought by the alphabetic and syllabary systems made novel thought more accessible for more people.
The Greek alphabet did differ dramatically from previous writing systems in its incorporation of highly sophisticated linguistic insights into human speech. The ancient Greeks discovered that the entire speech system of oral language could be analyzed and systematically segmented into individual sounds.
Socrates' Protests, Plato's Quiet Rebellion, and Aristotle's Habit
I regard the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, when Socrates and Plato taught, as a window through which our culture can observe a different but no less remarkable culture making an uncertain transition from one dominant form of communication to another. Few thinkers could be as capable of helping us examine the place of oral and written communication in the twenty-first century as the "gadfly" and his pupils.
Socrates passionately decried the uncontrolled spread of written language; Plato was ambivalent, but used it to record arguably the most important spoken dialogues in written history; and as a youth Aristotle was already immersed in "the habit of reading."
Socrates taught students to questions the words and concepts conveyed by spoken language so they could see what beliefs and assumptions lay beneath them. Socrates demanded that everything be questioned...
Socrates’ objections to written language
 First, Socrates posited that oral and written words play very different roles in an individual's intellectual life;
 second, he regarded the new--and much less stringent--requirements that written language placed on both memory and the internalization of knowledge as catastrophic; and
 third, he passionately advocated the unique role that oral language plays in the development of morality and virtue in a society. (71-72)
Underlying the Socratic method lies a particular view of words--as teeming, living things that can, with guidance, be linked to a search for truth, goodness, and virtue. Socrates believed that unlike the "dead discourse" of written speech, oral words, or "living speech," represented dynamic entities--full of meanings, sounds, melody, stress, intonation, and rhythms--ready to be uncovered layer by layer through examination and dialogue. By contrast, written words could not speak back. The inflexible muteness of written words doomed the dialogic process Socrates saw as the heart of education.
In his classic work Thought and Language, Vygotsky described the intensely generative relationships between word and thought and between teacher and learner. Like Socrates, Vygotsky held that social interaction plays a pivotal role in developing a child's ever deepening relationships between words and concepts.
A more subtle concern for Socrates is that written words can be mistaken for reality; their seeming impermeability masks their essentially illusory nature. Because they "seem... as though they were intelligent" and, therefore, closer to the reality of a thing, words can delude people, Socrates feared, into a superficial, false sense that they understood something when they have only just begun to understand it.
[second objection: Memory Destruction]
By committing to memory and examining huge amounts of orally transmitted material, young educated Greek citizens both preserved the extant cultural memory of their society and increased personal and social knowledge.
...Socrates held this entire system in esteem not so much for a concern for preserving tradition as from the belief that only the arduous process of memorization was sufficiently rigorous enough to form the basis of personal knowledge that could then be refined in dialogue with a teacher. From this larger interconnected view of language, memory, and knowledge, Socrates concluded that written language was not a "recipe" for memory, but a potential agent of its destruction.
[third objection: Loss of Control over language]
Underneath his ever-present humor and seasoned irony lies a profound fear that literacy without guidance of a teacher or of a society permits dangerous access to knowledge. Reading presented Socrates with a new version of Pandora's box: once written language was released there would be no accounting for what would be written, who could read it, or how readers might interpret it.
Socrates' enemy never really was the writing down of words, as Plato realized. Rather, Socrates fought against the failures to examine the protean capacities of our language and to use them with all our intelligence.