Context, Form, Function and The Invisible Hand of Technology

Lenny Bruce reached his peak as a nightclub performer in the 1950’s. Lenny’s routine was considered risqué for the era because of his use of obscenities and discussion of sex, drugs and religion. On April 3 1964, Lenny was arrested on obscenity charges on the basis of his performance at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village. The indictment had been procured by presenting a transcript of Lenny’s routine before a 23 member grand jury. During the trial, the prosecution presented its evidence by calling on a police officer to read from the transcript of Lenny’s routine. Lenny just shook his head and said: “I’m going to be judged by his bad timing, his ego, his garbled language.” Lenny Bruce knew he was beaten because his oral text was going to be presented devoid of context.

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Ironies Abound

Socrates, despite having a reputation as the foremost Greek philosopher who challenged the religion, philosophy, culture and the government of his time, is not credited as the author of any literary works. Instead, Socrates’ philosophical views were passed on through two of his students who learned at the feet of the master through oral discourse. In A History of Western Philosophy Bertrand Russell discusses the two philosophers who wrote extensively about Socrates – Xenophon and Plato. Plato has earned a stronger reputation because of his skillful writing. However, Plato often utilized the character of Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own opinions in order to hang his more subversive opinions on a man who had already been convicted and executed. Xenophon, on the other hand, presents Socrates as an honourable man who is less subversive. “There has been a tendency to think that everything Xenophon says must be true, because he had not the wits to think of anything untrue.” (Russell, 1971) Is Plato’s Socrates from Phaedrus a close approximation of the historical Socrates or is he entirely a literary invention facilitated by the invention of writing? Is this what Socrates means when he talks about writing presenting only a semblance of the truth? The irony is that Plato uses a fictitious Socrates as a literary figure to denounce writing, when in fact, Plato (the actual author) passed on the (alleged) words of the speaker (Socrates) through the written word.

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A Wider World of Discourse

O’Donnell presents a cogent argument that all new frontiers (geographic, intellectual and technological) expose us to new dangers and new opportunities. However after the pioneers have passed on and the next generation adopts the frontier as home, the dangers dissipate as the technology evolves and we make an implicit bargain with society wherein we accept the new technology at a cost. His argument is enriched with a reflective historical perspective wherein he discusses the role of the printed word in aiding the survival and expansion of (what started out as) the cult of Christianity. He makes brilliant observations regarding the supposed wider world of discourse (as introduced by the written word, the printed word and the internet) and how this seemingly democratizing influence also creates polarization, extremism and exclusion. Thus, from a socio-political perspective, new technologies create new communities that dominate the discourse and others that are marginalized.

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