Saturday, June 20, 2009
Do revolutions in communication bring political upheaval? Or is it the other way round?
It certainly seems that revolutions in communication makes it easier for radical memes to spread.
The printing press paved the way for the Reformation. Ben Franklin and co began a revolution with their pamphlets. Red Russians consolidated their's via the rail network.
In the 1970s, the ayatollahs spread their radical message with cassette tapes. More recently, civil upheaval in Lebanon was coordinated by text.
Today, the memes run through twitter and facebook. Like the printing press - but unlike radio or television - the web communication revolution devolves power. I suspect big corporate politics, as well as big corporate media, will be casualties.
Thoughtful point. It has also been said that only the railroad & telegraph allowed the America to hold the Union together.
It strikes me that most human progress has taken place where practical communications have exceeded the reach of political rule - Europe from the Reformation onwards, Renaissance Italy, ancient Greece, arguably the world from about 1948 (decolonisation starts) to 1989 (fall of the Berlin Wall, the "end of history" & the "global warming" movement increasingly dictating to nations in the War Against Fire).
Some may be surprised that I count the fall of the Wall as restricting free thought but what it did was create a more unitary world & my point is that unitary societies are inherently less innovative irrespective of the intentions of leaders.
To extend the point a little where the borders of the state reach as far as practical communication is possible (Roman Empire, ancient Egypt the Persian Empire of Cyrus & successors) progress has been drastically slower. I don't know enough about the history of China to know if their eras of technological progress were during or immediately after periods when the country was divided into many kingdoms.
Of course as technological progress has continued travel speed has greatly increased & the size of empires has grown somewhat as well.
This suggests we are now at a cusp. Flying across the world can now be done faster than travel from Glasgow to Edinburgh 3 centuries ago & militarily it is barely possible to defend one part of the planet against another. Moreover we see governments, increasingly consisting if interchangeable cosmopolitan suits trying to enforce a united ideological dictat across the world (currently global warming but that is already being finessed into "climate change" & the underlying cause is simply telling people what to do). Thus if we don't, fairly soon, get off this planet we are going to have a unified & inevitably stultifying culture.
Alternately, if Einstein is right the speed of light is an absolute limit & a small fraction of the speed of light a practical limit, to physical communication. Thus the exercise of force is much more limited than communication at the speed of light, or indeed faster. So we are very close to a spacegoing human civilisation where the stultifying effect of empire can never exercise anything but a localised restriction on human progress.