The twenty-first century is a strange a terrifying place, it has to be said, and perhaps the thing that has defined it more than anything has been the rise of the Internet. Whether we’re talking about Wikipedia or Twitter, the Arab Spring or rise of online piracy, the Internet is confronting us with problems which we’re only just discovering the right words to comprehend.
If we tried to explain these problems to our ancestors then they would be forced to either worship us as Gods with our magical power to Tumblr, or burn us as witches for summoning the Instagram.
They couldn’t possibly understand the troubles we’re facing with:
Today: This is a big one, and there are plenty of people out there who are not happy about it. Whether you’re talking about the various massive corporate interests whose lawyers are repeatedly frustrated that they can’t sue “The Internet”, beatnicks who will argue it’s their constitutional human right to not pay for things when they don’t want to, or artists who have poured their blood, sweat and tears into a project only to discover that once they try to earn a crust from their work it actually belongs to “the world”.
While the Internet piracy argument is almost unique in that every side of the argument is actually as bad as their opponents make them out to be, fundamentally the problem isn’t a legal or a moral one, but a practical one. We’ve got a new technology that allows information to move around more freely and easily than ever before. Surely we can’t expect the people of the primitive past to understand what that’s like?
Meanwhile, In The Past: Of course, plenty of people love pointing out that the music industry made the same hoo hah about the cassette tape, but that didn’t bring down the existence of music. Not just the music industry either. In 1984 the cardigan-wearing hero of American children everywhere, Mr Rogers, had to speak in the Supreme Court to defend something called a “Beta Max” (I believe it was a type of HD DVD).
But we’re going back further than that, to the magical year of 1906. In Appleton’s Magazine (a sort of old-fashioned, difficult to use blog) John Philip Sousa, the composer behind “Stars And Stripes Forever” wrote passionately that “…I myself and every other popular composer are victims of a serious infringement on our clear moral rights to our own work…” in reference to, bear with me, the player piano and phonograph machine. Yes, Sousa considered that a machine which could play music was a danger to his livelihood. He even spoke, in dark foreboding tones, of some future machine that could record and playback a singing voice of all things. Presumably, not long afterwards all musicians would hang themselves.
Worst of all, the machines might allow people to play Sousa’s music without paying him for it. Can you imagine?
It’s Mostly Porn
Today: The Internet was originally devised as a way for scientists to more efficiently exchange ideas. Today it is the most extensive database of pictures of boobs ever devised. This has led to the frequently quotes “Rule 34” of the Internet, to wit, “If you can think of it, there is porn of it”.
What is wrong with modern society that we take our best outlet for cultural material and make it entirely obsessed with sex?
Meanwhile, In The Past: We have been making naked pictures of people for pretty much the exact length of time we’ve been making pictures. The first time we started putting mammoth skins on to keep cool, we started drawing cave drawings of what we looked like without them. We have found Paleolithic paintings and artefacts across the world showing depictions of naked human figured with exaggerated sexual organs. To quote Wikipedia: “As there is no direct evidence of the use of these objects, it is speculated that they may have been used in religious rituals, or for a more directly sexual purpose.”
My money’s on the latter.
But The Internet Is Making Us Stupid!
Today: Okay, for my argument to make any sense at all here, you’ll have to know who Crosby Stuart Noyes was. You know who he is don’t you? Actually, Crosby Stuart Noyes (publisher of the Washington Evening Star, lived from 1825 to 1908) is completely irrelevant to this article. I only said that to make you drag your cursor across his name, right-click and select “Google “Crosby Stuart Noyes”” then skim the Wikipedia article to check who he was, because apparently that’s who we are now. We don’t remember facts or figures, we don’t feel the need. If there’s a piece of information we don’t know we just whip out our smart phones and Google it. These days we don’t need to remember directions, the names of popular actors or when various battles happened because we can just Google it. Nobody really knows anything anymore.
Meanwhile, In The Past: Time was the only way store knowledge for the ages was to get a monk to sit down in some sort of monk-factory (I’m sure there’s a special name for it, but don’t have time to Google it right now) and painstakingly copy the text word for word. Indeed, manuscripts still exist where monks have written their lamentations in the margins, bemoaning “”Writing is excessive drudgery. It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides”. It reads a lot like a modern copywriter’s twitter feed.
Then came the invention of the printing press. Jobs in Monasteries (See! I did know!) were replaced by jobs in printing. A lot of people thought this was not a good thing at all. John Henry Newman for instance, in his book “The Idea of a University” claimed that: “What the steam engine does with matter, the printing press is to do with mind; it is to act mechanically, and the population is to be passively, almost unconsciously enlightened, by the mere multiplication and dissemination of volumes. Whether it be the school boy, or the school girl, or the youth at college, or the mechanic in the town, or the politician in the senate, all have been the victims in one way or other of this most preposterous and pernicious of delusions.”
See? With all these easily printed books around that anybody can just read, nobody really learns anything properly. By creating lots of cheap books, you’re also cheapening knowledge.
Only John Henry Newman, who was complaining about this in the 19th century, is actually incredibly late to the party. You see, the problem wasn’t that the words were being mechanically printed, it’s that there were words at all.
To find out where the problem really began, we’ve got to go to one of Socrates’ dialogues in around 370 B.C., where Socrates says of the written word that “…this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”
Of course, we only know that Socrates said this, because it was written down, which sort of destroys his point.
Then again, what do I know? I researched most of this article on Google.