Must I Write It Down?

‘You have to write it down’ my boss said to me. ‘If you don’t, you’re going to forget it’. She continued, ‘I have a terrible memory, if I don’t write things down, I’ll forget them. So make sure you write your tasks down so you don’t forget anything’.

The absence of fear for what is potentially early onset memory loss worries me. That aside, her logic is interesting. According to my boss, she is forgetful, therefore, she writes things down. Although her memory was likely failing irrespective of her writing, in many ways, I think now she is forgetful because she writes things down.

I will draw on the story of Thamus, in Plato’s Phaedrus to help demonstrate my point.

Thamus, a king of a city of Upper Egypt was entertaining the god Theuth, who was the inventor of many things including numerology, geometry, astronomy, and writing. In exhibiting all his inventions, Theuth claimed that they should be available to all Egyptians. Socrates continues,

Thamus inquired into the use of each of them, and as Theuth went through them expressed approval or disapproval, according as he judged Theuth’s claims to be well or ill founded. It would take too long to go through all that Thamus is reported to have said for and against each of Theuth’s inventions. But when it came to writing, Theuth declared ‘Here is an accomplishment, my lord the King, that will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom”. To this, Thamus replied, “Theuth, my paragon of inventors, the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. So it is in this; you who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your offspring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signed instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory.

It appears that what has happened to my boss is that by relying on writing things down she has ‘ceased to exercise her memory’ and has become forgetful. But, rather than correctly observing how a reliance on writing is weakening her own cognitive ability, she relies on it even more; only furthering a process whereby the medicine she seeks is what makes her sick. Writing, here, performs the opposite of its assumed function.

Writing carries a bias for the offloading of information elsewhere. Indeed, it might make recollecting things easier; but it likewise does nothing to make your own power of remembrance stronger; in fact, it tends towards the opposite.

I will write down my tasks to appease my boss but I will not allow recollection through writing to become a substitute for organic remembrance. Writing is a tool. I will be wary not to become, in Thoreau’s words, a tool of my tools.

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