When people say that the internet and the digitization of culture represent something as important as the invention of movable type by Gutenberg in the 15th century, I usually wonder if that can be true.
The Gutenberg revolution gave us the Reformation. Luther was the first publishing phenomenon in human history, and later, when it had settled down a bit, it gave us the scientific revolution and then the Enlightenment. The first website is generally dated to 1995.
As of today, there are 1.5 billion websites worldwide, about 200 million of which are active. Facebook dates to Feb. 4, 2004 — my birthday, by the way, when I was 49 years old. As of today, there are approximately 2 billion Facebook users. If the digital revolution merits comparison with the Gutenberg revolution, we should wonder what it will do for humankind.
What would Mr. Jefferson think? Well, let’s look at a few of the results.
First, it knits the world together. My mother died a month ago today. She was 86. My daughter flew out from New York City. We handled some of the logistics of death certificates, cremation, banking, and the laws of inheritance. We looked for her address book — her handwriting was appalling — so that we could inform her friends, but that proved to be unnecessary.
At my daughter’s suggestion, I posted three short tributes to my mother on Facebook, and within a few hours of her death, the word had traveled to all 50 states and far beyond. Thanks to social media, everyone who needed to know was informed within a few hours of my mother’s death. By the time the obituary appeared in North Dakota newspapers, it was old news. The internet has nipped the world together so completely that my internet notice — a series of numerical codes representing the English alphabet — hurdled out of my keyboard like lightning and reached everyone in my little cosmos instantly, and then each person who knew Mother passed that news onto his or her network, family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues and within an hour or two, everyone everywhere who needed to know, knew.
Fifteen years ago, I would have clipped out the obituary from the print edition of the Dickinson Press, photocopied it at a Kinko’s or a post office, folded the copies after writing a brief note on each one, put them into envelopes, bought stamps, deposited the envelopes in a postal box after which humans would have canceled the stamps, sorted the mail by zip code, put it into trucks and planes and delivered it four or five days later into boxes at residences all over the United States.
The response to my Facebook post was overwhelming. In the course of a week, several thousand people took the time to write tributes to my late mother, who was for a quarter century an English teacher at Dickinson High School in western North Dakota. The tributes were fabulous. If you ran a statistical analysis of how many of those individuals would have taken the time, assuming that they had even heard the news, to successfully complete the process of ascertaining my street address, buying a card, writing a tribute and then putting it with a stamp into the mail, I’m guessing it would have received a tiny fraction of the number of tributes that actually appeared by way of social media.
For the first time I found myself celebrating Mark Zuckerberg. No cat memes, no assaults on Obama, no new age mantras, no instructions on how to combine the keyword of your favorite Beatles song with the brand of your first car to determine your cold war spy name, Jude Falcon or Sun Escort.
Jefferson would have loved the ways in which the internet connects us to those far away, instantly and seemingly at no cost. He was always scolding his daughters and his friends for not writing him more. Think of the number of people who routinely post photos of themselves and their children who had never or rarely send prints to aunts, parents, grandparents or in-laws.
Second, think of the potential knowledge explosion the digital world represents. Just one example: The great Encyclopedia Britannica contains approximately 40,000 articles in approximately 40 volumes. Try lugging that load along on your summer vacation to Rome. There are currently 5,021,417 articles in the English version alone of Wikipedia, and all of them are contained in your smartphone, free, 24 hours per day, anywhere on Earth.
There are those who will still try to claim that Britannica is better and more reliable than Wikipedia, of course, but errors in Wikipedia can be corrected instantly, whereas a factual error in Britannica would have to wait for the next printing, and by the way, there won’t be a next printing.
If Jefferson had had a smartphone, he would have considered himself the most fortunate man who had ever lived. Already, there are 30 million volumes available, free on Google Books, and they won’t stop until every book ever written is available to anyone with an imagination to access them. There’s absolutely no excuse for ignorance now because if you really want to know how much the National Health Service of Great Britain costs each citizen per year, you can know that, and you can find out if it is really true that you have to wait three years for a routine knee replacement in Scotland or Wales, and yet, as we all know, most people would rather wallow in willful ignorance than look something up and get their facts right, because we don’t really want to know. We merely want to score points.
Third, thanks to the digital revolution, everyone now is a publisher. In the past, if you wanted to inform the world of your theory that black helicopters operated by former Israeli spies were spreading fluoride on the lettuce fields of central valley in California to lull us to sleep before our guns are confiscated by liberals, you’d either need a mimeograph machine and a bunch of stamps, or you would have to try to slip your conspiracy theory past the city editor of a newspaper, and at least the most vicious ad hominem in your letter to the editor would be left on the cutting room floor. Today, anyone anywhere can throw any notion, theory, accusation, innuendo up into the internet cosmos and given how completely the world is now instantly connected, you are probably going to get thousands or even millions of likes. Even if you argue that Lee Harvey Oswald was president Obama’s great-grandfather. Talk about the law of unintended consequences.
I read the other day that a serious peer-reviewed journal shows that false news — fake news — actually travels more quickly and more effectively than the truth. You may have seen the meme a few months ago in which a group of black NFL players seemed to be celebrating the burning of the American flag in a locker room. A ‘friend,’ I use air quotes here, of mine from northern Idaho, sent that photo to her entire contact list accompanied by a pious and outraged cover note about how that photo allows us to see ‘how profoundly un-American and unpatriotic African American athletes really are, after all that we have done for them,’ that sort of thing.
The minute I saw that photo, I knew it was a fake, if for no other reason, and there are many, than that nobody sets fire to a flag in a locker room. Once I scrutinized the photo for 30 seconds, I saw how crudely it had been photoshopped and cut and pasted by someone — a racist, a super patriot, a right wing extremist or President Trump’s 400-pound guy in his mother’s basement — to discredit the protest movement begun by Colin Kaepernick.
Twenty years ago, this could not have happened. Doctoring the photo would have been difficult and time consuming. Not anymore. Any moron can doctor a photo now and there are programs and apps that make it easy and encourage such manipulations. The old adage that a picture never lies is no longer operative.
A child sex ring in D.C,. in a pizza shop run by the Clintons? How addled does your brain have to be to believe this could be true? Obama planned to declare martial law and install himself permanently as president? If you look up the wackiest and most undeniably wrong political claims, you will find that millions of people either believe them or pretended to believe them for political advantage, and shared them out, too.
The internet has brought about a radical democratization of publishing. It all looks professional because of the uniform graphic sophistication of the web world, and without even the slightest peer review. Now anything goes. P. T. Barnum said, “there’s a sucker born every minute.”
Maybe the most depressing fact of our time is how susceptible millions and millions of people are to false news, fake news, lies, innuendo, conspiracy theories and pure BS. Jefferson famously said, “if you expect to be a nation ignorant and free, you expect what never has been and never can be.”
Well, here we are. We now know, beyond doubt, that the Russians plant fake news to destabilize American democracy — and it works. Tens of millions of people are taken in by these base manipulations. They and their worthy leader refuse to acknowledge that this is a problem, and some of them are now actually seen wearing T-shirts that say, “I’d rather be Russian than a Democrat.” Oh my.
How do we recover from all of this? I hear the seventh seal being opened perhaps by a cat playing a piano in white gloves.