How Things Got Better: Speech, Writing, Printing, and Cultural Change

How Things Got Better: Speech, Writing, Printing, and Cultural Change

How Things Got Better: Speech, Writing, Printing, and Cultural Change

How Things Got Better: Speech, Writing, Printing, and Cultural Change


A highly original interpretation of the history of Western culture that presents a first in-depth analysis of the cultural impact of communication. Explains how the media have helped bring about economic, political, social, and intellectual progress.


How things got better is a snappy title. But what does it mean? What things am I talking about? And what do I mean by better?

The things I have in mind are those things that human beings create. This includes a lot, but it doesn't include everything. It doesn't include trees and animals and plants, or birds in the air, or fish in the sea. It doesn't include the natural world, the physical world. In short, when I talk about things getting better, I am talking about our social, political, and economic arrangements as well as institutions like schools, governments, businesses, and factories, churches, and families; and I am talking about our knowledge, for we create our knowledge, too. We can call these human creations culture.

How does culture get better? By better I mean what most people mean when they talk about things getting better: "Today is a better day." "These are better cookies." "He played better." "Little Tommy is behaving better." In most cases, people talk about something getting better by comparing it to some other something experienced in the past. Improvement, in other words, is measured historically. "This is better than that" means that some present something has fewer defects, faults, inadequacies, mistakes, errors, and limitations than some past something. "Today is a better day than yesterday." "These are better cookies than those you baked last week. "He played better than the last time." "Little Tommy is behaving better than he did before." So, by getting better I mean the diminution of those agreed-upon errors, mistakes, limitations, and inadequacies that always inhere in the culture that we fallible human beings create. When this happens, the life chances of those living in that culture improve.

How do things get better? How does culture improve? If we look at the world that human beings did not create--the world of nature--we can see, or it has been customary to see, a hierarchy of creation: from the single-celled microorganism to the human being. The complex organisms are, or have been said to be, better than the less complex organisms--have more life chances. Moreover, since the nine teenth century . . .

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