Monday, June 10, 2013

800 Words: What is the Internet - Parts 1 and 2


Between 1450 and 1455, a German tradesman named Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg invented the printing press, and the world was changed in the twinkling of an eye. Books were once produced by hand and calligraphy. They were fancy objects for fancy people created by people with fancy skills. But after Gutenberg, books were a mass produced object for the masses. Perhaps for the first time since the Roman republic, learning was not a pursuit confined to aristocrats. Even if the lower classes only read the Bible, they had more knowledge than ever before, and could go directly to the source of the material. It was only a matter of time before a religious ideology developed that was more in keeping with the spirit of that era. In 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, Saxony. It railed, as all new movements do, against the corruption of the old order, and that the Catholic Church's teachings on morality were now inextricably linked to money, particularly in the matter of indulgences - a policy by which congregants could buy absolution, and allowed the Kingdom of Heaven to be better predisposed toward the rich than the poor. But most important among those ideas was Luther's idea that  God needs no intercessor into people's lives. With a Bible now present in every God-fearing home, families no longer needed to look to a clergyman to tell them how to worship. According to Luther, salvation could never be  purchased, it was bestowed by faith and by the personal relationship which each believer had with God due to their being able to interpret God's Word for themselves. The world was ready for a man like Luther, and his ideas spread like wildfire, inspiring everything from great community projects to Holy Wars between Protestants and Catholics all over Northern and Western Europe  - including The German Peasants War,The Battle of Kappel, The Schmalkadic War between The Holy Roman Emperor and the noble German followers of Luther, The Eighty Years War involving Spain and the Low Countries, The French Wars of Religion, The Wars of the Three Kingdoms on the British Isles, The Franco-Dutch War, and The Nine Years War which involved them all. Thus began the true decline of Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire, sustained  for nearly a millennium, and the peace which this empire keep reasonably well within the large chunk of Europe it inhabited and surrounded.

But in all these holy wars, one stands above the rest for its particular level of chaos. The Thirty Years War involved virtually all of Europe, may have killed 11.5 million people and perhaps as much as 40% of the world's German speaking peoples, with some German-speaking regions losing as much as two-thirds of their population. Germany thereafter remained a deeply divided non-kingdom with hundreds of principalities. The German/Frankish scions of the Holy Roman Empire retreated to Austria and founded a new empire there which was synonymous with decline from its very inception. Germany itself never recovered from the trauma of this long war fought almost exclusively upon German soil, and one could make a decent argument that the twentieth century's two world wars happened because of German traumas that were already three hundred years in the past.

There can be no doubt that the printing press fostered so much that is good in this world, but progress is value neutral. For all the progress which these more quickly made books disseminated, the printing press must be held to account for the massive amounts of death which it caused. Like all great strides in progress, it comes with a surfeit of truly lethal peril.

History is not over, and it is pure naive lunacy to pretend that we don't dance on the precipice of a similar era. The computer, and the internet it fostered, is, without a doubt, the most trans-formative invention in human history since the invention of the printing press itself. Knowledge used to be as far away as whatever book was written about the subject at hand, and would often require months to find the correct book, if it even existed. But knowledge is now available at the click of a button. In its original years, we have experienced the awesome life-giving power of the internet. In a matter of a few years, it has transformed everything we knew about commerce, about careers, about medicine, about navigation, about information storage, about journalism, about the arts, about memory, about space and time, and especially about communication, learning, and knowledge. The internet can create so much, but what can the internet destroy?

It hasn't happened yet, and it probably won't for a while longer. But what idea will the internet inspire that will make millions or billions of people to want to kill each other? What information will be spread that will make us kill each other more efficiently or agonizingly?

Something this powerful cannot simply give us unremitting light, and the utopia which the internet often seems like to many of us could not possibly last for centuries.


What we most have to fear in our generation is not the totalitarian temptation. The world has grown too fast to have too much fear of big government anymore, because no government, however invasive, can possibly keep up with the world's developments. All a government can do, whether democratic like America's, or authoritarian like China's, is scramble to keep up with technologies which develop by the day. We live in an era of wikileaks and twitter revolutions. Gerontological dictators are overthrown at the drop of a hat, and excepting North Korea, no dictatorship, however powerful, can seem to stop the profusion of protests against it.

The Arab Spring was not an isolated movement in history - in its way, it was the same movement as Occupy Wall Street, the public employee protests all around America, the anti-Putin protests, the Greek riots, the Iranian election protests, the Burmese monk protests, the Pakistani judges protests, the French pension reform strikes, protests for greater political freedom all over the former Soviet satellites, protests against austerity all around Southern Europe, Ireland, and Iceland. These are all protests by people demanding greater dignity in their treatment from public officials, happening at the same moment, and coordinated by the internet. There is not a single one of these protests which does not have its own justifiable causes. And yet each of them seems so utterly far from accomplishing its goals that one has to pause, at least for a moment, to wonder whether every single one of them has been counterproductive.

With nearly 100,000 dead in The Syrian Civil War, it is definitively time to say that the Arab Spring was not the first step in a flowering for democracy. The Arab Spring's march toward freedom was tenuous at its best times, coordinated by a blindly idealistic educated class which believes that it can work with the  Islamic parties while controlling the Islamists' most hardline elements. But how long can this civil war in Syria go on without sucking in major involvement from neighboring countries? If that happens, as it is likely to , The Arab Spring may be remembered not as the 21st century's great democratic flowering, but as the first definitive step in the march from 20th century totalitarianism back to the chaos of previous eras.

What we have to fear is chaos. Today's political insanity is not an extremity of big government, but an extremity of small government. Of course, we have to fear libertarian conservatives and objectivists who want to reduce government regulation to null, provide no services to the public, and create an uneducated mass of wage slaves. But we also have to fear libertarian socialists and anarchists who want to do away with the entire idea of wage labor and replace states with autonomous collectives answerable to only themselves. If such a movement spread it would create economic chaos on a level comparable to the worst of the Great Depression, with consequences perhaps as far-reaching. For the moment, one movement clearly holds greater sway in public opinion than the other, but if the liberal American left and center become any less effective than they already are at opposing the American right, perhaps such an option will come to seem ever more attractive to many. Both are grounded in the same fevered utopian dreams which produced communism and fascism in the 20th century, and young people who subscribe to them now may find themselves horrified at what their beliefs have wrought by the time they reach their full maturity.

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