November 13, 2019

Reddit, Before the Internet

“The new medium would spread half-truths, propaganda and lies. It would encourage self-absorption and solipsism, thereby fragmenting communities. It would allow any amateur to become an author and degrade public discourse.

Sound familiar? Such were the anxieties that the invention of printing unleashed on the world as 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century authorities worried and argued about how print would transform politics, culture and literature. The ‘printing revolution’ was by no means universally welcomed as the democratiser of knowledge or initiator of modern thought.

In 1620, Francis Bacon named printing, gunpowder and the nautical compass as the three modern inventions that ‘have changed the appearance and state of the whole world’. For others, this outsized influence was exactly the problem. A few decades earlier, the scholar William Webbe complained about the ‘infinite fardles of printed pamphlets; wherewith thys Countrey is pestered, all shoppes stuffed, and every study furnished.’ Around the same time, the pseudonymous Martine Mar-Sixtus lamented: ‘We live in a printing age,’ which was no good thing, for ‘every rednosed rimester is an author, every drunken mans dreame is a booke’. Printing was for hacks, partisans and doggerel poets.

In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), Jürgen Habermas argued that print enabled the establishment of an arena of public debate. Print first made it possible for average people to come together to discuss matters of public concern. In turn, their knowledge and cooperation undermined the control that traditional royal and religious powers had over information. Habermas pointed to the early 18th century as a crucial moment of change. At that time, newspapers and periodicals exploded in both number and influence. ‘In The Tatler, The Spectator and The Guardian the public held a mirror up to itself,’ Habermas noted of the impact of a trio of periodicals by the journalists Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. The new publications allowed readers to shed their personal identities as rich or poor, male or female. Instead, in print they could enter into conversation as anonymous equals rationally engaging with the topics of the day.”

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