Informing Ourselves to Death

It is generally accepted that Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450. To be sure, there were other presses in use and printing technology was already available, but what made Gutenberg’s device so revolutionary was the advent of his durable and movable type. The technology of pressing ink onto paper was not new, but the ability to make thousands of copies a day without destroying the type was. In other words, Gutenberg’s real contribution to mankind was making it possible to mass communicate via the written (printed) word.

In a similar way, the internet has made mass communication possible in a matter of seconds. The printing press was limited to the number of copies it (and its operator) could physically produce and bind, but the internet does not have such limitations. Another distinct advantage of the internet is its ability to not only broadcast written words, but audio and video as well. As a composite of print, radio, and television, the internet has enabled the speed of information to be nearly as fast as our desire to receive it. But its greatest potential is not its speed or multi-format delivery, but its decentralized nature. No longer is it possible for one or several groups to control the flow of information to the masses. The information superhighway is truly an information revolution.

The fact that we still refer to those who report the news as the “press” indicates how closely we associate the technology with the occupation. In fact, the more modern word of “media” is far more accurate, being the plural form of “medium” (the really plural form of course being “multimedia”). The news comes to us in various ways and methods; perhaps even at the same time. While you read this article you may also be listening to or watching something else; you may even be reading two or three things at once, trying to (poorly) multitask to “save time.” Such is the contemporary obsession with information and being in the “know.”

While our need to be informed shows no sign of abating, we can be thankful that the internet has made it possible to do an “end-run” around traditional news sources. In his book, Organized Crime: The Unvarnished Truth about Government, Thomas J. DiLorenzo points out that the government has become so big and so pervasive that journalists rely on the government itself for news and information. Being critical of the government agencies would jeopardize the journalist’s ability to have access to the news source. “Thus,” writes DiLorenzo, “career self-preservation among journalists requires that they essentially become lapdogs and mouthpieces for the state.” In much the same way that bad-mouthing your boss in public taverns can be detrimental to your future employment status, so is it with journalists and government agencies. The wink/nod relationship ensures that next week’s paycheck will arrive. The so-called “fourth estate” has really become a “fourth branch” of government. (The fourth estate was a term used by Edmund Burke to describe the independence of the media from the government and the necessity of it to stay separate as a watchdog. The fourth branch refers to the American media as being so integrated and interdependent with the government that it has become nothing more than a reporting and propaganda ministry for it—a lapdog rather than a watchdog.)

This unfortunate reality, says DiLorenzo, “explains the hostility exhibited by the state and much of the media toward, freedom-supporting Web sites in particular and the internet in general. Such sources of gate-keeperless communication threaten to burst asunder the empire of lies upon which all state power relies.” Indeed it does. The internet and a world full of individuals armed with smart phones and laptops are helping to break this information stranglehold. Just as the Gutenberg Press made the Protestant Reformation possible by putting printed material directly into the hands of the people, the internet is making the next reformation possible. It is now up to us to learn the difference between lapdog information and watchdog information.