This post on Marginal Revolution titled “In which ways is today’s world like the Reformation?” caught my attention.
I can think of a few reasons:
1. Many of the structures in places are perceived as failing, even though in absolute terms they are not obviously doing worse than previous times.
2. There is a rise in nationalist sentiment and a semi-cosmopolitan ethic is starting to lose influence.
3. The chance of violent conflict is rising.
4. Dialogue is becoming more polarized and bigoted, and at some margins stupider.
5. Tales of gruesome torture are being spread by new publishing and communications media.
6. The world may nonetheless end up much better off, but the ride to get there will be rocky iindeed.
I have been reading Carlos M.N. Eire, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650. Yes I know it is 893 pp., but it is actually one of the most readable books I have had in my hands all year.
Somewhere in the comments, Steve Sailer brought up the comparison between the printing press and the interwebs, which is the obvious and logical one. The impact of the printing press on the Reformation is often dismissed, as its impact on Western culture is complicated and hard to understand so modern historians focus on the religious angle. That way they can say bad things about Christians, which is still a lot of fun for the people of the New Religion.
Still, the printing press is not the meteor that killed the dinosaurs. The Black Plague is the meteor, but the printing press is one of the first shock waves to emit from it. It’s hard for us, in our age, to imagine a world in which most everyone was illiterate. Even members of the ruling class could make it to adulthood without ever having learned to read. Many members of the clergy were functionally illiterate as they had no reason to read. There was nothing for them to read, even if they had the desire.
The printing press did a few things. The most obvious is it made literacy much more valuable to the commoner. Therefore, more commoners tried to master the basics of reading and writing. Cheap printed material suddenly made literacy a valuable, but attainable thing, so we got more literate people, which vastly expanded the number of people contributing to the wealth of human knowledge. In a short time Sven could learn about the innovations in French plow technology, because he got a scroll on it from the tinker.
That’s where the comparison to the internet falls apart. Getting a billion people on-line is not unlocking a great store of human potential. Mostly it allowed a billion dimwits to fill the available space with inane chatter. Spend five minutes watching cable news and you can’t help but long for the days when men got their news from newspapers and the town meeting. That’s not to dismiss the value of having the Library of Alexandria at our fingertips. It’s just that there was not a lot of untapped intellect sitting around in 1975.
The key comparison, maybe, is the speed that information moves. By the Middle Ages, the state and the Church had evolved systems to control the flow of information. If the lesser nobles were unhappy, they could only conspire with one another, which could only happen within the system. That’s easy to root out with spies and treachery. The printing press allowed one pissed off guy to spread his word quickly and do so well outside the official channels. Cheap printed pamphlets made it easy for a disgruntled minor figure to spill the beans on his superiors, to the wider masses.
The thing is, it’s not the information getting loose or the speed it travels. It is how the current structures can respond to it. The printing press exposed the great weakness of the Church and the state. They were sclerotic when it came to reading and reacting to new information. They evolved in an age of handwritten scrolls and private couriers. They lacked the tools and the awareness to operate in a world in which information moves quickly (relative to the age) and indiscriminately.
None of this was immediate. The printing press was 15th century and the 16th century was a pretty good age for the ruling elite of the West. By the 17th century, however, the wheels came off the cart. By the 18th century the English speaking world was adapted to an age in which information moves around quickly and indiscriminately. The Continent followed in the 18th century so by the 19th the West had a ruling system and a cognitive elite fully evolved to succeed in the age of the written word.
This is where one can find a point of comparison to our own age. The volume of information is obviously way higher today than a few decades ago, but much of it is bad information so we very well may be less informed. The real impact of the technological revolution is the ability of the ruling class to respond. The old ways of hiding things from the public and preventing trouble makers from spilling the beans to the public are not very useful in an age when someone can put the total output of an organization onto a thumb drive.
Defenders of the status quo inevitably have to rely upon size to carry the day. They have the the monopoly of force and the institutions to apply it. The challenger has to rely on speed, agility and cunning. If the big guy is just as fast as the small guy, the big guy always wins. What the technological revolution has done is give challengers to the status quo an edge in speed and agility. Hillary Clinton controls the mass media, yet she struggled to put away Sanders and is struggling to deal with Trump.
This is not a perfect comparison, but if you are looking for a way to link the current age to the Reformation, that’s the place to start.