Are We on the Verge of the Next Renaissance?
On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther sent to his bishop Albert of Mainz a copy of his "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences", which came to be known as The Ninety-Five Theses. In January of 1518 he also sent copies to his friends who translated it from Latin to German and had copies printed and passed them on. In part because of easy mechanized printing it went viral, within two weeks it had spread throughout Germany and in a month throughout all of Europe. The rapid propagation of his leaked private communication caught Luther by surprise and he soon found himself in a full on “flame-war” directly with the Pope. Luther quickly mastered this new mass media and effectively used it in his fight. This early landmark public dispute in the emergent mass media of the time demonstrated a new power structure built on the rapid spread of ideas.
Guttenberg’s motivation for inventing the printing press, an idea that had also been invented previously in Asia, was strictly entrepreneurial and it was not his first venture. Shortly after the introduction of the printing press to Europe, other entrepreneurs realized that there was a demand for books. In some respects the printing business of the late 15th and early 16th centuries was very similar to the internet boom that we are currently experiencing. This new technology not only caused the creation of new businesses but it also transformed the dissemination of information and the power of information itself in the sense that new information could be more easily created and collaboratively built and referenced also language was standardized and local vernacular languages replaced Latin for scholarly works. This new more egalitarian access to books and information fueled the spread of ideas, and caused an exponential surge forward in the ability develop science and technology and culture itself.1
There was a dark side to this new change in the way information was disseminated. The Catholic Church, which held a monopoly on the dissemination of religious information2, reacted by banning some of the books and publishing its own propaganda including lists of banned books, also the Tyndale Bible written in English was banned in England until Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church. An inquisition was directed towards the book publishing capital of Europe, Venice, due to the publication of scientific books which contradicted the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church. Books were banned and burned and heresy trials were held.
There were several inquisitions which were heinous affairs that included racial cleansing, torture, and other barbaric acts of terror. These were started before the advent of the printing press but were then directed towards this new threat. Fortunately the inquisitions eventually died out.
It is thought that this transformation in the spreading of ideas, coupled with the previous reintroduction of earlier Greek, Roman and Arabic knowledge fuelled an expansion of scientific understanding which also transformed art in terms of perspective and anatomical representation was a catalyst for the Renaissance. All of this makes me wonder about the future possibilities of our current era and what similar parallels we could see from that previous “information technology” revolution when the dissemination of information made an exponential leap forward from the old technology, much the same way as we are experiencing an exponential leap forward in information technology.
We now live in an era in which I can download hundreds of books or the equivalent amount of information in minutes more than I can comprehend and software is rapidly evolving to allow me to more effectively deal with large quantities of data I can search, jump, skim, and view almost anything about any subject effectively instantly, the time that it takes to send text, audio, images and video has been reduced almost to the speed of light and that’s how quick we can get real time information from all over the world and from space. We also continuously receive an increasing amount of data from various places in the solar system and even at the edge of the heliosphere.
The very tools to better manipulate crunch and comprehend large petabyte and beyond data are rapidly being invented and refined, the things that we will be able to do in even the next decade(s) is probably going to be revolutionary for human society in terms of art, science and how we live our lives, the changes are already quite pronounced. Soon images, audio, and video will be as searchable and easily manipulated as text is now and algorithms enhanced with more and more math will be able to digest all of this and allow us to query it and manipulate it ways we probably can’t even imagine yet.
From the sixteenth century until the end of the twentieth century publishing grew into a vast industry expanding from books to encompass more such as periodicals. Other entire industries were spawned from it such as the newspaper industry. This spawned new media like audio, radio and recording, movies and video that grew into entire industries. Then along came the internet and fast data transmission. All of these industries are now under pressure and many are fighting this change. Now it would be a bit overly dramatic to compare the copyright wars to the inquisition but the parallel is there: large organizations in control of the dissemination of information fighting the change, more egalitarian information access and distribution. Another common thread is the use of law, the Catholic Church tried to impose its law on the local European governments to stamp out heresy. We now find ourselves in a similar position with the established media companies using their deep pockets to attempt to write new laws that benefit them at the potential cost to a free internet and innovation, so far legislation like the Research Works Act and SOPA have failed but the fight continues. Patents especially broad and abstract patents are another threat to innovation this is another system that has been gamed by the big corporations so that it now often does the opposite of the original intent of the founding fathers.
So we now find ourselves at a unique time where there is so much potential for innovation in science and art and hopefully society. These human endeavors are built on collaboration and on the sharing, remixing, and refining of ideas. Many of Shakespeare’s works were derivative of earlier works, can you imagine if the same type of laws and litigation existed then, such works may have never been created.
How this potential innovation will it play out over the next two decades may very well be beyond comprehension, the things I can buy today were the devices of science fiction, specifically Star Trek, when I was growing up, even as a young adult, the idea of having a thousand books on a tablet device or watching real time video from the space station or access to terabytes of data was almost beyond my expectation, yet now I am starting to take it for granted. My childhood almost seems like the life of a 15th century turnip farmer who could only dream of reading scientific or any knowledge in a book.
1 Much of this is excerpted from Episode 4 of The Day the Universe Changed by James Burke
2The bible and all sermons were held in Latin restricting non-ecclesiastical people direct access religious doctrine.