How would Plato have used Twitter? To tell the world what he just ate for lunch? To sound off about the Emmys? To scold Kim Kardashian?
Probably not. But he may have left one clue: “Wise men speak because they have something to say,” declares a quote that’s often—though probably falsely—attributed to him. “Fools because they have to say something.” The anonymous person who snagged the @Plato Twitter handle eight years ago took these words to heart and has never tweeted anything. So far, it’s been a brilliant performance.
There’s a deeper question here. Beyond tweeting, how would Plato have responded to modern changes in the way humans communicate? During his own time, people increasingly recorded their thoughts and experiences in writing, and he worried that written language reduced our reliance on memory. The tool made us less human, even mechanical, he argued, because once something was jotted down, it no longer came from within a person. It was less authentic, and therefore less true.
Then again, Plato expressed this concern in Phaedrus, his dialogue that most famously grapples with the issue, by writing it down.
Plato’s complicated relationship with writing—or really, with the seismic shifts of technological change—forms the heart of an impressive new book, Paper: Paging Through History. Mark Kurlansky, the author, has written two previous books, Salt and Cod, that use the condensed histories of their respective subjects to explore the wider global histories of empire and capitalism. Here again he picks up a seemingly mundane commodity to examine a wider phenomenon: historical attitudes toward disruptive technologies. His question: how do humans absorb and disseminate information? His answer helps reveal the evolution, both politically and economically, of how the world has come to be organized.