Let’s talk about true things

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Listen to the spoken audio version of this essay.

Somehow, between learning about sixteenth century France and shaking my head at politics on Twitter, I found myself reading very old printed ephemera thinking, these are basically the same thing.

I was supposed to be reading on Parisian typefounder Claude Garamond, but I found myself pulled into grand arcs of history. All around this man’s life were social, political, and theological movements like none that had come before. Movements that led to his ideas and letterforms becoming typographic norms that took over French printmaking during his life, and the rest of Europe shortly after. 1 The Fifteen hundreds was a period after the old feudalistic social orders had been up-heaved again and again. First from the Plague, with outbreaks killing a third of a population at a time, and then with the invention of moveable type — mechanizing communication. For the first time in millennia, land and food were cheap and a person’s labor was valuable. Newfound abundance freed people from the burdens of manual labor, who went on to begin entirely new industries and trades. All this while the printing press spread literacy and unlocked the silos of classical knowledge. 

Although it may not have been responsible for the powderkeg, the printing press played a crucial role in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. The printed word permitted written communication to take new forms, and it lit that match on the social order, and it presented innumerable challenges to the new social orders that it helped to realize. 

For the French people in particular, this increasing literacy, wider access to books, and French translations of scripture and classical texts meant that a people who had always lived under a theocracy were able to think for themselves. They were able to study the discrepancies between scriptures and doctrine, and with access to the wealth of classical philosophy, they had a path for questioning what is and what must be. At the center of this were the printers — who found themselves profoundly influenced by the ideas that ran through their presses. 

When the French Wars of Religion pushed out Humanists and Protestants, many of Garamond’s contemporaries fled France spreading the influence of Garamond’s (now ubiquitous) typographic ideas throughout Europe. 

This history fascinates me because it encapsulates so much of what is happening now:

The way that new media democratizes information is, by any standard, bizarre and fantastical. At any moment, we can access more information than could ever be read. Online, we can publish without needing to consider cost or labor. From the idealism of the early Web and the founding of opensource and copyleft communities, we now have a public that, through rampant piracy, is challenging the ideas of property and copyright. 

Social media has made it possible to forge communities between people from across the world and to reconnect with distant friends and family. And to suddenly realize some of those people are bigots. Okay, so it’s not all good. Anyone who has been trolled or gone into the comments section knows this.

Pamphlets, for their time, were a lot like this. They had their value, and the earliest forms of news came from them. They were also an extremely brief and disposable form of mass media that traded nuance for reactionary writing. Because they were often outlawed for their disruptive — even seditious — writing, pamphleteers had to do their work at night, printing and posting their messages for townsfolk to find in the morning. People had to learn to cope with and account for this medium and type of writing, for both the good and the bad that it can create. The thing for us to know is that it took over 200 years to get a handle on. 2 Today, if someone is on a street corner handing out pamphlets, posting flyers, or shouting in protest — whether we agree with them or not — we can say for certain that they have an agenda. We had to learn to qualify the information we receive this way, and how to apply skepticism to it and to attempt to understand a writer’s message, rhetoric, and bias. If that sounds silly, let me put it another way. Reading and listening are different; you get more from a voice than just the words. For a newly-literate public, the cues for misinformation were different than what their society prepared them for. It took a hundred years from printing press to the standards and ethics of the press. It took the slow cultivation of a public that desired to read on “matters of fact”, 3 of editors who understood how to be impartial, and of a government willing to abide a free press.

Today’s public may not agree on much, but I think everyone can agree that something is different about the problems facing us this decade compared to the issues with mass media and internet-based communication we have faced before. We have never been more connected and less informed. News feeds exhaust our attention with a rapid succession of shallow information, while push notifications, meant to keep us connected and up-to-the-minute, pester us continuously. The ability to be reached at a moment’s notice means that we are interrupted, always. 

Further still, social media has become a potent cocktail that exacerbates our worst tendencies by gamifying the spread of ideas. We’re inherently tribal, so signaling identity features prominently in social media and all the Likes, Upvotes, Retweets further entrench this mindset. Extreme views send the clearest signals and spread the furthest, correlating with more sharing and a longer life on social networks 4. When we reward each other for sharing morally and emotionally loaded messages, the most striking and impactful messages will promote authoritarian ideals. In a war over information and attention, vile and derisive wins every time 5. I believe that we have trained ourselves into an instinctual, heuristic mode of thinking which, after ten years of prolific smartphone use, is having repercussions well beyond the confines of devices and networks. Because we, as cultures and societies, do not yet understand the limits of these channels, how to optimize information for them, or how to qualify the information there. 

And, I wonder: how long will it take for us to have a healthy relationship with electronic mass media or with everything a smartphone can do? Because of an upheaval to the way that we find, select, and interact with media, the landscape of new media is fundamentally different than what society is preparing us to deal with. News doesn’t come passively anymore so we are forgetting to inform ourselves, and we are missing the cues that would otherwise prompt us to think critically about information and its sources. There may be some lesson we can take from earlier eras, but for all the personal value that I have gained from this history, a roadmap is unlikely. 

  • [1] Haley, “Claude Garamond.”
  • [2] Andrews, The History of British Journalism.
  • [3] Andrews; Barker, “The Newspaper Press of England: Its Origin and Growth”; Hunt, Massey, M.P., and Blakey, “The Newspaper Press”; Ward and Ward, The Invention of Journalism Ethics.
  • [4] Brady et al., “Emotion Shapes the Diffusion of Moralized Content in Social Networks,” 7315.
  • [5] See Vox 2018, “Why every social media site is a dumpster fire.”
Literature reviewed
  • Andrews, Alexander. The History of British Journalism: From the Foundation of the Newspaper Press in England, to the Repeal of the Stamp Act in 1855. Vol. 1. 2 vols. London: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street, 1859. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.c024315313.
  • Barker, Johnson. “The Newspaper Press of England: Its Origin and Growth.” Edited by Henry Pitman. Pitman’s Popular Lecturer and Reader 1, no. 10 (October 1863).
  • Brady, William J., Julian A. Wills, John T. Jost, Joshua A. Tucker, and Jay J. Van Bavel. “Emotion Shapes the Diffusion of Moralized Content in Social Networks.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114, no. 28 (July 11, 2017): 7313 – 18. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1618923114.
  • Camaj, Lindita, and Arthur D. Santana. “Political Deliberation on Facebook during Electoral Campaigns: Exploring the Relevance of Moderator’s Technical Role and Political Ideology.” Journal of Information Technology & Politics 12, no. 4 (October 2, 2015): 325 – 41. https://doi.org/10.1080/19331681.2015.1100224.
  • Haley, Allan. “Claude Garamond.” In Typographic Milestones, 25 – 30. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992.
  • Hunt, F. K., W. Massey, M.P., and R. Blakey. “The Newspaper Press.” In The Edinburgh Review. A. and C. Black, 1855.
  • Lin, C. A. “The Effects of the Internet.” In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 3rd ed., 567 – 91. Communication Series. Communication Theory and Methodology. New York: Routledge, 2009.
  • Stoycheff, Elizabeth. “Under Surveillance: Examining Facebook’s Spiral of Silence Effects in the Wake of NSA Internet Monitoring.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 93, no. 2 (June 2016): 296 – 311. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077699016630255.
  • Vox. Why Every Social Media Site Is a Dumpster Fire, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZSRxfHMr5s.
  • Ward, Stephen J. A. “Journalism Ethics.” In The Handbook of Journalism Studies, edited by Karin Wahl-Jorgensen and Thomas Hanitzsch, 295 – 310. New York, NY: Routledge, 2009. https://www.supportuw.org/wp-content/uploads/wwa_2010_ward_journalism.pdf.
  • Ward, Stephen J. A., and Stephen Ward. The Invention of Journalism Ethics, Second Edition: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond. Montreal, CANADA: MQUP, 2015. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uh/detail.action?docID=4396130.
  • Yang, Fan, and Fuyuan Shen. “Effects of Web Interactivity: A Meta-Analysis.” Communication Research 45, no. 5 (July 2018): 635 – 58. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650217700748.