To put it in a nutshell. No Gutenberg, no Luther. No Luther, no Reformation. At one point, Luther (1483-1546) was publishing a book (more like a pamphlet) every three or four weeks. The advent of moveable type and the printing press (ca. 1440) made it possible for an obscure monk’s critique of late medieval Catholicism to travel all over Europe. The printing press made it relatively easy to disseminate the Bible, particularly the New Testament and the Psalms, more widely than ever before — by magnitudes.
It is no coincidence that just at that time Luther published his Bible in German (1522-1534) — thus essentially inventing the modern German language — and Erasmus of Rotterdam produced the first printed New Testament in Greek in 1516, the Reformation rocked European civilization to the core. Vernacular editions of the Bible soon became available in all the languages of Europe. In fact, the proliferation of vernacular Bibles helped break the hegemony of Latin as the language of theology and intellectual discourse — a language that only a tiny and well-educated percentage of the European population could read.
Literacy soared. As presses proliferated and the cost of publishing tracts, treatises, commentaries and books declined, an explosion of printed discourse transformed Europe from a hierarchical culture where subordination and deference prevailed and ancient authority was determinative, to a more fluid culture in which previously unheard-of thoughts and ideas could attempt to take their place in what, by the Enlightenment, was called a “free marketplace of ideas.” Just think of the importance in the American Revolution of the Declaration of Independence, first printed July 4, 1776, the same day it was adopted by the Second Continental Congress, or Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” America’s first bestseller (Jan. 10, 1776), or the “Federalist Papers” (1787-88), which “sold” the new Constitution to a skeptical American public.
In 1823, just three years before his death, Thomas Jefferson explained to his old friend John Adams that the proliferation of inexpensive printing would help liberate oppressed peoples all over the world. If books can be smuggled into nations living under despotic rule, and people can see their natural rights articulated by individuals like John Locke or Voltaire, they will never rest until they have secured the blessings of liberty.
Jefferson wrote, “The light which has been shed on mankind by the art of printing has eminently changed the condition of the world … And, while printing is preserved, it can no more recede than the sun return on his course.” If a book clandestinely carried into Persia or Russia or Turkey in 1804 could have a liberating impact, imagine the breathtaking capacity of electronic discourse (or Radio Free Europe for that matter) can have in an era of nearly infinitely more sophisticated communication.
That was then. The printing press changed everything.
The Digital Revolution
Now we are in the early adolescent phase of a more profound revolution, and it, too, is rocking the world. It’s hard for us to measure the disruption (though we can intuit it) and the revolutionary potency of digital communication. But it is clear that the internet and social media are essential elements in the bewildering cultural and political wars of our time. Marshall McLuhan was right: In many respects, the medium is the message.
If you wanted to voice your political views or your discontentment with the state of things before 1995, you could write a letter to your local newspaper that would be scrutinized by a copy editor for civility, grammar and diction and whittled down to manageable size before ever appearing in print. If you wrote something incendiary or abusive, the editor would either throw your letter in the trash or call you on the telephone — back then you had to provide actual name, address and phone number to get a letter considered — and talk you down off the ledge of your strongest pronouncements.
Or you had to get yourself to a mimeograph machine. The inexpensive ones were cranked by hand. The best versions had an electric motor. You had to use a typewriter (not a keyboard) to pound out your screed on a persnickety form — on which correction was very difficult, usually by way of blotting — and then attach one part of the form to the drum of the mimeograph machine, make sure the well had plenty of copy fluid (a somewhat addicting smell) and paper and then crank out five,10, 50 or 500 copies of your op-ed piece. And that’s when the hard work began because the only way to get the document into the hands of the public was to mail copies (fold, insert in envelope, add address and stamp, and drop in a post box), hand them out at Hyde Park Corner or leave them at the back of the room of some public event. If you wanted to include an illustration, well, that was next to impossible given mimeograph technology. The resulting document looked like something cooked up in someone’s basement.
‘Platform’ as Both Noun and Verb
Publishing your views to the world was, in short, tedious and time consuming, and if you wanted your opinions to reach the world through a “platform,” there was a gatekeeper to see to it that you played by basic rules of civility.
Today, if you want to voice your political views or your discontentment with the state of things, you sit down at your computer, choose your platform (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Tik-Tok, your blog) and key in your perspective, whether it is brief (“Lock Her Up!”) or a 75-page manifesto. Thanks to the amazing revolution in design options and user-friendly software, you can now perform all sorts of nifty formatting tricks, add cartoons, photographs, even video packages and make your dissertation on fluoridating water or the need for universal health care look better (slicker, cleaner, clearer, seemingly “professional,” with more bells and whistles) than the most handsomely printed book of 1743, the year Thomas Jefferson was born in the outback of Virginia. No censorious editor stands between you and your pronouncements. Nobody edits for length. The only grammar and usage cop now is your autocorrect and color-coded grammar warning system on the word processor. Nobody urges you to tone it down (unless you are married) or cut out the name-calling.
After spending a fraction of the time it would have taken to prepare the old mimeograph version of your dissertation on the evils of hog confinement barns, you can create a professional-looking “publication,” better illustrated than any magazine of the 20th century, and all you have to do is push “send” or “post.”
Care to illustrate your thesis? Google Images will serve you up tens of millions of photographs, cartoons, graphs or maps for the price of a couple of keystrokes. Do you want to include a half-remembered quotation from Abraham Lincoln or Leon Trotsky? Five or 10 minutes on Google (or another search engine) will not only refine your search, but allow you to cut and paste the quotation without bothering to retype it.
The Digital Democracy of Publishing
We live in the first time in human history when everyone who has access to a laptop and the Internet can publish. No wonder it’s a little anarchic. The digital revolution has given everyone a printing press, a darkroom and a distribution network, at essentially no cost. The result is Whitmanesque. Discourse is not merely produced by the kind of people who gravitate to newspaper offices and the ivory tower but by the people who frequent NASCAR, professional sports stadiums, the local tavern, Rotary Clubs, professional wrestling arenas, church suppers, farm implement shows, cowboy poetry gatherings, offbeat political organizations, chamber of commerce dinners, fight clubs, flea markets, book clubs and motorcycle rallies. All of these Americans have something to say, and what they have to say would not always pass muster with their high school English teacher. Let freedom ring! But it also jangles.
Peer review was a kind of mixed blessing. At its best, it served as a filter that weeded out demonstrably false propositions, bad science, libelous pronouncements and various forms of extremism. Peer review still matters, at least in academic circles, especially science, and in the major journals, including online journals. But it also gave a relatively small number of individuals, often self-important individuals, the power to decide what gets shared with a wider world and what never sees the light of day. The established cultural gatekeepers not only were often blind to important ideas they had no lens to recognize, but they often protected bigotry, injustice, racism and patriarchy against the winds of change. The digital revolution represents a radical democratization of human discourse and expression. It’s heady and intoxicating. Now “everyone” can publish. Not everyone has something useful to say, but of course that doesn’t prevent them from entering the arena on their own terms.
Time After Time of Great Disruption
Traditional political discourse has been disrupted and in some ways destabilized by the capacity not just of political factions but every individual to weigh in on public policy instantaneously. Howard Dean’s internet strategy cleared the way for Barack Obama to use social media to prevail in the 2008 presidential election at a time when the establishment of both parties was still wedded to what turned out to be shopworn communication vehicles. Donald Trump rode his Twitter account into the White House, disrupting a Republican establishment that seemed otherwise ready to nominate Jeb Bush in 2016. Twitter’s controversial decision to de-platform — that is, to ban Trump permanently from its platform (Jan. 8, 2021) has temporarily rendered the former president silent — for the first time in at least five hectic years. Whatever else is true, Twitter’s decision will be economically costly because Trump drove traffic to Twitter in unprecedented and indeed unpredictable ways. It seems inevitable that he will be back on some other platform.
The digital revolution might potentially help create what the Enlightenment’s “free marketplace of ideas,” or a meritocracy in which cultural products, including expressions of political opinion, can attract their market share without the various filters that have constrained freedom of expression (except on soap boxes) for most of the history of Western civilization. The “silent majority” and the “forgotten Americans” now have a potent megaphone, and they know how to use it.
As with most breathtaking new technologies, the early history and adolescence of the digital revolution enable a fairly large level of chaos. Who knew that one of the prime beneficiaries of the internet would be digital pornography? How did Facebook become the heartland of cat memes? It is truly a brave new world. But it comes at a cost.
It turns out people have a lot to get off their chests! Which is to put it lightly. Give the millions of people who were effectively without a public voice for most of their lives — for most of civilization — the opportunity to get into the discourse arena, and at so convenient, inexpensive and unpunishable a manner, and they are going to do some catching up and say things to the wider world that perhaps they were only able to express at the Saturday coffee klatch previously. And if they really want to let it rip, they can create an anonymous or unidentifiable online persona, a kind of no-holds-barred platform to say all the dark or crazy or unpopular things they have been thinking all these years. In fact, the exhilaration of such access to “publishing” is so great that it sometimes prompts otherwise reasonable people to break social, political, religious and cultural taboos just for the secret pleasure of transgression. Just to stir the pot. Just to see their words in print.
Adolescence Is Painful: Is Our Democracy Too Old for This?
So far, it appears that the American people have not yet developed the critical thinking skills to sort truth from nonsense online, plausible argument from baseless conspiracy theory, science from wishful thinking. Because advanced design programs that are now built into all social media platforms produce discourse that is so polished, beautifully formatted, colorful, engaging and entertaining, it is not possible on the surface to tell the difference between a carefully reasoned argument and what Theodore Roosevelt called “the lunatic fringe.” At a glance, the “look” of an essay about the philosophy of Bertrand Russell is identical to the look of a claim that the Parkland and Sandy Hook school shootings were “false flag” operations perpetrated by the anti-Second Amendment conspirators. On the surface, an article commemorating the Holocaust looks no different in polish and formatting from one denying that the Holocaust even happened. Spellcheck, wraparound text formatting, colorful borders and boxed illustrations give whatever is published the look of serious professionalism, whether the author spent years researching the subject or knocked it out after hearing something annoying on the morning talk shows. The medium is the message, and the message (at least superficially) is that all discourse is born equal.
We are going to have to be patient, endure a great deal of noise and cultural and political catharsis before the sons and daughters of the digital revolution begin to address the world in less chaotic and less extreme ways. A good Jeffersonian will argue that the cultural “establishment” should not despair over this phenomenon or predict the apocalypse but simply allow the “yeasty stuff of democracy” to have its day, so that when everyone has had the chance to vent in an unencumbered way, the currently wild and crazy discourse will yield to a saner and more reasonable market of ideas in which, for example, actual evidence, might matter.
We can at least hope for the advent of greater civility and maturity in our political discourse. My sense is that these growing pains will diminish over time. The early anarchic phase of unfiltered publishing will give way to a more refined and chastened discourse. The sooner the better if you love American democracy.
You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, “The Future In Context.”