Magazine article The Humanist

Writing on the Wall: Social Media-The First 2,000 Years

Magazine article The Humanist

Writing on the Wall: Social Media-The First 2,000 Years

Article excerpt


by Tom Standage

Bloomsbury USA, 2013

278 pp,; $26.00


Tom Standage's self-imposed mandate is to assuage our technoterror. In books like his laudable study of the telegraph, The Victorian Internet (1998), and An Edible History of Humanity (2009), the author demonstrated, mostly successfully, that technology is liberating and good for us. In his new book, Standage confronts one of the major generators of modern technology anxiety: digital social media. Writing on the Wall, like all of Standage's books, is a fine work. It's well written and researched, and contains, as usual, the author's dry wit. But I'm not sure that he fulfills his agenda this time.

One thesis of this book, that social media--information dissemination through social networks--have been with us for at least a couple of millennia, gives Standage the opportunity to do something he does superbly: scrutinize the past to show how it links to and influences the present. I can only touch on some of the historical moments he examines. Standage begins in the waning days of the Roman Republic, in the first century BCE. The Romans created "the first social-media ecosystem," he says, a system that allowed patricians to exchange political news and gossip (some things don't change). The engine that made this communications network viable was slavery: slaves served as scribes and as messengers, in the republic and through-out its distant provinces. The letters disseminated through this system were often considered, by senders and recipients, to be meant for perusal by many besides the addressees.

For Standage, Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in 1440 was the catalyst that permitted a priest named Martin Luther to instigate a revolution. In 1517 Luther nailed his "ninety-five theses" to the door of a local church, attacking the Christian Church's custom of granting "indulgences" to paying customers. Luther's theses were swiftly--and unexpectedly--distributed across German-speaking territories via printers. As his conflict with the Church's dogmas and practices expanded and deepened, he and his opponents would make brisk use of the printers' craft: the written creeds and screeds went viral, as it were. Therefore, Standage notes, "Theological arguments that would previously have taken place behind closed doors were now taking place in public, in printed form. Being able to follow and discuss the back-and-forth exchanges among Luther, his allies, and his enemies gave ordinary people across Germany a thrilling and unprecedented sense of participation in a vast, distributed debate."

In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London, coffeehouses not only provided a sociable ambiance, but were a social medium. By 1700 there were about 550 coffeehouses in England's capital city; many of them "specialized" --that is, their clientele met to discuss specific subjects: politics, religion, literature, science, business, and so on. "Whatever the topic, the main business of coffeehouses was the sharing and discussion of news and opinion in spoken, written, and printed form." More-over, and this was rare for that era, coffeehouses brought together people from all walks of life: "Conversation between strangers was encouraged, and distinctions of class and status were to be left at the door.... In theory, at least, this was a realm of pure information exchange, where ideas were to be scrutinized, combined, or discarded on their own merits, and people could speak their minds." (In theory. I wish Standage had discussed whether women, Catholics, and Jews were allowed to participate in these learned free-for-alls.)

In 1814 the Times of London was produced by a new process: steam-powered printing. "With steam printing, information had become an industrial process." Inevitably, probably, this industrialization led to a new medium, the mass-market newspaper. …

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