Masters of the Word – How Media Shaped History, William Bernstein
Bernstein’s survey of the liberalising effect of new media might be less optimistic had it been written after the Edward Snowden revelations
Masters of the Media - how Media Shaped History
William Bernstein very likely wishes that he had been perhaps six months later in furnishing his publishers with the final text of Masters of the Word – How Media Shaped History.
His survey of the contested ground where despotic regimes are challenged by new media is ultimately optimistic. He describes a rebalancing of forces. The proliferation of social media now ensures that malevolent states can no longer inflict terror on their populations without exposure to the wider world. The people can organise and resist with powerful communications tools as never before. “The internet has . . . given despots the power to spy on and suppress their citizens but, on balance the ground has shifted in favour of the latter,” he concludes.
Masters of the Word was already in the publisher’s warehouses last month, when the Washington Post and the Guardian revealed the existence of Prism. Acting on information from analyst Edward Snowden, the newspapers unveiled the gargantuan intelligence operation that enables the US government to intercept any electronic communication between any anybody, anytime, anywhere. Even the grand sweep of the author’s narrative does not envision an information machine that can literally store every message on the planet.
Like the rest of us, Bernstein did not know of Prism and the breathtaking arrogation of power that has to lie behind such a concept.
Had it been different, he might have made more of a comment he attributes to a Nokia-Siemens spokesman who was asked about the deployment of a “deep-packet inspection system” that enabled the Iranian security authorities to intercept all of the country’s internet traffic; “If you sell networks, you also intrinsically sell the capability to intercept any communication that runs over them.”
Bernstein is not a media historian. His field is financial theory and analysis, with three successful publications in this arena to his credit: The Intelligent Asset Allocator (2000), The Birth of Plenty (2004) and A Splendid Exchange; How Trade Shaped the World (2008).
In Masters of the Word he traces the evolution of communications media as a facilitating force in society. The narrative is succinct and extremely well sourced. He describes how societies have democratised and become more prosperous as they have embraced more successful methods of mass communication. It starts with the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians, inscribing their messages on stone and brick, and brings us to the geeks of Silicon Valley who have given the world the internet and social media.
A Sumerian tablet, 5,000 years ago, might carry information from the ruler to a handful of the literate elite. Today, social media enable any individual to generate a message that can, in theory, be instantly and simultaneously absorbed by one third of humanity.
Mightier than the sword
He describes the links between media and the strengthening of social organisation. Roman legions deployed in a system that operated through written orders, distributed efficiently and quickly throughout the empire. This command model gave them a decisive advantage over less well-organised forces. The growing Christian church, in turn, extended its authority across early medieval Europe on the back of a communications system which it monopolised through its literate clerics.
With successive evolutions in media technology – printing, the steam press, radio, television and now the internet – the numbers of those who can receive and, ultimately, participate in the dissemination of information, increases. The balance of political, religious and cultural power begins to shift towards the general population. Wealth spreads. People demand a higher degree of personal freedom. Democracy grows and is strengthened.