I was talking to my friend Ron the other day, returning from lunch (I’m driving) and the conversation turned to rise of the Angry Age, the current era where American is turning against American, what the political classes refer to as “polarization”. And, given this is a topic I’ve been studying for 30 years (you’ll see), I went on a 5-minute monolog where, I was sure, I completely lost the man at the end of it.
But I awaited his response…
“That’s good. You ought to write that down.”
So, Ron, here’s to you. And for the reader, grab a cup of coffee and enjoy a tour through history as we find out ‘why does everyone hate each other’.
This is a tale of societies, of civilizations, of technological change and the impact these modifications have. We’re going to go back in time, way back, because what is happening to America today… and trust me, we are just a harbinger for what is going to occur/is already occurring, worldwide… has happened before. If you were raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, you probably knew of one of these changes before you went to elementary school.
And I’m going to say that the historical record does not portend well to the chances of America’s survival. But we’ll get to that.
Our first stop in our historical journey is way back in time – before WW2, before Industrialization, before Martin Luther (we’ll see YOU later!), before Jesus, hell, even before Pharaoh and Moses… your mind’s eye needs to be in a field of sickly-looking wheat looking at a cluster of clay brick buildings, roads, and a really big building, the ziggurat, which is the highlight of the city of Ur, the capital of the Sumerian empire and the first real city in the Tigris-Euphrates area.
Babble On: The Invention of Languages
We are about 5,000 years in the past, say ~2,800 BCE and to the northwest of Ur is the growing city of Babylon (Babel in the Hebrew Bible). And there, a thing is happening:
1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward,[a] they found a plain in Shinar[Sumer] and settled there.
3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
That boldened bits tell the tale. The Sumerians in Babylon, either (a) invented a new language or (b) discovered peoples who had a differing language. Modern scholarship tends towards the last interpretation, but this doesn’t matter for our narrative: the addition of differing languages was such a traumatic event in ancient Mesopotamian life that the rather bitter account above was considered critical to include by the compilers of the Bible to explain why all these different tribes and nations exist. All because of the brand-new technology of languages, something cursed upon mankind by God.
And note that languages were considered a curse for the very reasons stated – differing languages prevented social cohesion and aided war. To the people of the era of Genesis 11, the single largest obstacle to civilization were all these different languages making large-scale projects impossible and fighting inevitable. This was, in their viewpoint, a catastrophe, and something which could only be a punishment from God.
Obviously, this problem has been largely solved by now, but at a time when you’re still trying to figure out the fundamentals of civilization, today’s irritation was an utter disaster 6,000 years ago. Ur is considered to be the founding city of Sumer. However, Babylon became a far more important city in the development of Western Civilization, and this shift could very well be because of the implications of the Tower of Babel. Babylon had a different language, and therefore a different cultural destiny, than old Ur.
All right, we’re not going to hang around, we’re going ahead in time quite a bit. Going to completely miss everything from the Akkadians to King Arthur and his round table, and we’re going to slow down for a bit, looking inside a metallurgist’s shop in the village of Mainz, ‘Germany’ (as the area came to be called). Mainz stinks, of course, of feces and rot and mud and sweat, but there are breads baking and meats cooking, so it’s not all bad… but it’s still pretty bad. It’s a medieval town, after all.
Sour Grapes: How a modified wine press destroyed Christendom.
But in this shop, Christendom is being crucified, for Johann Gutenberg had completed his metal dyes months ago, and, the machine completed, is now ready to try his big idea. He places the dyes into the frame he invented, places ink on the dyes, turning this big screw until the frame presses down onto a piece of paper. He reverses the rotation of the screw, takes the paper out of the machine, hangs it up and peers closely…
And he reapplies the ink, places a new sheet of paper in, does the same thing with the screw, and…
Exactly the same. Exactly.
When Gutenberg printed his first book sometime in early 1450s, there were approximately 20 million books in the world, of which Europe may have accounted for half. By 1600ad, ~150 years later, there were 200 million books in the world, of which 190 million were in the hands of Europeans. Two hundred years later, sometime past 1800ad, the advantage was Europe: 990 million books, the rest of the world, 10 million.
A quantitative revolution became a qualitative one as European society changed more dramatically in any fifty-year period between 1500-2000AD, than any human society ever changed before in a 50-year span. For the first time in world history, information could be industrially manufactured in a manner which did not destroy the manufacturing inputs and resulted in a consistent output. Working in a language with only 26 characters, Gutenberg and other printers had an advantage over previous attempts at printing which occurred in civilizations with far, far more complicated character sets (such as Chinese): The Europeans could easily store their 26 letters and mix and match them to say an infinity of anything.
The modern world is the Age of Print. And the destruction the printing press caused is also immense, for to create a new world, the old world must be destroyed. But it takes time for technological change to manifest itself into social change, and we’re going to encounter a number for the first time which will be repeated twice more:
We’re going to skip ahead about 60 years, three generations, pausing to take a look at these maps:
We are still in Germany, it’s Halloween, 1517, and there’s a youngish monk posting something rather wordy to the bulletin board of his local church. An industrious type who felt his voice needed to be heard, he wrote out some copies by hand and sent them to potential friends and allies who themselves also decided Martin Luther needed to be heard. They took his 95 theses and, using the new communications technology of the day, printed out thousands copies at their own expense, making Luther’s complaint against the Catholic church the first punditry piece to gain a widespread audience among all classes and languages (check out the map above) and making Martin Luther the Western world’s first civilization-wide media sensation.
And in using the printing press in the manner in which he, and his allies, did, he destroyed a Medieval Christendom which had existed for 500 years and sentenced Europe to 140 years of religious warfare so vicious and total that from 7 million to 20 million people were killed, in a population base much smaller than that which suffered WW1 and WW2.
The impact of the printing press was most dramatically felt by the intelligentsia, especially in the first three hundred years. From 1450-1750, the following intellectual disciplines flourished or were established in European society for the first time:
All of the above and more, so much more, exploded out of the 16th-18th century, and done with exactly the same reaction you had when you first got on Facebook and saw that awful post from the person you didn’t expect it – “You believe WHAT? HOW CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT? I THOUGHT WE ALL BELIEVED THE SAME THING?!?”
Medieval Christendom, like Ur, was killed by a technological change in communications which allowed the number of differing ‘languages’ – this time the differing languages of subject matter – to explode. And this fighting, as European turned against European, continued for 140 years, until the Peace of Westphalia effectively determined that religion was no longer something worth going to war over.
A weary Europe deciding to no longer fight about religion was also a Europe coming to grips with the printing press. Beginning around 1650, Europe entered what the author considers the ‘Classical Age’ of modern European civilization: Bach, Mozart, Jefferson, Kant, Gibbon, DeFoe, Alexander Pope, Newton, Voltaire, Washington, Rousseau, Beethoven, Franklin, Euler, Frederick the Great… just a glittering array of brilliance as European monarchial society finally adjusted to the printing press and started to use it to maximum effect, producing and mixing knowledge faster than any human society had up to this time.
It is hard to convey the sheer difficulty of moving an entire theocratic civilization from Dante to Newton in a mere 300 years, but the printing press accomplished this… but at the cost of 20,000,000 lives as new ideas fought against old, and theocracy succumbed to secularism.
Whirling the World to War
We’re going to leave the world of Mozart and Kant and travel a century or so, and across the Atlantic, to an American largely ignored by the histories… though his impact on European monarchies would prove as deadly as the press was to the Papacy. Born in New York City, Richard Hoe was the sort of guy who had one good idea and repeated it over and over: What if we could add an engine to this process?
He turned his eye to printing and what he accomplished starting in 1860 is nothing short of astonishing as he both invented rotary printing and attached an engine to it. This may not sound like much, but rotary printing allows for printing on rolls of paper, not sheets, a much faster process which allows for print runs in the millions. By 1870, Hoe invented a rotary press which printed, cut, and folded the newspapers in a single machine, allowing for massive increases of newspaper runs. His first machine ran 18,000 copies an hour, a blindingly fast pace for the period, and this was only the beginning. In time, the industrialized rotary press could print over a million copies of a single newspaper in a day, the papers spinning off the rotary press in a whirl.
The rotary press broke ‘classical’ Europe in a way that none of them were expecting and is not truly appreciated today: Requiring massive investments in capital and human knowledge, use of the industrialized rotary press was limited to those people with enough capital and/or contacts to start, and then dominate, the newspaper industry in their city (or country). As can be expected, these people used their presses to promote their ideas, their ideologies and viewpoints. In addition, Hearst, Pulitzer, Sulzberger (New York Times), more, all learned a very valuable lesson: fear and anger sell. Crime always dominated the front pages, threatening international events were emphasized over long-term improvements in the human condition, celebrity culture began to arise… by manipulating emotions, they learned they could manipulate their profits.
By the first decade of the 20th century, all industrialized Western countries were grappling with the new phenomenon of public opinion. Obviously ‘public opinion’ has existed as long as there was a public… the Reformation was a ‘public opinion’ event of sorts, after all… but until it boiled over into Revolution, public opinion rarely threatened the ruling classes. By their constant stirring of discontent, newspapers threatened the ruling classes, especially the monarchies of Europe, in a way they were not threatened even during the Reformation.
You first saw this in America, where two large New York papers effectively created the impetus for the Spanish-American war of 1898:
Europe largely ignored this, just as they ignored the lessons of the American Civil War 35 years prior, confident in their cultural and military superiority. But the same forces were at play in Europe as they were in America, albeit in an environment without the First Amendment: growing mass movements dominated by newspapers with subscription numbers in the millions, an urge to drive ‘engagement’ via printing content which engendered fear or anger into the reader, and a growing inability of the ruling classes to resist the growing clamor (this is sounding familiar, right?).
It all came to a head on June 28th, 1914, almost 60 years from Hoe’s first rotary press, when the heir to the Austrian throne was assassinated. This event perfectly aligned both mass opinion and the opinion of the ruling classes, each egging the other towards war in the remarkable month of July, 1914, a period where those who wanted peace were literally silenced by assassination, as the newspapers tried to outdo each other in the two-sided coin of viciousness and patriotism.
Europe ignored the two lessons of America – The American Civil War showed that industrialized warfare is a 24/7/365 affair, requiring engagement from every citizen, and the Spanish-American war showed that privatized propaganda organs can drive the foreign policy of nations. In their ignorance, Europe plunged into a 30-year abyss which future historians will view as a general “European Civil War”, resulting in the deaths of at least 100,000,000 people… a period punctuated in the middle by a general worldwide economic collapse.
The result of the first conflict, ending in 1918, was the effective repudiation of the entire European monarchial system. Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary all lost their monarchs and switched to systems of government which, at least nominally, were based upon the idea of popular sovereignty, in which the government would be more responsive to the will of the people than the monarchs were. Not necessarily democratic, not at all, but still far more responsive than the Old Order. In theory.
In this way, Hoe’s rotary press forced the laggards of Europe to join the “advanced” countries of France, Britain, and an increasingly important America, in ridding itself of centuries of autocratic family control, the new governments navigating the whims of popular movements, movements controlled by individuals of vast wealth and influence.
Much like Classical Europe, much like Christendom, much like Ur prior to Babel, another generalized consensus was born via the adoption of this new era of mass communications. This was exemplified most by the capitalist American press organs through which the United States manipulated global opinion it its favor, especially after WW2. And adoption by the people was complete – between 1910 and 1930, according to Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth, the average household bought 3.1 newspapers a day.
In an America which was relatively untouched by the two wars, even benefitting from them more than any other nation, the economic structure which required almost plutocratic control of powerful print organs was being used to develop the latest changes to communications: Electronics.
Through the 20th-century, electronic communications began to dominate the landscape via television and radio. As with newspapers and most things done by capitalistic America, the creation of television and radio apparatus required a massive investment in money and resources, resulting… again… in an American market dominated by three large corporations (ABC, CBS, NBC).
This pattern of merging large-scale capital investment into top-down communication channels led to a minor golden age, this Pax Americana golden age perhaps one not as broad as the European one of the 18th century (that I can see, though I may be wrong), but including names such as Armstrong (Louis or Neil), Lennon/McCartney, George Lucas, Presley, Steinbeck, Ford, Stephen King, Scorcese, all of these masters of the mass media game, in addition to scientific and business names such as Hubble, Gordon Moore, Jobs, Norman Balraug (inventor of the Green Revolution, the most important revolution you never heard of LINK), Walton, Hawking, Gates, more.
And, of course, we broke it.
The Internet: We actually gave the power to the people, and oh are we fucked.
What happened next in post-war America is the result of many differing technological and social trends, but for the purposes of this story we can keep it simple with a two-item list:
1. Computers were invented, improved, miniaturized, and dropped to a price point where they could be used by individuals, who snapped them up post-1980.
2. The Internet was founded by the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA, renamed ARPA later, it gets a bit confusing) with the theoretical design being laid out 60 years ago, in 1965, and the first nodes being built by 1969:
The above series takes us only to 1993, before most of those reading this even knew there was an internet (the Netscape web browser was two years later). Here is the growth of internet hosts (sites) since then:
Over 1 billion internet sites now serve over 4 billion people, 53% of the worlds population:
The charts look similar to the books and newspaper growth charts above: Just a massive hockey-stick growth curve in terms of publishers and consumers, with the maps of internet nodes largely reflecting the spread of printing in Europe.
And so… what does this portend for our futures?
History doesn’t repeat itself, but like poetry it often rhymes.
Each of the communication revolutions we reviewed all changed the way their civilization talked to themselves, but separate ways: Babel ‘invented’ the plurality of languages. Gutenberg invented a way to accurately recreate information. Hoe showed how one can make millions of copies in a single run. And the internet…?
What’s different this time?
While most histories of communications revolutions talk about how they impact society as a whole, a closer analysis shows that the impact of each was felt by one segment of society more than the other:
… The Babylonian revolution impacted leaders most of all. Look the main complaint – ‘we can’t organize enough people to do the things we want to do because not enough people speak the same language!’ I’m sure multuple languages impacted the lower strata of civilization, but the Bible didn’t consider their views worth noting. Which is notable in and of itself.
… The Gutenberg revolution was a revolution among the intelligentsia. Science, mathematics, philosophy, governance, more, all bloomed after the invention of the mechanically-reproduced book, these intellectual pursuits destroying Christendom in the process.
… The Newspaper revolution was a revolution of the commercial classes. Powerful, non-government, non-aristocratic individuals began to sway society to their own ends through their investments in the industrialized Hoe rotary press.
… The Internet revolution is a revolution of the masses (at least those wealthy enough to afford the internet, which is about 5 billion people)… and not in a good way.
In none of the other revolutions was the end user able to filter out unwanted knowledge or opinions fully, other than via not engaging in the material at all. Books always had passages that made you think, newspapers constantly engaged the masses with a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant content (“I am writing the Editor to express my dissatisfaction with the article dated…”), but the internet allows… almost forces… the user to create an information sphere which is custom-tailored, not towards a consensual reality, but to the user’s own preferences and biases, therefore creating their own reality, separate from all other humans.
In effect, the use of Likes, algorithms, blocking, and more allow each of us to create our own alternate reality, one in opposition to established fact and consensus. How worrisome is this?
30% of the American population currently use the internet to create a own shared alternate reality where ‘science’ proves it is better to be infected than vaccinated, where ‘studies’ proves that the vaccines don’t work, where ‘the data’ shows that the 800,000 supposedly dead from COVID actually died of something else. Regardless of the moral or political implications of this position, for the purposes of this essay, this means 30% of the United States of America is going to constantly incubate a deadly disease, using the new communication tools to block out the rest of the world screaming at them, “NO! STOP!”.
To be fair, those 30% would say something similar to the above about the 70% which is pro-vaccine.
In a country which itself is nothing more than a shared, consensual illusion, a technology which breaks the populace into multiple separate realities is fatal.
Or, really, 2 separate realities is enough to shatter this country. And with the COVID situation playing out like above, what would it take to get 100,000,000 people to ‘come to their senses’ and stop repeatedly infecting the other 200,000,000 with mutation after mutation? It would require either a physical, wartime-esque blow to the nation (war, the virus mutates to a form which kills 40% of those infected, something similar)… which would destroy the United States… or it would require a vast reinterpretation of our system of government, especially the amendments. These reinterpretations would force those people back to a consensual reality via violations of the 1st, 2nd, and etc. amendments… which destroys the United States via different means. Effectively, you would have to force people to hear what they want to hear and in the US, saying ‘la la la, I can’t hear you’ is now interpreted as a fundamental right, even when they are denying physical reality to the point of discomfort and death of others.
We either destroy ourselves or rethink some fundamental ‘truths’.
Conceived in the Age of Print, written and designed in a time when information and people moved very slowly, I do not think the US Constitution survives this period. Many of the principles will, of course, but the actual document? Conceived as a governing framework for a xenophobic collection of 18th-century pre-industrial agrarian states communicating at the speed of horse, the US Constitution is incapable of running a 21st-century, post-industrial, global hyperstate, communicating at the speed of light.
But on a larger scale, what this really means is the end of the Western hegemony, in place since 1492. The end of the Pax Americana is the stage, ending the West’s five-hundred year financial and cultural domination of the globe is the theme.
And if this seems a bit gloomy, all I can say is my evidence is the world about us, my argument is the one above. Buckle up everyone. This is our Reformation.
And this time we have nukes.