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
Masters of the Media - how Media Shaped History
Author: William Bernstein
ISBN-13: 978-0802121387
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Guideline Price: Sterling25

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.

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].

Xerox revolution
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.

Conor Brady

Conor Brady

Conor Brady is a former editor of The Irish Times