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Back in the 15th century an exiled German goldsmith radically altered society with his strange claptrap invention. Gutenberg’s movable-type screw-press vastly improved on all previous printing presses (to say nothing of hand-transcription of books) and began an information revolution which has continuously accelerated ever since then. The written word, once the domain of super wealthy elite (or of a monopolistic church with an exceedingly parochial interest in knowledge), became available to everyone. The printing press chased away the ghastly fog of religious obscurantism and paved the way for democracy, reform, intellectual collaboration, empiricism, exploration, emancipation, and liberalization. Humankind stepped forward towards the reformation, enlightenment and the scientific revolution.

Except…

When printing technology first became widely available, the impact which it had on society was chaotic. Ordinary people of the time were not necessarily gifted at critical reasoning, and Europe was a powderkeg of antagonistic factions greedily angling for any advantage (speaking of which, gunpowder and artillery first came into widespread use in the 15th century, and their adaptation and improvement were hastened by publishing breakthroughs).

“Well…if it’s in a book, I guess it must be true.”

Suddenly society was awash in new ideas, incentives, and imperatives–all delivered with the magisterial force of the written word, once the sole domain of a cloistered master class. In this new world, you could show up at night and tack up a poster that said witches were a real & widespread malady which could only be defeated with fire. Suddenly gormless rubes would be running around burning everyone they had a problem with. After all, the anti-witch message was written down, and written things were known known to have the infallible weight of divine authority!

Blue Lives Matter

Indeed this is a thing that actually happened! Historians estimate that between a quarter of a million and a half million non-sorcerous people were killed as part of the witch panics which swept Europe in the early modern era. Fraud, calumny, conspiracy theories, and wild dangerous political invective swept the European continent (and the increasingly wider world which was a part of European colonial enterprise).

I am bringing this up not because I am an anti-literate or anything, but because, obviously, global society is deep in the midst of a similar revolution–except today’s information revolution is compressed and amplified by the speed and scope of globalized tech culture.

When I was a child, if you saw something on a glowing screen, it had gone through a long and expensive process to get there (and had passed a lot of powerful gatekeepers). Nowadays, any self-proclaimed expert with access to Youtube (or, uh, WordPress) can instantly disseminate their ravings worldwide to a self-selecting audience.

There is no easy to answer to all of this..nor should there be. On balance, the new manifestations of super-abundant information are wonderful and liberating. However, after living through the malignant Trump era (and the Trump pandemic), it is obvious there is more of a red column to the ledger than we initially imagined. Wish-fulfilling mendacity flies through the ethernet even faster than it ever traveled by means of broadsheet. Whole new taxonomies of demagogues, conspiracy theorists, pseudoscientists, quacks, and frauds invent & broadcast “fake news” more swiftly than rational and conscientious folk can debunk such things. And who is an authority anyway, in a world where so many truly powerful authorities are authoritarian?

There are no answers to today’s plague of misinformation and filter bubbles other than classic enlightenment solutions of critical thinking, empiricism, and cross referencing (with maybe a dash of deconstructionism thrown in to burst the filter bubble of whiggish liberal WASPS like myself). Obviously we need to ensure that teaching such values is at the heart of universal free (mandatory) education for all young people.

P.S. Although, frankly, the young people I have met around the city have developed great sophistication at parsing new media and roll their eyes at Nigerian princes, Breitbarts, Qanons, and essential oils the way a philosophe would sneer at a witch poster.

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