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This article continues from The Information Jacuzzi - Part I.
The Middle Ages was not a great era for budding writers. In those days, there was only one large publisher in all of Western Europe: the Catholic Church. Nearly every scribe on the continent worked in one of its affiliated monasteries or theological universities. Any writer who hoped to have his work duplicated and distributed had to win the sanction of Church leaders, and they were not known for permissive editing. Even writers who published outside the Church suffered from its monopoly on information, as the Pope routinely ordered heretical works banned and burned—usually along with the author.
That’s why the printing press, invented in the 1440s, was so significant. It bypassed Church scribes and produced books so quickly and cheaply that anyone with a little money or a wealthy patron could spread their ideas across the continent. Seventy years after its invention, Martin Luther published his famous 95 Theses criticizing Church practices. His ideas were not entirely new, but they spread far further than those of his predecessors, who lived before the printing press. As with previous heretics, the Pope excommunicated Luther and banned his writings, but his tracts had already flooded every corner of Europe. Thousands of people read and reacted to his ideas. The Protestant Reformation was born.
Meanwhile, a German astronomer known as Regiomontanus set up the first scientific printing press in 1475. His publication of astronomical data and translations of classical scientific texts influenced a young mathematician named Nicolaus Copernicus. In 1543, Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, which contradicted Church doctrine by proposing that the earth revolved around the sun. His work inspired Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler, whose ideas challenged Church doctrine even more directly, and ultimately gave birth to the Scientific Revolution.
The direct result of Luther’s heresy and Copernicus’ radical idea was a precipitous collapse in the authority of the Church. Authority is the power to influence others. We often think of it as a coercive force that compels people through violence or the threat of violence, but the Church had no armies to enforce its dictates. The Pope’s ability to command princes and emperors depended on the widespread belief that his word represented the will of God. As long as the Church controlled the flow of information, it was able to sustain this belief. But when dissidents gained the ability to introduce alternative ideas to a wide audience, the principle of papal infallibility lost its sway, the Church’s authority crumbled, and the world changed forever.
Leaping ahead to the 21st century, new publishing inventions are again changing the world. The Internet and satellite cable have made information more accessible to more people than ever before. Like the printing press, these technologies are eroding the authority of old institutions and engineering profound alterations to the structure of modern society, the full effect of which has only begun to manifest.
The world got a fresh taste of the disruptive power of information in early 2011. Unlike the Catholic Church, modern dictatorships do rely on military force to maintain power, but the threat of violence alone is rarely sufficient for a small ruling elite to control a large restive population. The majority of the citizens must also believe either that the regime is better than the alternatives or else that they are powerless to do anything about it. That’s why autocrats aggressively control the news media and silence dissent. They must control the flow of information in order to keep the majority of their subjects from realizing the regime’s weaknesses and failures.
In the modern Middle East, Internet news, satellite television broadcasts, and communication through blogs and social networks cracked the autocrats’ information monopolies. Long before dissidents in Egypt employed Facebook to organize their protests, new currents of information had been quietly undermining the authority of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. When Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei returned to Egypt in 2010 to challenge Mubarak, he declared, “The first thing is to say the emperor has no clothes.” But he was late to the party. Recognition of Mubarak’s corruption had already permeated much of the nation. Egyptians heeded the Facebook summons in January 2011 because they already knew their emperor was naked.
In the West, we imagine ourselves to be removed from the upheavals taking place in autocratic countries. Our governments are democratic, and our press is free, so the Information Revolution seems to pose no threat to us. But though our institutions are less brittle than Egypt’s and do not rely on the threat of violence, they are not immune. We too have our authorities, and as information flows faster and wilder, they too are eroding.
In a 2005 speech to the American Society of Newspapers, Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox television, the Wall Street Journal, and numerous other media organizations around the world, described the last century as “a highly centralized world where news and information were tightly controlled by a few editors, who deemed to tell us what we could and should know.” In my previous post, I described this top-down flow of information as a shower in which information streamed out to the masses through a restricted set of channels.
The Internet has changed the course of this flow. Information now cascades in all directions—through blogs, wikis, aggregators, online repositories, user reviews, tweets, likes, and status updates along with all the old sources. The chaotic, unruly flow resembles a jacuzzi, not a shower. If the old order was an information oligarchy, we can call the new order an information ochlocracy—mob rule. The mob has little reverence for the authority of yesterday’s oligarchs. It’s as happy to reference Wikipedia as Encyclopedia Britannica, and the former is infinitely cheaper. The venerable New York Times versus the online upstart Huffington Post? Who cares? It’s just another news source. What matters is who recommended the link to the article and whether the one-liner accompanying it is sufficiently intriguing.
Such indifference infuriates the old guard, which prides itself on impeccable credibility. In March 2011, Bill Keller, former editor-in-chief of the New York Times, delivered a chest-thumping diatribe against “the ‘American Idol’-ization of news” in which he vowed that the Times would never follow some other “once-serious news outlets” in promoting stories that are “trending” on Twitter. After boasting of being named the 50th Most Powerful Person in the World by fellow oligarch Forbes magazine, Keller mocked the Huffington Post and its editor, Arianna Huffington, dismissing the site as a compilation of “celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications.”
But Keller’s broadside failed to have its intended effect. Instead of rallying the faithful, he was widely rebuked and ridiculed, online and off. The harangue cemented his reputation as an out-of-touch blowhard, which he had first cultivated in 2009 with a televised interview for the satiric Daily Show that mocked the Times offices as a “walking colonial Williamsburg.” Keller’s personal surrender of dignity symbolizes the diminishing authority of his newspaper, his industry, and the entire information oligarchy. The emergence of alternatives has swayed the modern world’s faith in its most trusted information sources—much the way that Martin Luther swayed Europeans’ faith in their pope.
The decline of media authority has paralleled a decline in the authority of other influential figures, including scientists, doctors, political leaders, and experts of all sorts. Their authority was based in part on privileged access to information and limited availability of alternative views. For instance, in the information jacuzzi, medical patients can easily discover a vast amount of information—both scientific and otherwise—about their conditions. Similarly, open science journals and databases enable laypeople to access science research directly, and the Web offers plenty of pseudoscience for those seeking alternative perspectives on politically charged topics like climate science and evolution.
Whether you greet the decline of the oligarchs and experts with jubilation or terror depends on your opinion of the old authorities. Bloggers and political activists who refer disparagingly to MSM (Mainstream media) will find much to like, as will homeopaths, climate skeptics, conspiracy theorists, and other subscribers to alternative ideas. Journalists, doctors, scientists, and public officials may shake their heads in despair.
But there is hope even for the pessimists. The Protestant Reformation produced centuries of fanatical sectarian war and political turmoil, but it fertilized scientific progress, economic growth, and new philosophies of tolerance and equality. The information jacuzzi is also pregnant with potential. A meritocracy of ideas has begun to supplant hierarchical academic clubs that have long used research pedigree to inhibit groundbreaking scholarship. The news media may not be as objective as it once was, but its growing diversity and accessibility is producing a public that is more informed and engaged. Even as angry new political factions tear at one another’s throats and disdain prudent compromise, they have introduced a new dynamism into America’s calcified two-party system.
15th century futurists could not have predicted the chaos that was about to engulf their frozen world. They would have foreseen neither the scientific advances and artistic explosions nor the political revolutions and economic expansions. But if they paid attention, they could see that the old order was slowing shedding its authority and making way for a whole new world.
Michael Wolraich will discuss “Journalism that Impacts Policy” at the National Journal Conference for Schools of Public Policy and Affairs at the University of Virginia on Saturday, January 26. For discounted conference passes, contact dagblog.com.