I was a believer — the internet would usher in a time of unfettered fellowship. With the free flow of information and ideas we would create a global community. In some ways this community has transpired but it isn’t the vision we wanted. Rearing its ugly head is the concentration of power.
Can the centre hold or are we doomed to repeat the past into chaos?
The winds of change are surely upon us. For history shows that when evolution is on full throttle — when the creativity of diversity is unleashed onto the world — chaos and order dance ever more vigorously.
The last real information age was centuries ago. It got going with the invention of the printing press by Joseph Gutenberg around the mid 15th century. By the 16th century the explosion in the distribution of information was well underway.
Around that time something remarkable happened: 502 years ago Martin Luther nailed a copy of a letter he sent to the Archbishop of Mainz to the door of All Saints’ Church, Wittenberg. His letter was a critique of corrupt church practices called the Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.
At the time the Catholic church had a brilliant racket going whereby the flock had to pay for the absolution of sins. A sinner (everyone effectively — no one escaped original sin) would buy a cosmic ticket (certificates called plenary indulgences) guaranteeing them, or a dead loved one, less time in purgatory to get things sorted before they were shuffled off to the pearly gates.
Professor Luther said bollox to that — in order for our sins to be forgiven we can simply pray and take charge of our own spirituality. Thus began the protestant reformation. In 1521 Luther was officially condemned as a heretic by the church (edict of worms). But it was too late. In Western Europe the printing press was already in full swing and the professor’s letter was being widely distributed.
Also the printers were churning out bibles and because more and more people were learning to read, they could decipher the clap trap themselves and make up their own minds without relying on the clergy.
Anything which upsets the powers that be is going to come in for a rough ride.
Martin Luther’s utopian vision of a “priesthood of all believers” was gaining traction. But like all utopian visions it fell over as Niall Ferguson points out in his book The Square and the Tower:
“The Reformation unleashed a wave of religious revolt against the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. As it spread from reform-minded clergymen and scholars to urban elites to illiterate peasants, it threw first Germany and then all of northwestern Europe into turmoil. In 1524 a full-blown peasants’ revolt broke out…..Religious conflict erupted again in the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict that turned central Europe into a charnel house”.
Effectively the reformation led to 130 years of bloody warfare.
500 years later we have our own printing press — the microchip — giving us a hyper-connectivity that is enormously greater than that which occurred in the 16th century. But this time round we have created oligopolies of power controlling the flow of information.
Autocratic, totalitarian states like China and Russia have it well and truly sorted with their compliant populations.
In the West, it’s company power that has concentrated alarmingly so very quickly. Also not only do electrons of peace, love and healing fly around the internet; so do racist rants, trolling, bigotry and fake news. The extremes are where the clicks are concentrated. It’s all a bit dark and unsettling really.
But what does all this mean? The reformation led to the rise of literacy but many see the new connected age doing the opposite. I don’t agree. We now get all swathes of society wanting to take charge of their lives and express opinions and they have a platform for that in the internet.
I love being able to connect to people on-line; to explore the edges and understand the great diversity of views and expressions. It’s one of the great freedoms we have is it not? I have often said in my jottings that the true spirit of humanity is one of freedom. We should resist censorship where we can.
Harry from Iowa as a misogynistic, trolling Jew hater is of concern but what is more alarming is the increasing concentration of power. Concentrated power leads to inequality and according to Walter Schneidel in his book The Great Leveller, only catastrophic events really reduce inequality.
But things may be different this time round as the world is a very different place. Humanity may jump in evolution to some sort of higher consciousness and bypass the mayhem.
There is a chance that Martin Luther’s vision of freedom of choice and thought will weave its thread through our humanity for centuries to come. I would like to think so.