I. The First Big Leap
The transition to a new communicative medium has never been easy for any society. From our lofty origins in oral tradition to the new techie substitutes, such a dynamic has never been without consequences. With the advent of a new methodology, comes a losing of the elements of the old. And with it, also comes those that oppose the change — those that regard it as vile and damaging to order and stability. Socrates, for one, was skeptical of the early transition to written word. In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato captures Socrates’s words (perhaps ironically) in a story about the Egyptians:
Socrates: But when they came to letters, this, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality .
Using this tale, Socrates tells us what is lost with the written word: the passion of speaking, the revelation of dialogue, the bearing of truth. He postulates that writing not only degrades truth, it only works to reciprocate it rather than expound it authentically. To Socrates, it denigrates memory by promoting record-keeping rather than mental recollection and contemplation. In essence, it introduces forgetfulness and keeps man from bearing the responsibility of remembering for himself. It is also constant; it bears no substantive change over time, other than, perhaps, its interpretation. And finally, it does not discriminate its audiences — making it accessible even to those that do not understand it. A speaker can change his tone and message depending on the audience. A work of writing can not.
Through this dialogue, Plato captures Socrates’s main concern, which was sustaining the art of rhetoric and fruitful dialogue. Was Socrates right; were some of his ‘predictions’ fulfilled? Absolutely, we certainly did lose something when oral tradition lost prominence. We lost the art of “story-telling,” and perhaps also some of the values of tribal kinship, but we remarkably gained much more. We attained the ability to spread ideas quicker and keep thoughts well-preserved for future generations to enjoy. Satirically, it was because of writing that Socrates is so revered today, despite the criticisms he had of it.
Not surprisingly, however, much of the initial mistrust that was said of the development from oral tradition to written word has been lost. Without a written account of these criticisms, such accusations have failed the test of time — Socrates is the only ones that remains, due to Plato’s writings, but we can only assume similar criticisms were being thrown around at the time. It is very unlikely that Socrates was the only individual making such claims in his day and age.
II. Suppression and Turmoil
“The printing press is either the greatest blessing or the greatest curse of modern times, one sometimes forgets which” – James Matthew Barrie
Turmoil ensued after the creation of a new technology that would radically alter communication. The printing press was invented in the 1440s by Johannes Gutenberg, and with it came violent social upheaval and a loss of Church dominance. With Protestantism on the rise, catalyzed by Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and spread through mass-printing, the Catholic Church finally saw a threat to its power. They soon scrambled in fear; Pope Innocent VIII introduced censorship in 1487, requiring that the Church approve of all books before publication . The Bible was prohibited to be printed in any language except Latin. Violence erupted in Western Europe as sectarian religious conflict escalated. Huguenots were slaughtered in France by Catholic mobs during the later half of the 16th century, supposed heretics were burned at the stake during the Inquisition of Spain, and the Thirty Years’ War, which was rooted in religious territorial disputes, became a full-scale European conflict by the first quarter of the 17th century.
Perhaps most importantly of all, the bloodshed Europe experienced after the introduction of the printing press tells us of the power of ideas. The Catholic Church was relatively left unchecked in its power and prestige before Gutenburg’s revolutionary invention. Now that ideas could spread more efficiently, dissent was brewing within Church dominion. In retrospect, the persistent efforts of the Catholic Church extend far beyond the religiosity they were attempting to control; they were the representatives of state power during the Middle Ages. During the height of Catholic rule, individual nations were fragmented and lacked governmental oversight in any meaningful degree. Domestic policy was open, and governance was mostly left to Catholic elites within the appointed hierarchy. The spread of a new communicative medium, the printing press, threatened the Church in its power. Its efforts to preserve its authoritarian hold was under the guise of preserving Catholicism, but that was the populist sentiment to stir peasantry support rather than the actual motivation. The Church still functioned as any other state apparatus; As a rule, the free flow of ideas is always antithetical to centralized power. The Catholic Church was no exception in this regard. It scrambled to secure its power just as any other power structure ultimately does when it feels threatened.
Catholic control would continue to diminish as the decades went on. The Enlightenment questioned the very nature of divine rule, and nationalism began to fully flourish after the Greek War for Independence, eventually replacing Christian “unity” with nationalist fervor. The printing press, and its quick dissemination, would consequently spark national, linguistic, and cultural unity amongst regional peoples which would form the basis for nationhood. Professor Benedict Anderson analyzes this phenomenon in his book, “Imagined Communities,” in which he cites the spread of nationalism to, what he calls, print-capitalism. The profit incentive to increase circulation by print-masters was so strong that they soon abandoned Latin as the standard, and adopted regional languages to facilitate sales . Soon, regional ties began to emerge as individuals began to relate to one another by their language and dialects, which soon evolved into nationalism and the modern nation-state. More generally, this spurred the beginnings of the modern market and facilitated trade amongst commoners. The Catholic Church now found the land it once controlled severely cut, as regions began forming their own respective governmental structures based on linguo-ethnic commonalities, eventually replacing Catholic dominion by state control in their respective regions. It was over, the Catholic Church finally lost its iron grip. A new epoch had emerged.
III. Reaching Modernity
“Modernity” is characterized by all the gadgetry we enjoy today. Television, radios, and telephones have all advanced our communicative capabilities and have allowed us to be in tune with each other and issues beyond our immediate setting. Recent developments, however, have transcended these inventions and have surpassed them in capacity. The Internet just could be the most remarkable and revolutionary creation of the modern era. Characterized by globalized communication, easy access, and plentiful information — the Internet has created an aura of data that has perhaps exceeded the human ability to indulge in it all. The social impact has been unequivocally exceptional. Spurring social movements in the Middle East, facilitating transparency in governance, and instigating awareness and understanding of worldly phenomena, the Internet has created an atmosphere rich of progressive potentiality and knowledge. It has brought an entirely new dimension to the validity of “spontaneous order.” The Internet, it seems, was created out of pure spontaneity; its branches being a natural development when left to its own means.
One of the largest problems in any society is the distribution of information. Generally speaking, whoever controls the influx of academic instruction ultimately holds the populace by the handles. Slowly, as humanity has progressed from each new communicative development, this centralization of information has drastically decreased. The commoners were now able to read, to write, and to engage in discourse — to a limited degree. With the advent of the Internet, this entire dynamic has been turned on its head. In its purest form, the Internet is the democratization of information. Relatively, anyone can comment and discuss issues if they have access. Rather than being restricted to academic elites, such topics have been moved from the institutional setting to the populist pool of discussion. Credentials, at least on the Internet, have become largely defunct.
In its current form, Internet discussion is in its infancy. With the fallacious claims and unsubstantiated arguments that frequent comment threads, we must realize that recent developments are still fundamentally in its early stages. The discussion has been handed to the people, for all the delve into, and it now must be absorbed likewise. Never before has there been such an explosion of knowledge given to the masses, and it can only be expected that its dealings will take several decades to fully take root. The so-called “Internet Generation” will, predictably, adapt to such changes and become used to its functions once they come of age.
Of course, as such changes begin to surface, questions begin to arise. Speculations have been made that the Internet has made us supposedly “dumber” . These Neo-Luddite criticisms bear resemblance to Socrates’s hesitations during the transition to the written word — we are losing a crucial component of our memory, we will only realize superficiality, and our attention will be deluded, it is said. The same archaic arguments are resurfacing, unsurprisingly. In another interesting parallel, the governmental organizations of the modern world are in a frenzy over the Internet’s potential for conflict, just as the Church was when it was threatened. In an effort to curb imaginary terrorism, legislation such as ACTA has been constantly brought to the table to address the issues of the cyber-terrorism, patent law, and threats to domestic tranquility . These resolutions have always come with a human face, promising safety and making clear its supposed necessity. Underneath this persona is the real intention; the facilitation of information is a threat to corporate and state power. Monopolization of power is in the interest of those within the dominion structure, and any clash of opinion is seen at ends with normalcy. The Internet has brought this conflict to the forefront. The struggle between those that wish to constrain information and those that hope to free it has become an acute contention in the modern world. We can only hope the institutions that wish to exhibit this control crumble before the conflict escalates. Freedom comes at a price; and it must be defended likewise.