chapter 2 - a history of open discourse
he total number of blogs worldwide is doubling every six months. Each day, tens of thousands of new blogs launch. What is it about blogging that inspires so many to embark on the rocky waters of self-publishing?
Certainly, the newest tools make it easy enough. And blogging can be cheap, often even free. Plus, there’s the pop culture allure that comes with mainstream media’s constant references to blogs and their makers. Still, one can’t help wondering if there isn’t something deeper, more innate, at work here.
A quick survey of history reveals an intriguing thread. Across time and cultures, we can trace an intermittent but ever-expanding urge toward self-expression and public discourse. From the earliest Chinese woodblocks to Europe’s printing press, from radio through blogs, we watch as new technologies enable ever greater numbers of individuals to share their stories and expand their world views.
Whether this increased social dialogue improves us as individuals or as a culture is open to debate, but it can be instructive to remember that it was a mere one hundred and fifty years ago that the world’s most powerful governments sanctioned the ownership of one human being by another. One hundred years ago, only New Zealand and Australia allowed women to vote. Fifty years ago, American citizens could be legally denied seats at a counter or on a bus because of the color of their skin.
The subsequent social advances were hard won by brave and compassionate individuals willing to take a stand. Mere exposure to new technologies didn’t cause these changes, but the history outlined below does suggest that open access to better publishing tools may, indeed, facilitate positive social change.
the earliest seeds of open discourse
As long as 30,000 years ago, the earliest true humans seem to have already been sharing news and information about hunting, phases of the moon, and spiritual beliefs by means of scratches on bone, sticks, and mammoth ivory. Gradually, the recording became more sophisticated, alphabets replaced marks, and the texts detailing battles, laws, and harvests.
By the time Ashurbanipal ascended Assyria’s throne in 668 BCE, the warrior-scholar proudly counted tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets among his personal riches. Like many rulers who followed, Ashurbanipal showed little interest to sharing his intellectual wealth with his people. In fact, one of the earliest copies of the Sumerian flood myth Gilgamesh bears a warning that is at least as chilling as any of today’s intellectual property exhortations: “May all these gods curse anyone who breaks, defaces, or removes this tablet with a curse which cannot be relieved, terrible and merciless as long as he lives. May they let his name, his seed, be carried off from the land, and may they put his flesh in a dog’s mouth.”
In Greece, Homer had already codified the Iliad and Odyssey, methodically preserving their ancient oral traditions for the ages. Hesiod, however, was taking a different tack. His Words and Days is remarkable for the time in that it describes everyday events in a casual, almost conversational, style. “First of all, get a house and a woman and an ox for the plough,” he advises would-be farmers, “a slave woman and not a wife, to follow the oxen.”
This urge to tell it like it was began to take hold and by the time Socrates was asking his questions in the fifth century BCE, an entire generation roamed the agoras, exchanging ideas as easily as they did fruits and cloth. Dubbing themselves citizens, they reveled in their newfound comradery.
The path had been rough. Fierce Greek tribal chiefs had crowned themselves kings. Their sons, whether fit or not, assumed their thrones. The weakest were overthrown first by oligarchs and then by tyrants. The faces of the privileged elite changed, but the lot of the common Greek people had remained dire.
By Socrates’ time, the Greek city states were emerging and the new leaders found themselves appealing to an agitated populace, the hoi polloi. Under Pericles, the hereditary titles and wealth of Athens gave way to a budding meritocracy in which opportunity and justice were meted out to all citizens equally. Of course, to be considered a citizen you had to be a free, land-owning male, a criterion for citizenship that was to reassert itself across cultures for millennia, but still, this signaled a sea change in the way individuals might view themselves and their place in society.
Socrates was born at the dawn of this political experiment. Throughout his youth, the Athenian agora rang with open debates on Good and Evil, Duty and Rights, the Individual and the State. It was in this vital climate of rhetorical exchange that Socrates’ philosophy would mature. He may have eschewed the written word, complaining that recorded texts simply repeat the same things over and over, but his adamant belief in the free exchange of ideas rings as true today as it did 2400 years ago.
The Athenian experiment was short-lived. By 399 BCE, the Thirty Tyrants had assumed control and found Socrates’ teachings to be too dangerous, too potentially “harmful to Athenian youth.” His cup of deadly hemlock serves as an all too terrible reminder that the Greek word for witness is martyr. Gradually, the agora fell silent.
Meanwhile, in China, Lao Tzu and Confucius had only recently handed down their philosophical precepts, in India, the Gautama Buddha preached compassion, and in Babylon, exiled Israelites had just put the finishing touches on the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament.
By the time Julius Caesar assumed the role of Consul of the Roman Republic in 59 BCE, the written word had become a powerful political tool. In addition to demanding that roads link every corner of his far-flung provinces, Caesar instituted the Acta Diurna, a series of daily reports from Rome that were to be posted throughout the Empire.
Acta Diurna means, literally, “news of the day.” Some copies were written on sheepskin, while others were carved into metal plates, but all copies were to be identical in content and posted for all to see. They not only publicized official decrees and judicial rulings, but also broadcast the results of gladitorial contests; announced notable marriages, births, and deaths; and recorded astrological omens. They even recapped ever-popular celebrity trials and executions. These uniform daily reports were dictated by the emperor himself, as so hardly reflected a vox populi, but they did lend a sense of cohesion to the motley empire. At least, they did until the year 200 CE, when marauding hordes moved in from the eastern steppes and the Actas ceased publication. The legacy of the first daily news lived on.
Some etymologists believe that the word journalist derives from these Acta Diurna.
the east takes up the mantle
Western history books often prefer to skip over the next few centuries, relegating them to the murky Dark Ages, but the truth is that during Europe’s cultural lull, a refined culture flourished to the East. As early as the year 104, for instance, there are reports of paper at the Chinese court of Ho’ti. It wasn’t long before various stencil and rubbing techniques allowed the mass production of both religious and secular texts. In truth, the ability to manufacture paper had become such a sought after skill that in 751, Arab traders kidnapped several Chinese paper makers in Samarkand, a bustling city in modern-day Uzbekistan, thereby introducing the art to their own culture.
The Islamic world was enjoying a golden age. Startling and revolutionary thinkers were altering the intellectual landscape of the entire Middle East. As early as 525, a Persian priest named Mazdak gained a large following advocating the redistribution of wealth, the abolition of private property, nonviolence, and vegetarianism. All men are born equal, Mazdak preached. It was a prescient message. Unfortunately, his impoverished followers forgot his admonitions against violence and began sacking the homes and harems of the upper classes and Zoroastrian clerics were quick to put down the Mazdakian rebellion.
Only a few years later, the prophet Mohammed stepped into history. “Obtain knowledge,” he wrote. “Its possessor can more easily distinguish right from wrong.” The prophet went so far as to preach, “The scholar’s ink is holier than the martyr’s blood.” Within two hundred years of Mohammed’s death, libraries were common across Islam and an entire industry devoted to publishing thrived. It didn’t hurt that Arabic had become the common language of learning, allowing intellectuals from India to North Africa to Spain to formulate and share ideas.
During the tenth century, the grand vizier of Persia, Abdul Kassem Ismael, was so enamored of reading that he traversed his vast realm with his entire personal library, the 117,000 manuscripts arranged in alphabetical order on a caravan of 400 camels. Today he could just pack a laptop and leave the camels at home.
In 1004, Caliph al-Mamun founded the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. He dictated that the vast library remain open to one and all and ordered the translation of Greek, Latin, Chinese, Byzantine, and ancient Egyptian texts into Arabic. Not only that, the fourteenth century Persian historian Maqrizi wrote, “Whosoever wanted was at liberty to copy any book he wished to copy.” Baghdad may have been the first true intellectual commons, but no golden age lasts forever.
With the rise to power of the Turkish Seljuk caliphate in 1057, the teachings of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali put a halt to this philosophical flowering. In writings like The Incoherence of Philosophers, al-Ghazali lashed out at reason and all its works, declaring them bankrupt. Only a direct intuition of God was worthy of contemplation, he dictated. Almost overnight, orthodoxy replaced free philosophical investigation and religious toleration throughout the Middle East and publishers found themselves relegated to the sole task of reproducing religious texts.
printing presses change the world
Some would argue that the first true printers were the sixth century Chinese monks who invented xylography, the art of woodblock printing. Indeed, by 868 a Buddhist monk, Wang Chieh, employed the method to print the entire Diamond Sutra on scrolls sixteen feet long by one foot wide. By 972, Buddhist monks were printing multiple copies of the Tripitaka, a 130,000 page text.
Still, woodblocks had their limitations. Laborious to carve, they were rarely used for anything but static texts. In the twelfth century, Pi Sheng, a Chinese cloth vendor, began molding individual porcelain characters that could be used to print custom messages on silk banners. This was technically the first true use of movable type. By 1313, a Chinese printer named Wang Chen printed a treatise on agriculture using more than 60,000 characters carved from hard wood.
Shortly after, Korean artisans began casting type in bronze and King Sejong had the foresight to commission the development of the han’gul, a simplified phonetic alphabet that would greatly facilitated printing.
This willingness to adopt new technologies is mirrored in South Korea today where more than 90 per cent of the population has broadband access and at last count more than 15 million bloggers were posting regularly.
Throughout this period of innovation across Asia, Europe endured its dark ages. Plagues, famines, and wars between petty fiefdoms had called a halt to the exchange of new ideas in the West. Only the clergy and a few odd nobles could read and even fewer could write. British scribes had recorded secular legends like Beowulf and the Song of Roland by hand at the turn of the first millennium, but most books were religious in nature and the Catholic Church jealously protected the right of its monastic scriptoria to copy and illuminate texts. Given that it took a single monk two years to copy a Bible, it is little wonder that few texts existed outside the walls of monasteries and a few castles.
By Gutenberg’s day, however, a new mercantile class was asserting itself and an education was one of the markers sought to prove status. Additionally, trade guilds encouraged literacy among their members because it helped them enforce the rules that buttressed their local monopolies. Plus, money was replacing barter and new banking communities were fast growing up. Increased trade and communications among urban centers further strengthened the resolve and resources of the middle class. The traditional hegemony of the clerics and nobles was about to come under attack.
Johann Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg was a perfect son of his times. Born in 1397 to a wealthy merchant family in Mainz, Germany, he had the advantage of a fine education and excelled in his trade as a goldsmith. And yet, when he was 31, his family was forced to move to Strasbourg after fellow craftsmen revolted against the nobles ruling Mainz.
An entrepreneur at heart, Gutenberg busily cast trinkets to sell to the many religious pilgrims traversing Europe at the time, but he must have been keenly aware that there was a growing market for books among his peers. Returning to Mainz, he brought his metalworking skills to bear and soon began casting individual letters of type from an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony with such precision that he was able to hold together whole plates using parts he’d scavenged from a wine press. By 1451, he had a working hand press and a commission from the local cardinal to print copies of indulgences that could be sold to help finance the most recent Crusade.
Indulgences were believed to be exemptions from punishment after death for sins committed while living. For centuries, clerics had raised a good deal of revenue selling hand-written bits of parchment or paper detailing exactly how many days reprieve from hell a sinner had purchased. Mass-produced indulgences with blanks the priests could fill in were a welcome innovation.
Flush with the success of this first printing commission, Gutenberg realized that he would need an investor if he were to grow his new venture. A Bible was the obvious next project, but a single page would require nearly 3000 pieces of type and, to print all those pages, he would need to employ a staff and build more than one press. You can imagine the pitch.
At the time, a hand-copied Bible cost roughly a quarter million dollars in today’s currency. If a machine-printed book cost even one-quarter that amount, there was still a tidy profit to be had. It wasn’t long before Mainz financier Johann Fust loaned Gutenberg 800 guilders. A second loan for the same amount won Fust a partnership in the new printing business and Gutenberg began work on the Bible in earnest.
Sadly, things went the way of many new technology startups. Gutenberg defaulted on the loan and Fust took over the printing of the Bibles. Some believe that Fust met a fitting end a few years later at the hands of the Paris Inquisition, the same court that had condemned Joan of Arc as a heretic only a few years earlier. Its judges were always on the lookout for any who might challenge their rule. Whether Fust was among the Inquisition’s victims is open to debate, but it wasn’t long before the Church began persecuting printers in earnest.
the printed word sparks a reformation
Indeed, the Church and royal houses across the Continent had much to fear in those days. By 1500, presses were operating in every major city in Europe and all those cloistered scriptoria full of monkish scribes found themselves victims of late-Medieval downsizing. Only fifty years after Gutenberg’s first Bible, the expansion of printing mirrored today’s explosive growth in blogging. More than a million printed incunabula (the word used to describe books at the time) were in circulation, among them more than 10,000 unique titles. And not all of them were religious tomes. Particularly in the south, Greek and Latin classics, secular histories, and a spectrum of contemporary texts were being sold in every market. The Church Fathers were up in arms. Many referred to printing as the “schwarze Kunst,” or “black art” and, in concert with the many of the nobility across Europe, they were determined to rein it in. Savonarola’s showy conflagrations in 1494 are the best known book burnings of the time, but a fiery suppression of this new medium was in vogue across the land.
When Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517, it is unlikely that this local Catholic pastor anticipated the irreparable schism that would follow. The document was largely an appeal for a public dialog on the topic of indulgences. “Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light,” Luther began, he wished, “to defend the following statements and to dispute them in this place. Therefore, we request that those who are unable to debate us orally do so by letter.”
Today Luther might have started a blog, explaining that many local parishioners no longer came to him for confession, but rather traaveled to nearby parishes where the priests sold indulgences. The ensuing debate about these “get out of Hell for a fee” cards might have taken place in a long series of blog entries and comments. Whether or not the Pope would have used the trackback feature to voice his own opinion on a papal blog is hard to call.
The Pope had no choice but to reply to Luther’s appeal. Church hegemony had never been in more danger. The Peasant’s Revolt, half a million strong, was still eight years away, but unrest was in the air. No wise Pope could afford to ignore a priest questioning an established Church practice, particularly when the practice generated revenues as hefty as the selling of indulgences.
The Pope’s icy response only served to steel Luther’s resolve. In 1522, he published the first vernacular translation of the Bible and between 1518 and 1525, one third of all printed materials dispersed across Europe were authored by Luther. The Reformation was well underway.
meanwhile, england is not so merry
Desperate for a hero in his holy battle against Protestantism, in 1521 Pope Leo named England’s Henry VIII “Defender of the Faith” for his bold and sometimes brutal opposition to the writings of Luther. By 1530, Henry could see that books threatened more than just the clergy, whom he by now found pesky anyway, and so he imposed a broad licensing system that required all publishers to seek royal permission before printing. To enforce this “prior restraint” of the press, Henry called on the Star Chamber, a secret court with jurisdiction over political opponents, religious dissenters, and, now, those who would dare to publish without the increasingly rare royal imprimatur. By 1533, when Henry was himself excommunicated for putting his desire for an heir above the tenets of the Church, he had effectively squelched British publishing.
And so things remained for the next hundred years. Printing presses were fueling revolts all across Europe, but in England, the Star Chamber still squashed all unsanctioned texts. A brief flurry of gossip sheets called “news books” whetted the British appetite for light fare, but in 1637 a new licensing decree imposed even harsher penalties—in some cases capital punishment—on renegade printers.
William Prynne may perhaps be considered lucky. Despite the fact that his pamphlet denouncing actresses, Histrio Mastix, was licensed in 1633, the Chamber declared the Puritan lawyer guilty of sedition. This was no doubt because the book was a thinly veiled attack on Charles I’s wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, who was both French and Catholic. As in all similar cases, truth was not a defense. Prynne’s ears were cropped. Convicted again in 1637, the Chamber fined Prynne 5000 pounds, ordered the removal of the stumps of his ears, and branded his cheeks with the initials “SL,” which stood for “seditious libeller.”
This time, however, repression backfired. The ideological wars that had been plaguing the rest of Europe for decades finally exploded across England. A civil war between the Royalists and Parliamentarians broke out with both sides hoping to woo the populace. In 1641, the Long Parliament made a great show of abolishing the much-feared Star Chamber but seems to have been unprepared for the torrent of publications flooded the market. By 1642, licensing laws were back in effect but reining in free thought turned out to be harder than ever before.
free thinking finds its way to america
Among the most notable of the publications to appear in opposition to official censorship was John Milton’s Areopagitica, a Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing. In this seminal tract of 1644, the articulate future author of Paradise Lost wrote, “Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” This concept—that in an unfettered marketplace of ideas, Truth will win out—became known as the “self-righting principle” and lies at the heart of all subsequent debates about the value of free expression. Many use the argument to defend blogs today.
The Areopagitica triggered enormous debate, with an ever greater number of citizens clamoring for the right to free expression, but it was another fifty years before the British allowed the Licensing Act to lapse. The fact that England chose to continue imposing licensing laws on its colonies was to prove a fateful decision.
On both sides of the Atlantic, pamphleteers began taking advantage of their newfound access to presses. Among the most influential was a writer who considered himself a life-long failure. In his native England, Thomas Paine had been thrown out of school, expelled as an apprentice in his own father’s corsetry business, gone to sea but hated it, and been twice fired as a tax collector. Finally, at age 33, Paine fatefully met Benjamin Franklin in a London coffeehouse. The American journalist found Paine “ingenious” and encouraged him to emigrate to Philadelphia.
Penniless, Paine landed on American soil in 1774, not long after the Boston Tea Party and just before the American Revolution’s first shots were fired in nearby Lexington and Concord. The Colonies were in turmoil. Led by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Paine’s own sponsor, Franklin, a rebellious intelligentsia modeled itself after the Enlightenment ideal and was actively agitating for independence from British rule. A great many rank-and-file colonists, meanwhile, found the idea of a rebellion—particularly one that promised to be long, expensive, and bloody—a less than savory option.
Not that any colonists liked the idea of “taxation without representation,” of course. The Stamp Act of 1765 proved particularly odious. It required that all published materials in the Colonies—newspapers, legal documents, almanacs, even playing cards—carry a fairly pricey stamp. Denied any say in Parliamentary decisions, the Colonists resented the tax and viewed it as an arbitrary attempt to impose the kinds of constraints on publishing that had by now been long abolished on English soil.
As the newly named editor of Pennsylvania Magazine, Paine began by writing antislavery tracts, a lifelong cause, but it wasn’t until he penned the pamphlet Common Sense in early 1776 that he struck a chord with rank-and-file colonists.
“Perhaps the sentiments contained on the following pages,” Common Sense begins, “are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom.” Plainspoken and rational, Paine appealed as no one before him had to the farmers and tradesmen who had thus far resisted the call to revolution. By the end of the year, more than half a million copies of Common Sense were in circulation and his words were on the lips of new patriots everywhere.
Given that the population of the Colonies was only about three million at the time, Paine’s blog ranking would have been impressive.
After American independence had been won, Franklin is said to have written to Paine, “Where liberty is, that is my country.” Paine’s reply, “Where liberty is not, that is mine.” And so Paine returned to Europe. In 1791, he penned his Declaration of the Rights of Man in support of the French Revolution. In it, Paine argues passionately for the overturn of arbitrary government, illiteracy, unemployment, and war, citing these as the causes of Europe’s long discontent. The French at first hailed Paine’s treatise, celebrating him as a great articulator of their complaints and aspirations, but not long after its publication, Robespierre had him jailed for refusing the endorse the beheading of Louis XVI. “Kill the king,” Paine had written, “but spare the man.”
Even jail couldn’t stop Paine’s pen. From his cell in Paris, he published his most incendiary work, The Age of Reason. In it, he held to a belief in God, but not in religion. “I detest the Bible,” he wrote, “as I detest everything that is cruel.” It turns out this sentiment didn’t sit well with many of Paine’s former allies across the sea. When he returned to America after his release from prison in 1802, he met with no hero’s welcome. The very people who had fought to guarantee their own right to believe and worship as they saw fit were incensed by his latest writings.
Paine died a pauper in New York City at the age of 72. His obituary in the New York Citizen read, “He had lived long, did some good and much harm.” It’s easy to imagine that if there had been a comments field, at least a few brave souls may have challenged the assertion.
newspapers take center stage
The nineteenth century saw the rise of massive, popular newspapers. By the mid-1800s, journalism on both sides of the Atlantic found itself responding to two powerful forces: (1) new technologies that greatly expanded the reach of individual publishers and (2) readers’ demand for serialized stories that were at once titillating and uplifting. The history behind the famous meeting between Henry Stanley and Dr. David Livingstone provides an illuminating window onto how these forces conspired to shape modern journalism.
The story begins in 1835, when James Bennett, Sr., working from a dank cellar on Wall Street, founded the New York Herald as one of the new daily “penny papers,” arguably the first modern newspapers. Populist in nature, the Herald boasted a circulation of 15,000 within the first year, due in no small part to unabashed, sensationalist news coverage and a vituperative editorial stance that entertained and offended one and all with its equal-opportunity bashing of politicians. Bennett lost no time in capitalizing on his paper’s popularity. Tapping the newfound wellspring of advertising dollars, he soon turned his publishing enterprise into a staggering fortune.
Not content with mere fortune, Bennett was determined to leave his mark on the new world of journalism. Recognizing innovation as the key, he began employing European correspondents, a pioneering addition to any American newspaper staff at the time. In 1848, he was among the founders of a daring new wire-service venture, known today as the Associated Press. At about the same time, he began integrating new steam-driven presses that could not only print thousands of copies per hour, they allowed his papers to be the first to boast illustrations. By the time photography was viable, Bennett was poised.
The American Civil War provided a picture-perfect opportunity for showcasing the ability of the newest presses to include grainy black-and-white images, and Bennett lost no time in hiring just about anyone with a camera. Soon harrowing images accompanied every battle story.
Recognizing the advantage of telegraphy in the timely reporting of far-flung stories, he employed more than sixty war correspondents, training each to write stories with summary leads at the top, just in case the telegraph signal dropped partway through transmission. All this allowed for quick and dirty coverage of what turned out to be a long, dirty, and for Bennett, Sr., ever more profitable war.
bennett jr. takes advantage of new technologies
While Bennett, Sr. was busy integrating new technologies and training amateurs as writers and photographers (sound familiar?), his son, James Garner Bennett, Jr., attended school in France and hobnobbed with the Newport, Rhode Island, elite, nurturing what turned out to be a lifelong devotion to yachting. He had just won the first transoceanic boat race in 1867, in fact, when news of his father’s death suddenly thrust him into the publisher’s role.
Bennett, Jr. was an ostentatious figure who, a decade later, felt compelled to flee America after drunkenly urinating into the fireplace at a New Year’s gala at his fiancée’s parents’ palatial home, but overall he was as daring and visionary as his father. Among his first acts after taking over the helm of the Herald was to hire the young, renegade journalist, Henry Stanley. Bennett, Jr. needed someone to head up an expedition into the uncharted wilds of Africa in search of the renowned and, by then, long-missing Dr. David Livingstone. Bennett knew that whether or not Stanley located Livingstone, a series of articles detailing the expedition would sell papers, lots of papers.
Dr. Livingstone was a Scottish missionary who had caused a sensation twelve years earlier with the publication of his book, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. Detailing his experiences as the first European to travel deeply into the Kalahari, the book was an instant best-seller and Livingstone had found himself a darling of the Victorian lecture circuit. With each return from the Dark Continent, his retellings of lion maulings and mutinies among his porters further entrenched his fame. By the time he returned with the news that he’d named “the mist that roars” Victoria Falls after his queen, he was among the best known names on either side of the Atlantic and an unbeatable money-maker for the many publishers writing about him.
But after many years of walking deeper and deeper into the heart of Africa, Livingstone wasn’t completely comfortable with his fame or, as it turned out, with polite society. He resigned from the London Missionary Society that had first sent him to Africa—he’d managed only one conversion and that one only temporary, after all—and in 1858, Livingstone accepted a challenge from the Royal Geographical Society to locate the headwaters of the Nile.
He was never to return, but his widely read letters home focused increasingly on the horrors of the slave trade. Readers were horrified by his vivid descriptions of slave caravans made up of thousands of men, women, and children, all forced to walk hundreds of miles in neck yokes and leg irons, carrying loads of ivory and other items often too heavy to bear. Those who fell behind were killed on the spot, the trail of the caravans marked by the vultures and hyenas who fed in their wake. “To overdraw its [the slave trade’s] evils is a simple impossibility,” he wrote. “The strangest disease I have seen in this country seems really to be brokenheartedness, and it attacks free men who have been captured and made slaves.”
In response to Livingstone’s writings, British readers pressured Parliament to demand that the sultan of Zanzibar ban the slave markets that were central to the trade. For the time being, at least, their efforts were only marginally successful. Meanwhile, abolitionists in the United States found Livingstone’s letters to be particularly powerful tools in their own campaigns against slavery, and he was celebrated as a hero throughout the Northern states.
But then the missives stopped
Some who had been among Livingstone’s last expeditionary party claimed he had been killed, but the public refused to believe it. After nearly five years with no word, James Bennett, Jr. decided to send in his expedition. To head up what seemed to many at the time to be little more than a publicity stunt, Bennett chose Henry Morton Stanley.
Stanley was a cunning choice. A Welshman of uncertain background, masquerading as an American, he had served in the armies of both the North and South during Civil War before embarking on a career as a journalist. His widely syndicated accounts of the American West were florid and captivating, filled with tales of Wild Bill Hickok, General George Custer, and any number of Native American chiefs. His editors seem to have been tolerant of the fact that he often made up or at least embellished his stories. He was, after all, a deft and fearless writer, two traits that Bennett recognized would serve them both well on an African adventure.
It was two years before Stanley found the frail Livingstone in the village of Ujiji on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika and uttered the now famous greeting, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” Despite Stanley’s pleas that he return to England, Livingstone chose to remain and die in Africa. It is a fitting tribute to the man that shortly after he was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1873, England’s threat of a naval blockade of Zanzibar finally ended that island’s slave market, once and for all.
By this time, Bennet had fled American society and was ruling his publishing empire from aboard his yacht, the Lysistrata. He communicated largely by telegraph, making him the first true telecommuter. But his fascination with technology hardly stopped there. In 1880, Bennett partnered with gold baron John W. Mackay to lay two transatlantic telegraph cables, successfully undermining Jay Gould’s then-existing cable monopoly. In 1899, Bennett commissioned the 25-year-old Italian Guglielmo Marconi to install his barely tested wireless telegraph (soon to be renamed radio) on a bluff at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, which allowed the Herald to scoop the other papers covering the America Cup yacht races. The much-touted experiment was so successful that Marconi’s new invention was soon required on all commercial ships and is generally credited with the rescue of the Titanic’s 705 survivors.
But Bennett’s long-distance administration proved to be the paper’s undoing. Upon his death in 1922, the Herald found itself in an early media merger with its most bitter rival, the New York Tribune. Steam-powered printing presses were giving way to a spanking new electronic age and the savvier media moguls could see that the business of print media would have to learn new tricks to stay viable.
print forced to share the world’s stage
Bennett’s belief in Marconi’s radio was proving prescient. In 1922, the year of Bennett’s death, there were already 576 commercial radio stations across the United States, and more than 100,000 radio receivers in homes and offices. Within three years, there were 5.5 million receivers in use. Just as with blogging, the adoption rate nearly doubled every six months!
From a business perspective, radio was fast becoming even more centralized than print. Britain opted for government ownership, launching the British Broadcasting System (BBS) in 1925. The United States government had commandeered Marconi’s American radio-related patents during World War I, but once the war was over, the U.S. Congress decided to wrest control from the United States Navy, and grant control to two partners, General Electric (GE) and American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T).
To administer this new communications monopoly, GE and AT&T jointly founded the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). It was an uneasy alliance. AT&T had distinguished itself by pioneering a number of advances in both wireless and wired technologies, resulting in very high quality telephones lines, which they for some time refused to share, forcing RCA to send radio transmissions across much lower-quality telegraph lines. It wasn’t until 1926, when RCA joined forces with GE and Westinghouse Electric to spin off the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), an alliance of twenty-four networked radio stations, that AT&T began renting access to their phones lines for radio transmissions. To pay these transmission costs, the radio stations began selling sponsorships and thus was born the advertiser-supported model of broadcasting.
The first television debuted in 1927 when twenty-one-year-old Philo Taylor Farnsworth presented his invention to potential investors. When asked by one when he might hope to see some dollars, Farnsworth cheekily transmitted the image of a dollar sign. Twelve years later, NBC made history by broadcasting the opening of the New York World’s Fair and RCA began selling television sets with screens that were five inches by seven inches. It’s easy to laugh until we remember that we sometimes watch television on cellphone screens half that size.
By 1941 NBC and upstart CBS were airing newscasts to a few thousand homes. For the newscasters to appear “natural” on the tiny black-and-white screens, they had to work under scalding hot lights and wear black lipstick and green makeup. In 1943, the FCC forced NBC to divest one of its networks and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) entered the fray. By 1949, there were a million television sets sold; by 1951, ten million sets and a whole new school of news was born.
Among the more galvanizing early television events were America’s civil rights struggles and the 188-hour House Un-American Activities Committee spectacle during which the world witnessed the rise and fall of Senator Joseph McCarthy. By the time the Vietnam War found itself on the nightly news, an entire generation was infuriated by news events and busily making their own. Inexpensive printing techniques and nearly ubiquitous access to Xerox duplicating machines allowed underground publications to erupt in every quarter. Some were filled with polemic; others aspired to the comic; a few attempted to define a new school of investigative reporting. Journalists like I.F. Stone and Jessica Mitford, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson were reshaping the job description and altering the expectations of their audiences. By the time Richard Nixon’s presidency was melting down, every level of the media fought to break stories about the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and the Iran-Contra scandal.
Meanwhile, deep inside laboratories sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense, a new platform for communications was emerging. Launched in 1969 to “protect classified information in multi-access, resource-sharing computer systems,” the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) soon outgrew the constraints of its original mandate.
By 1980, there were several hundred hosts on ARPANET, most of them at academic institutions and a ripple of excitement spread across the new system when computer science prodigy Tim Berners-Lee published a paper outlining a method of hyperlinking that would allow both original authors and subsequent readers to create links from one document, or part of a document, to another. Crucial to his initial vision is the idea that anyone might read or write to any web page.
The excitement surrounding the new technologies wasn’t restricted to hallowed halls. So great was the buzz surrounding personal computing that in 1983, Time magazine named the computer “Man of the Year.” Within two more years, the wide availability of desktop publishing software turned millions of geeks, freaks, and church bulletin designers into instant publishing mavens.
Berners-Lee released the first World Wide Web browser and server software in 1991 and shortly after arguably published the first blog—a web page listing other web pages as they launched. The Web was already straying from Berners-Lee’s ideal of a read-write environment, but a number of individuals followed in his footsteps, publishing web pages that linked to other published pages, most of which were distinguished by a reverse chronology. In 1997, Jorn Barger first began referring to such websites as “web logs” on his Robot Wisdom site and, in 1999, Jesse James Garrett published a list of 23 such sites. By spring of 2006, Technorati was tracking more than 30 million active blogs.
The scale of this new publishing experiment can perhaps be understood if we remember that the British Library, the world’s largest physical library, houses more than 150 million items collected over many centuries. Meanwhile, Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive has managed to catalog more than 40 billion web pages in only a few short years. Most of those web pages were authored by folks like you and me.
This urge to publish, to record our thoughts and interests, to engage in public discourse, seems to have been percolating throughout history. Tracing its patterns, we see that open discourse thrives when enabling technologies are widely available and simple to use, and wanes when stunted by repressive regimes or a killing apathy. With each reinvention of the technologies supporting publishing, there seems to be a contagion that causes more and more individuals to participate. The dynamics of publishing is shifting from a one-to-many elitist scenario to a much more egalitarian many-to-many platform that supports a wide spectrum of social networks and lively conversations.
This is not to say that all the content being recorded on those millions of blogs is on a par with Confucius or Tom Paine or even William Shatner. Certainly there is more than little gossip, pandering, puffery, and propaganda finding its way onto many of those blog pages, but if Truth really does grow up out of a healthy clash of ideas, if there is any wisdom in crowds, then blogging may well be a useful tool for tapping these philosophical reservoirs. It is unlikely that blogging will replace professional publishing, but the availability of self-publishing tools this easy and useful is bound to leave its mark on the history of human discourse.