This is the third of four parts of a talk originally scheduled this week at Reboot 9.0 in Copenhagen. Links to the others follow this post.
The problem is, “myth” by itself doesn’t scale. When humans spent most of their time in family or other social groups, this did not matter much. But as humans began migrating and congregating in larger populations, the transmission of myth became more difficult, and conflicting myths began contending with each other for primacy (e.g., the Crusades).
Writing is a medium and has a long history, but for our purposes I really want to consider the impact of mass media. And, again for our purposes, I’d like to date that from the mid-15th century invention of movable type printing in Europe by Johannes Gutenberg (by then it had existed for 400 years in China, but its use with the more limited European alphabet made it successful). Instead of one copy of the Christian Bible per scribe per year, humans now could reproduce information at some scale.
Not only books but polemics like the Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (1517) got wide distribution. In only 80-100 years after its European invention, movable type resulted in a flip to Protestant Christianity for much of the continent. In the modern world, the “power of myth” (to borrow from the title of the classic Bill Moyers PBS series with Joseph Campbell), is the power of the mass media.
Of course, mass media also power other information as well. Science and democracy have flourished with wide dissemination, but so have totalitarian ideologies and pornography.
Arguably, mass media have enabled content creation on a scale and of a quality not possible without it. It’s doubtful, for example, that Halldór Laxness would have written his amazing novels (see the reference in part two) if his distribution was initially limited to a single copy on vellum. But then that’s exactly what his fellow Icelander, Snorri Sturluson, author of the Prose Edda and other works did some seven centuries earlier.
If ideas were beginning to bump into each other before the invention of movable type, their conflicts became orders of magnitude greater afterward. What hadn’t been replaced from pre-media days was the role of the information disseminator – though one-to-a-few became one-to-many. Distribution was democratized but origination was still in the hands of the few.
Is it our ability to scale information through mass media that makes us human?