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
Bernstein narrates this evolution with some wonderment. And indeed it is wonderful. Yet there is not much here any that any media student will not hear in the first semester at a good journalism school.
However, Bernstein’s analysis is actually deeper. He describes a cycle in which new media technologies are at first monopolised by the powerful establishment – the state, the church or the plutocracy – and employed to regulate or suppress the general population. In medieval Europe, books were found only in palaces and monasteries. In the modern world, computers were initially available on a restricted basis to those with sufficient wealth and power to acquire and operate these wonderful machines: governments and the military.
It is only when these technologies are “embraced and controlled” by the general population, Bernstein writes, that the liberating cycle is complete. The instruments of information employed by the establishment to consolidate its grip on power become the means through which that power is dispersed.
The Morse telegraph, the Marconi radio and the space satellite were all commissioned essentially for use by the military. But each was quickly adapted to commercial purposes and came into use among those sectors of the general population that could afford the charges.
It becomes impossible for the state to maintain its exclusive hold over communications technologies, he argues. He gives the example of the Soviet Union’s command production of millions of sets of radio receivers in the 1950s and 1960s so that the voice of the state could be broadcast into the home of every Soviet citizen. With minimal expertise it was possible to adjust the receiver so that western broadcasters such as the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe quickly replaced state radio as the preferred service of millions of citizens.
Interestingly, Bernstein reminds us of a number of technologies whose changed roles are less widely chronicled in conventional histories of the media.
The Soviet Union produced an abundance of carbon paper, the humble office aid, virtually unknown today, that became the mainstay of bureaucratic record keeping after the invention of the typewriter. Carbon paper facilitated the underground copying of hundreds of thousands of books and pamphlets in the process known as “samizdat” [publishing house for oneself].
In the 1960s came Carlson’s new copying machine, later known as the Xerox, that brought the capacity to publish perfect reproductions of any document, swiftly, cheaply and, initially at least, without leaving any trace of the copier’s identity.
Traditional-media practitioners will be discouraged, even dismayed, by Bernstein’s almost sanguine acceptance of the inevitability of their decline. The internet has taken over their role, he argues. “In the internet era Daniel Ellsberg wouldn’t have needed the New York Times.”
This misses the point. Mere publication does not equate to authority or authentication. The reason the world sat up in shock over the revelations about Prism was because the details came out backed by the authority of the New York Times and the Guardian. One suspects that Edward Snowden’s life expectancy might have been different had he simply tweeted and blogged his story.
Conor Brady is a former editor of The Irish Times. His next novel, The Eloquence of the Dead, will be published in October.