Between the Spoken and the Written: The Classical Media of Philosophy
In addition to being new, the web also is a medium that lives between the spoken and the written. The advantages of the first of these; conversations can be summed up as follows: They are easy and informal (especially among friends). And because the number of receivers can be limited, and the receivers are known, speech can be very focused and tailored to its audience. Additionally, the interactivity of conversations, and the fast feedback they allow, can make having a good conversation a very fluid experience. Now for the written word: Writings can be revised, re-visited, and reflected upon as long as necessary by their authors, even until they are perfect, or at least a lot better than spontaneous speech would have been. And because of their possible length, cross-references, and the ability of readers to silently re-read passages, texts have a capacity for much more complexity. They also are fixed, and thus come to stand on their own, and can easily be referenced. And lastly, they are also lasting through time, and easy to share and copy, especially thanks to modern technologies.
Plato lived, spoke and wrote during the transition from an oral, to our written culture. And he was aware of some of the differences between them. But unexpectedly enough he was quite sceptical about writing. In Phaedrus he stated that true philosophy is only possible verbally:
"Then he [who knows the just and good and honourable] will not seriously incline to write his thoughts [which he values and which he wishes to bear fruit] in water with pen and ink, sowing words which can neither speak for themselves nor teach the truth adequately to others?"
He saw writing as a derived form, derived from speech, further from the true thought. Besides, texts were passive, that is: helpless. They could not defend their contents from misinterpretation. He thus saw writing mainly as an aid to memory. A remarkable case of the horseless carriage syndrome, and one which lasted for hundreds of years, because texts were for a long time still read aloud, memorized, and really contemplated about only after all this. Ironically enough, Plato's 'memory aid' nevertheless unleashed a long philosophical tradition. That is to say; Philosophy is a footnote to Plato, largely - if not only - because writing allows for reflection, commentary, ...and of course footnotes.
Walter J. Ong predicted that the web would bring a new orality, but so far it is rather more of a mix, a fusing of media, among which in the form of hypertext: foremostly writing and speech. It thus is a move back to orality, but only relatively so, as it rather combines their advantages than taking steps back: It, first of all, is fast, interactive and can be easy and informal; as easy as talking to a colleague at a social event. Additionally hypertexts can handle immense complexity (such as the 300.000 pages large manual for the F16), can be stored over time, and are much easier to share and access. One literally doesn't have to leave ones chair to browse between hypertexts created, stored and maintained on different continents.
Now hypertext does have its own peculiarities, such as the constant choices readers have to face, and the discontinuity between the parts of a hypertext, but most academic philosophers already read books in non-linear ways anyway (hardly ever from cover to cover), so besides requiring yet a different reading strategy (such as the transition from reading aloud to silently), it does not necessarily need to lead to a lesser form of philosophy. It is interesting to wonder what Plato would have thought of the web, which unites the medium he cherished with the one that made his thought immortal: conversation and writing; the two classical media of philosophy. Paradoxically, he might have been a lot more welcoming towards the web than many philosophers are today.