The Reformation

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.

26 thoughts on “The Reformation

  1. “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.”

    Actually, it’s a perfect comparison. A solid majority of what was produced on early printing presses was utterly worthless drivel- horoscopes, books on alchemy, witch-hunters’ manuals, pseudohistories, and even plain ol’ pornography. Nobody mentions all that idiotic garbage in the history texbooks, so we’ve forgotten about it, but Sturgeon’s Law applied even in the 16th century. Plus ça change…

  2. One big way the Cloud People are responding is by giving control of the internet to a global body. The goal is to control content, and hunt down and imprison the free speech rebels.

    • @ JLP – Good point! It is much easier to track down “dissenters” using an ISP. One wrong post on FaceBook or Twitter and they know where to find you and anyone and everyone associated to you.

      • You give the government far too much credit. They are useless. They had to ask Apple to crack the San Bernadino terrorist’s phones because they couldn’t. The government is also getting dumber now the Boomers are retiring and the millennials are taking over. Until the robots are in charge, I have no fear of a midnight knock at the door.

  3. I’ve read a couple of authors who think that codices (primitive books) had a similar, but not as profound, effect around the time of Jesus. They were more compact and more information dense than scrolls and could be moved around and concealed more easily. They still had to be copied by hand, so ultimately their impact was not as revolutionary as printing or the Internet.

  4. “The Black Plague is the meteor…”
    I had a thought, not recently, about the exploding rates of cancers. We have the blood of 55 million dead babies on our hands, homosex marriage licensed by the state, and non stop unjust war. And where is the American church? It is beholden to its one true god, the IRS, by whom it may not speak ill of any law or policy lest it be fined out of existence. Free speech is dead in the church.
    As a lay student of the Old Testament it is fairly easy for me to suppose that our behavior toward God’s creations is the root cause these “plaques”. Among the other tools God uses are war, famine, and pestilence to name a few. Most everybody I talk to feels it, they know it, something isn’t right. I say, you can’t kill millions and millions of babies and get away with it, God won’t allow that. We will be driven back into his arms, unwilling, as we currently may be.The LORD works over generations. It may be some time before this shakes out.

  5. I can imagine a Thirty Years’ War coming. Who gets to decide what “the truth” is and control beliefs is once again becoming something worth fighting for. Leftists and Muslims are dropping their masks and preparing for battle.

  6. I’ve been saying for some time now we’re in the “burn the witch!” phase of the Reformation – the PTB can’t smash every printing press, so barbecue some obvious social misfits pour encourager les autres. I guess we’re in for a few decades of religious wars before going whole magillah in another Thirty Years’ War… fun stuff. I do wonder, though, about our version of the Black Death. The end result was labor mobility, but our labor mobility is all going in the wrong direction. I personally think that’s the main reason we’ll end up with honest-to-god Fascism, but who knows. What do you think?

      • I saw that excerpted at Vox Day. It’s….educational. There’s another parallel to the Reformation. The Media explaining this “internet” thing to whoever still reads magazines sound like the barely literate priests explaining the Bible to their congregations — “here’s what the Bible says, peasants. No, of course you can’t see it for yourself. Only heretics want to see it for themselves. You’re not a heretic, are you?” [gestures meaningfully to the Inquisitor and his torch-wielding thugs].

      • From the article:

        “The alt-right’s favorite insult is to call men who don’t hate feminism “cucks,” as in “cuckold.” Republicans who don’t like Trump are “cuckservatives.” Men who don’t see how feminists are secretly controlling them haven’t “taken the red pill,” a reference to the truth-revealing drug in The Matrix. They derisively call their adversaries “social-justice warriors” and believe that liberal interest groups purposely exploit their weakness to gain pity, which allows them to control the levers of power. Trolling is the alt-right’s version of political activism, and its ranks view any attempt to take it away as a denial of democracy.”

        At the Cloud Pharmacy where the Blue Pills are dispensed, pieces like this are considered a vaccination against the Red Pill. It is similar to when the CIA propagated the term “conspiracy theorists” back in the 1960s. This way, whenever the Clouds discuss the Haters at their cocktail parties, they can tell each other: “Oh YEAH! I read about those Trolls in “Time”!

  7. I’m not sure there really is a comparison between the two given the significant differences of the times. Then and now are as different as chariots to space travel – while they both provide a means to get you somewhere, the destinations they can take one to are very different.

    It’s interesting to read various commentary about our historical past in an attempt for authors to somehow connect it to our present – as if there’s some great lessons the past can teach us. The facts are clear that humans don’t learn from the past and must relearn the most basic lessons repeatedly, over and over and over or not at all. War is the easiest example.

    What we know about our world, in the sciences and various technical fields, is clearly beyond what could have been known in the past. Medicine, tectonics, physics, our solar system and the surface and atmospheric conditions of our neighboring planets. Once only speculation, then theorized, postulated into laws and now proven fact – at least until the next breakthrough. What we know now will seem as obvious to our great-grand children as our own perception of Archimedes’ discovery while taking a bath.

    I would argue that it’s not the amount of information, nor the availability. It’s how we chose to use it – that is part of the human condition that connects the past to the present. Whether clay tablets, the printing press or iPads, its the human condition to choose to believe what is presented, or ignore it, or twist it into what suits our own belief or value system.

    • Quantity has a quality of its own. Portability is also an important quality. The people in charge are now girding their loins for a dump of doc from the Clinton Foundation. In the previous era, this would have required someone carrying reams pf paper out the door and then copying them off and carrying them to news outlets. By the time any of this happened, the leaker would have been arkancided. Today, the leaker does not even know he is the leaker and vast troves are spirited away in moments. They, they are posted for the world to see.

      This new vulnerability can only be met a few ways with current arrangements and those methods are less than ideal. They are also self-defeating. Technology is presenting a set of new and complex challenges to the ruling class.

      • Fair point. Especially since so many US elites (e.g. Hillary Clinton, Lois Lerner, etc.) aren’t tech-savvy enough to figure out how to do a Renaissance version of tossing incrimination scrolls in the bonfire. “Arkancided” – I had to look that up. Very funny.

    • relearning…

      kinda like a “First World” country erradicating 3rd World diseases and then opening the doors and windows to allow them back in ….? with new and more wordly mutations….?
      Yeah, thats just frickin brilliant Watson….
      Governmental case of C.R.S….

  8. The ultimate irony is this: Just as Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press carried Martin Luther’s revelations to the plebeians, so does Al Gore’s internet aid the Alternative-Right in rocking the free world today. History really does rhyme.

    • Also, I read once that the Black Death killed less of the Jewish population due to the sanitary practices prescribed by Jewish law. When the Catholic hierarchy noticed this, they they studied the Torah and implemented its procedures, especially regarding the handling of the dead, and this contributed to the overall diminishment of the plague.

      True or not, I sense there may be an allegorical lesson in there, somewhere, for the information age.

      • What I remember was too, the Jews washed their hands before meals, etc. They didn’t know they were affecting germ transmission obviously, but it helped. Of course, those around noticed the Jews weren’t as affected, and ergo, the Jews were complicit with the spread to others., ie, poisoning wells etc… so, the Jews did it! Circle of life… repeat.

  9. Having worked in newspapers for a long time, I am fascinated by the nature of news — or information — both being gathered and disseminated. That the journalists I once worked with (I was not a journalist, I hasten to add) were not all that bright is a given. They were just people who couldn’t do anything else — though one journalist told me she was the only person in editorial who didn’t think they had a great novel in them.

    But the big thing became not the news as such, but the power of the picture to accompany it. Slowly the ability to get photos from newsworthy places became the issue. (This was reflected in TV where news gradually wasn’t considered worthy unless it had moving images. TV gets over this by dispatching a ‘talking head’ to stand outside some building and say, with sincerity, “Fiona, we haven’t heard anything more yet. As you can see, people are coming and going but no developments yet. Back to you in the studio.”) Years ago there was a relatively famous ‘non-story’ in one of the tabloids with the headline ‘Man bites head off parrot in pub for £10 bet.’ The interesting thing for me was that this story — which actually had no detail, no pub name, no town, no police response even if a crime had been committed — was that it could run back then without a picture of say, a parrot. It was just headline and text. Now it would be necessary to show what a parrot looks like. A headless parrot would be better than a whole one, however.

    Of course, this approach to having/featuring pictures consumes column inches galore. Less words, less journalist effort required. But as is well known now, pictures can be ‘edited’ to show what the current agenda prefers. A cowering child and an Israeli soldier with a rifle? That’s okay, because we trimmed off the other half which showed Israeli soldiers offering help and protection to more children. But we didn’t show that bit. Space considerations you know (just as TV has time considerations)

    A picture is worth a thousand words? Nope, more a picture can be trimmed to show a thousand other things.

    So TV and the press love pictures, more than they love news these days. Country A invades country B makes for some headlines and text, but a photo of a teddy bear in a bombed building can spark more rage, sympathy, fear and a host of other emotions better than mere words can. And if there is no teddy bear available in the wreckage of Country B, the photographer can always take one with him and put it there.

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