A brief history of information

Gutenberg

Information expands in sudden bursts or waves which sweep over human communities and wreak havoc with existing relationships.  If we discount the birth of culture 40,000 years ago, there have been five such waves, all in historic times.

The first was the invention of writing, which raised to power a caste of scholar-priests.  The second was the development of the alphabet, which broke the priestly monopoly on literacy and made possible the citizen republics of Athens and Rome.

The third wave of information began with Gutenberg’s printing press, and immediately presented a new and daunting problem.  Until then, information had been extremely scarce.  Titles were few and known.  The great ancient libraries, like that of Alexandria, worried about authoritative texts, not the qualifications of the author.

After the printing press, this changed forever.  Books multiplied without end – at first the old familiar titles, but soon these were buried under an avalanche of strange new books, many of uncertain provenance, by authors of doubtful authority who made outlandish claims.  The unsettling effect on European society can  scarcely be imagined.

The first Gutenberg bible was published in 1455.  Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in 1517.  Without access to the persuasive power of the printed word, Elizabeth Eisenstein argues, the Reformation might not have spread or fractured into so many disputing sects.  The printed bible stands at the center of the Protestant ideal of an individual conscience wrestling with the word of God.

Too much information, of wildly unequal value, spilled from the printing presses.  How to tell good from bad?

The princes of Europe understood the difference between submissive and subversive, and after the turmoil of the wars of religion they established censorship regimes to preserve purity of discourse.  Yet the censors showed uneven zeal in different countries – banned material reached France from Holland, for example – and, beyond politics and religion, judgments needed to be made on publications which dealt with science, manners, and the arts.

So arose, spontaneously, the “republic of letters,” among the most important institutions of knowledge in history – and probably the least known, in part because it wasn’t an institution at all.  It was an informal exchange of correspondence, journal articles, and full-length books within a group whose members, by mixing erudition with style, became the arbiters of informational value over many domains.  Because of its unofficial character, the republic of letters began the liberation of information from the organs of political and religious authority.

Those who wish to learn more about this neglected movement should turn to Eisenstein and to McNeely’s and Wolverton’s Reinventing Knowledge.  Here I’ll touch – briefly! – on its most interesting features.

The republic of letters far more resembled today’s environment than the world of industrialized information which succeeded it.  It was headless, structureless, powerless, and virtual – an international “network without nodes,” according to McNeely and Wolverton – and it was staffed by amateurs rather than paid academics or journalists.  While small in numbers, and an unquestionably elite group, it was based on merit, and included courtiers and artisans, men and women, Protestant pastors and Catholic abbots.

By detaching their judgments from official doctrines, members of the republic invented a “private public”:  what we now call public opinion.  They set the informational agenda for what became an increasingly important court of last appeal, beyond the grasp of state power.

Inevitably, members turned their critical faculties to politics and religion.  This is the story told – in deadly dull Marxese – by Jurgen Habermas.  The republic of letters justified the rise of Parliament in Britain, housed the philosophic and encyclopedic movements of the eighteenth century, and set the table for the French Revolution.

The path from Gutenberg to Robespierre is roundabout – but, again, a fresh wave of information cleared the ground for a new social and political dispensation.

Improvements in printing and communications, along with a spectacular rise in literacy, propelled the next wave:  the age of industrial information, which lasted roughly from the middle of the nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth.  Relative to a vast new reading public, information remained scarce enough to be valuable, and a class of mediators arose to profit from this circumstance:  the mass media.  Media barons bundled bizarrely disparate stuff – comics, box scores, stock market quotes, war reports – mass produced it on a schedule, and sold it at a profit to an undifferentiated public.

Until only yesterday, newspapers ruled the earth, and a TV news anchorman could be the most trusted man in America.  Much has been said about the death of news, not least by me; some historical context might still be in order.

Unlike the denizens of the republic of letters, the new mediators knew little of substance.  They dealt in stereotyped, arbitrarily foreshortened narratives, in a style crabbed by the author’s desire to appear invisible.  They set the agenda because they owned the printing presses and broadcast stations in a near-monopoly market:  and if the terms “fourth estate” and “objective journalism” came into currency, it was because they in their vanity had coined them, and the public lacked a voice to talk back.

The public was also different from earlier times:  far larger and more diverse in its interests and appetites.  Whether any part of it actually followed the media’s lead remains uncertain, but the mediators behaved as if they doubted it, and treated their public like a skittish beast to be caged and tamed.  Walter Lippmann famously despaired of the task.  Public opinion, for Lippmann, had not only wrestled free of government compulsion – it had become unmoored from any authority, and was dangerously prone to rages and stampedes.

Contempt for the paying customer corrupted the way mass media handled information, particularly in connection to government.  Rejecting commercial reality, the mediators assumed the role of guardians over public opinion:  they fondly imagined they could save the public from itself.  Relations with government were tainted by this Platonic dream.  Mediators had always paid disproportionate attention to politicians, with whom they felt a strong kinship; now they sought a “higher objectivity” in which the political information they peddled in the marketplace coincided with their ambition to command the public’s mind.

In plain language, the mass media promoted and suppressed information for nakedly political reasons.  Politicians took note, and learned to play the media like a fiddle.  The result, so far as the purveyors of mass publicity are concerned, is a situation closer to Old Regime censorship than to the critical observations of the republic of letters.  Any who doubt this should consider the stark differences in the media treatment of Sarah Palin and John Edwards.

In fact, the fifth wave of information – really a digital tsunami – rendered the mass media politically irrelevant.  New platforms made information more abundant and accessible than ever, reducing its cost to zero.  Consumers and producers of the stuff became one and the same.  The public, offered a choice, abandoned the old mediators and engaged in a long migration to an uncertain destination.  The effects on public opinion will likely be huge, but are as yet unknown.

I will cover the fifth wave in a separate post.  Let me finish here with a few thoughts on the last wave, just now spent:  the Jurassic Age of information.

The rise of mass media paralleled the rise of powerful and intrusive governments.  This was no accident.   Strong structural parallels exist between media and government.  Both work top-down.  Both deal in monopolies – one of power, the other of information.  Both require the silence of the public, and expect to shape the public’s view of the world.

Of the two institutions, however, government is far and away more powerful:  except in times of revolution and chaos, it will play the tune to which the media must dance.  Different versions of this one-sided relationship can still be found across the world.

In the US context, it bears repeating that all players during this period have been paid professionals.  “High” information devolved to university professors.  “Official” information belonged to government workers.  Everything else fell by default to the profit-seeking media, employing salaried editors and journalists.

The role of guardian of public opinion has become more appealing to the mediators in proportion to their crashing failure in the marketplace.  But we should always remember that calls for “professionalism” in communicating information are of recent vintage – and, rightly understood, can only be received as a confession of conflict of interest.

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