The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
    Michael Wolraich's picture

    The Information Jacuzzi - Part II

    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



    Wonderful take on a truly NEW AGE!

    You know the President speaks of his need for help from 'those outside Washington' and we have old terms like 'ground swell' or 'working from the bottom up'.

    I think what makes all this so exciting is that no one knows how this is going to turn out.

    We are seeing new 'walls' created by the likes of the NYT and even TPM and Salon.

    That turn of events scares me.

    But this is one example of why this new age is so exciting.

    Newspapers are falling right and left (pun intended-ha) but in the years leading up to this new communication era these publications were being purchased by an oligarchy. Where once dwelt the penny newspapers owned and operated by thousands, where once dwelt the competing morning and afternoon papers we now have thousands and thousands of sources of information as well as thousands of sites to simply 'chat' and exchange ideas.

    The way you lay it out from an historical perspective makes this new era even more exciting. 

    I signed onto three petitions today. And whether it means anything or not these petitions now offer a place to add your own comments.

    Screw talk radio. What are the odds of being heard? You hold for an eternity and unless you have some tricks up your sleeve you are lucky to actually talk to the host or hosts once a year.

    Well that's enough of that.

    You got me thinking.


    You got me thinking.

    That's the highest honor you can give a blogger. Even beats the Dayly award. Thanks. 

    I wish that I were as optimistic as you about the changes. I fear the consequences of collapsing authority. I see Tea Parties and antiscience and tabloidism. But perhaps I'm just too nearsighted to see the emerging possibilities. 

    Your just cautious. The teaparty was more of a counter reaction to change. Will there be more of these? Probably, but so much other good will come from information revolution that will advance humanity.

    I can relate to Luther and Copernicus and others like them. They too were considered the RESISTANCE.

    Yeah, Resistance, you're the Copernicus of dagblog. 

    Can I be the Lex Luther? Please?


    No. You can be the Penguin.


    If you're the Walrus, what the heck did "goo goo g'joob mean"?

    Danny DeVito? Ugh. You do dislike me, don't you...

    Think positive, wasn't he the leader of the  Emperor Penguins?


    I can't recall if you ever said; but  these latest blog entries of yours, is this what your upcoming panel discussion is going to be about?  

    Will the new media be nothing more than mutual admiration societies? Where dissent will not be tolerated? A "Balkanization" Being told, you don't belong with this group go over to your right wing friends or visa versa?   

    I can empathize with Luther when others told him, "Conform, you heretic."

    I'm not sure but it's what I plan to talk about as I worm my way into the Media Elite. 

    I bet it goes well for you and I hope so. Meanwhile, would you like some tips from a Guy who has particular talent in that area?

    Remember me? When you take your seat at the table of the Media Elite. 

    Ironically, Luther was among those criticizing Copernicus!

    People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon ... This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us [Joshua 10:13] that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.

    Revolutionaries don't always get along. 

    Some information for your jaccuzzi.

    Both Galileo and Copernicus were funded by, educated in and working on research for the Catholic Church. A large part of the work had to do with problems in the 1,500 year old Julian calendar, dating from 45BC. Both Galileo and Copernicus worked within, and were supported by 'the system' as they promoted their revolutionary ideas.

    Due to actions of the Catholic Church the Julian calendar was replaced with the more accurate, modern system, the Gregorian calendar.  This was done by Pope Gregory XIII on 24 February, 1582.

    Protestants rejected the modern Gregorian calendar for over 100 years. Perhaps because it was of Catholic origin.

    Copernicus was a Catholic cleric, was educated at Catholic institutions including the Papal Curia in Rome, and like other astronomers of the 16th century his work on astronomy was carried out as a Catholic Church project to investigate the heavens.  Although he died forty years before the calendar revisions, Copernican mathematical models were used by Clavius in the creation of the Gregorian calendar.

    The popular history of Galileo being scourged and persecuted by the Church is largely fiction.

    Galileo was a member of and was funded by the Catholic Church his entire life. He was asked by Pope Urban VIII to write a book on heliocentrism when the late Copernicus theories were coming under dispute in the Church in the early 1600's.

    Pope Urban later withdrew this support of Galileo, due to accusations from conservatives who said Urban was weak on defending the Church doctrines.

    Galileo, however, refused to stop promoting his sun centric beliefs.

    Galileo's punishment was to be sentenced to loosely enforced house arrest at an Italian villa, the Villa Arcetri, with the full, life long financial backing of the local Catholic Archbishop of Siena. Hard time?

    While living out his life at the villa he produced some of his finest works on physics.

    All true (and important), but his academic freedom was also curtailed. After his conviction he was censured quite heavily, IIRC.

    While there is more information out there, there is more disinformation. In general people are no more or less ignorant than they were twenty years ago, but they are vastly more misinformed with a greater crowd affirming that misinformation. While centuries ago it was the church and the village affirming the world view and facts now it is a global mob.

    My first impulse is to agree with your base view, but, IMO, it is too simplistic - there are a few more elements impacting the 'dumbing down' of the majority.   That said, the end result has not proven to be positive for the masses.  Thank you sir for your insight.

    Yeah, I covered that. See Part I.

    You seem to cover the nature of the flow of information that I am talking about, but not the increase in disinformation contained in the flow. You may have implied that the ochlocracy is a source of increased erroneous information, in that you state that "the blogs, wikis, and social networks that cater to the information mob."  And the mob mentality is generally used a derogatory term. 

    The blogs, wikis and social networks can be a source of good, valuable and functional information, opinions and insights, as we all know.  (there are those who would see Dagblog as a source of misinformation). 

    My example would be that in the early 60s, most Americans didn't know squat about Vietnam, if they could even find it on a globe, just like Afghanistan.  The difference is that today when someone seeks out to "learn" about something like that country we're sending troops into, the individual is more likely to get something less than kosher than in the days when they turned to Walter Cronkite. 

    With help from Constantine and later Pepin, the Bishop of Rome controlled more and more territory and wielded a great deal of temporal power, including armies. Eventually Popes had varying authority over what were known as Papal States, though there were constant changes in their influence and alliances. The rise and fall of the church's temporal power may tie in with your thesis.

    Nice to hear from you, Donal. It's not clear to me how much military power the pope actually had (and for how long). The article suggests that the Church's power depended on the loyalty of the Emperor and local warlords.

    Of course, every ruler depends on the loyalty of his generals, but the Pope is a particularly interesting example because his divine authority was so much more significant than his military authority--and therefore particularly vulnerable to dissent.

    Speaking of dissent, did you catch the line that someone snuck into the wiki?

    the Frankish Empire collapsed as it was subdivided among Charlemagne's grandchildren, and the papacy's prestige declined into the condition later dubbed the pornocracy.

    I wish the Jesuits had taught us more of this, but it seems that there was a range of military power from Julius II, the 'Warrior' pope, to the captive popes at Avignon. In any case the church did have local military might until Italian nationalism pushed them into Vatican city.

    but the Pope is a particularly interesting example because his divine authority was so much more significant than his military authority-

    Actually, this is only true AFTER the Protestant Reformation, when it suddenly became politically important for the Pope to seem personally saintly.

    The medieval Popes are standard medieval-Italian princes, much like the Dukes of Ferrara or whatever. That they are insecure, depending upon local alliances and their on-again, off-again relationship with the Emperor, only makes them more like the others. It wasn't like the Duke of Milan didn't have to do that.

    And the idea that they are clients of the Emperor ignores the ongoing struggle between the Popes and Emperors for control of Italy, the centuries long Guelph vs. Ghibelline struggle.

    I don't like to be a spoilsport, Mike. And I'm really going to be a spoilsport here. Sorry.

    The historical narrative in which the Middle Ages are totally under the ideological thumb of a grim and rigid Church, and then the Renaissance breaks out into a festival of free-thinking, has fallen out of favor, for the simple reason that it doesn't fit the facts well at all. Now, as a scholar of the Renaissance, I would be perfectly pleased if it were true. It's just not, recent popular books retreading that historical mythology notwithstanding.

    The Catholic Church was the only publisher in Europe? What? ALL the scribes worked for the Church? That's not true at all. And if it were, how did The Canterbury Tales get copied out? Or, let's go bananas here, The Decameron? How the hell would rigid religious censorship produce that?

    And, as a scholar of the Renaissance, let me point out that the information explosion you point out actually led to new regimes of censorship and control. The Age of Print was more restrictive in many ways than the Middle Ages were. This is why some of the examples you chose, such as Copernicus and Galileo, were oppressed in the Renaissance, not the Middle Ages.

    The rise of the government censor comes with, and because of, the printing press. The Roman Inquisition is a post-Reformation thing. So is the foundation of the Jesuits. (And, while we're on the topic, the Renaissance did witch trials on a scale that dwarfed the Middle Ages. Witchcraft persecution is not actually a medieval thing. It's a Renaissance industry.)

    Spoilsporty, I know.


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