33. The role of information

 

Over the last two millennia, information monopolies have gradually dwindled away. In the Middle Ages, the church (in the person of bishops and monks) had an information monopoly in several ways: not just because the monastical libraries had a virtual monopoly of guarding and hand-copying books, but also because the language of both the church itself and its books was Latin, a language not understood by most people. In the 16th century, Gutenberg’s invention of movable-type printing made it possible to print books in large numbers and in popular language, meaning that information reached a much larger public. This helped to propagate both the Reformation and other cultural changes, effectually limiting the church’s information monopoly. Gradually, books became merchandise: already for the 16th century impressions of 200-300 copies are known. Initially most of these were Bibles, but this was soon followed by Latin classics such as Cato, Boethius, Aristotle; and almanacs, grammar books, liturgy books. After a while, the scope of subjects and languages became ever wider.

Broadsides (single-side printed sheets) had been in use since the first invention of printing for papal indulgences, royal proclamations and similar ends. Throughout western Europe broadsides became also popular as political pamphlets. The early16th century humanist movement and the leading minds of the Reformation period – Erasmus, Luther, Melanchton and Calvin – used tracts as an easy method to widely circulate their opinions. In France in 1523, the publication of pro-Reformation tracts caused the Sorbonne to petition the king to abolish the diabolical art of printing.

However, the influence of printed opinions increased over time. In 17th century France, pamphlets dealing with the amours of the king and his courtiers found a wide reading public. The presses of the Low Countries teemed with tracts against politicians and Jesuits, exciting extraordinary attention throughout Europe. In the 18th century, writers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Diderot, D’Alembert and D’Holbach also produced pamphlets. In the 1780s, the printing of cheap leaflets etc. made it possible to mobilize larger numbers of people for the French Revolution. The scope and influence of printed information between ca. 1520-1800 grew in similar ways in other countries such as Britain and the German kingdoms.

The influence of printed texts (and the number of texts specifically targeting and informing the lower classes) grew alongside with the gradual increase of literacy. While around 1500 only 10% of the Western-European population was able to write their own name, around 1800 this had risen to over 50%, and around 1900 it would get close to 90%. That this rising literacy level in combination with the rising number of popular publications was a powerful agent of social awareness and social change, goes without saying. In the 19th century, cheap newspapers meant that actual news reporting reached the masses. Just like many websites today, cheap “penny” newspapers were in fact subsidized by advertisers who wanted to connect to a wide public. In the late 19th century, new photographic techniques meant (among other things) that for the first time ordinary people could get a realistic idea of the actual horrors of war.[1]

Almost from the beginning, a special aspect of communication has been propaganda: the aim to influence public opinion. The specific goal can be commercial (advertising a product or service) or political (promoting a party or an ideology). The latter, by parties, action groups and governments, is ‘propaganda’ in the usual sense.

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1933 German Volksempfanger

Especially in times of war, propaganda has always been an important weapon. The first victim then is the truth: in world war II German propaganda minister Goebbels knowingly told lies, being confident that for the mass a repeated lie becomes the truth. The nazi regime also was one of the first to systematically use radio and movies for propaganda: they distributed millions of cheap Volksempfänger, radios that could receive only the state’s channels. During the war, the Germans relayed propaganda radio programs (by “Lord Haw-Haw”) to the British population. As for movies, the 1942 movie Jud Süss was a story specifically intended to foster antisemitism; the early-1945 color movie Kolberg was based on an 18th-century story, and meant to foster a spirit of resistance against the approaching Russians.

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Most important of all, however, was the new development after the second world war: the arrival of television in all households in the 1950s (USA) and 1960s (Europe). We want to propose here that the advent of television in fact heralded the end of monotheism in Western societies. For centuries, churches had been able to monopolize the moral and existential self-conception of the masses; but within a few decades, television destroyed this religious monopoly by confronting huge parts of the population with a different kind of “mirror”. The root of this change was the changing self-image of people. Formerly, the message of the churches had defined the human profile: the image of a sinner with only one fundamental choice (to sin or repent), for the rest being subjected to the grace of God. Most people got this message once a week: during Mass. The advertisements and shows of the free market television on the other hand showed every day, in everyone’s free time, the profile of a free, happy, woman- and child-friendly consumer: a much more attractive image for identification.

Our self-image is formed by the way parents and other family members, and later schoolmates and teachers, see and treat us. But we also actively build our own self-image by identification with mother, father, teachers and other ‘idols’. The culture in which we are living also provides influential building stones and idols. Today TV with its commercials and soaps, and the internet with its music videos, networking sites etc. provide identification objects that for many peopleespecially young people – are equally strong as friends and schoolmates. In today’s culture, people are also stimulated to actively construct their self-image by expressing their own identity explicitly, for example on Facebook.

The ongoing expansion of the free market society has furthered (and still stimulates) two important social effects. As discussed in the previous chapter, the advent of television gave popular consumption, information distribution and thus free market economy a boost. Because of its liberating character, it heralded the end of collectivistic monotheism in Western societies, and stimulated the rise of a non-religious self-image based on each individual’s identity as consumer. In due course, this also furthered the rise of democracy. A third effect: where the free market began to function in a more optimal way, it allowed for more human happiness than ever in the last 5000 years.

Unfortunately, this new self-image is lacking something. We will get back to that gap in the next chapters.


[1] The American Civil War (1861-1865) photos by photographers such as Matthew Brady showed for the first time real pictures of wounded and dead soldiers on the battlefield. Such photos had a tremendous impact on public opinion: after this, the old ‘romanticized’ view of war became much harder to accept.

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