“At the most basic level,” writes William J. Bernstein, “the words ‘politics’ and ‘communication’ are nearly synonymous.” In Masters of the Word: How Media Shaped History, he presents history as an eternal, cyclical battle in which communication technology provides most of the weaponry.
It’s gripping stuff: On one side are the despotic rulers striving to subjugate entire nations through their control of the media. On the other is the democratic resistance to such tyranny, usually aided by the very same forms of media that had been used as a tool of oppression.
Consider the role of cellphones, instant messaging and the larger Internet in the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring. What began as tools of command and control in the hands of the military and the business world became the means of organizing protest against such control, and then in turn the means of surveilling and disciplining the protesters once more. Over and over, the process repeats itself.
For readers of media history, though, it’s a familiar narrative. Harold Innis, one of the founders of the discipline of communication studies, laid the groundwork for these arguments in the 1950s, and many others have expanded on his work. Since the birth of the first cities more than 5,000 years ago, governing bureaucracies have established what Innis called “monopolies of knowledge” by controlling various aspects of communication: education and literacy, access to writing materials, access to the written texts themselves, and ultimately the right to determine what counts as culturally important. Innis also described the tendency of cheap, lightweight media technologies like writing and papyrus to destabilize the very regimes they helped to construct, because they made it easy to circulate knowledge outside of official channels.
So how does Masters of the Word fare as a remapping of well-trodden territory? And why revisit these issues now?
Bernstein has been writing about finance and history for 15 years; this book marks his move into writing about media. He’s an accessible, engaging writer – certainly more so than Innis, whose work can be tough going for all but the most dedicated. Though the book covers an enormous span of time, it works well as a general introduction to the subject of print culture.
If history is cyclical, as both Innis and Bernstein suggest, it’s always worth revisiting the past for insight, because the same problems will always return. In any event, trying to comprehend your own media environment in the present is like trying to get a look at the back of your own head without the use of a mirror. Studying media in other cultural and historical moments provides valuable context that we can use to try to assess our own situation, if we can account for the differences and distortions created by the passage of time.
The first six chapters of Masters of the Word describe the shifts in political power that attended the invention of the alphabet, the development of scribal technologies, the mechanization of writing via movable type, the invention of propaganda during the Reformation and the early history of the news. The last three chapters provide detailed case studies of other forms of 19th- and 20th-century media: radio, samizdat (the system of circulating clandestine handwritten, typed, carbon-copied and mimeographed manuscripts in the former Soviet Union) and the Internet, with a particular emphasis on Wiki-Leaks.
The focus on media of all sorts as the instrument in political power struggles ties these last three chapters to the earlier sections of the book. Rather than moving toward a summation, though, they give the ending of the book a scattershot feel. Why these case studies and not others? There’s very little here on the role of the image; the book skips over television almost entirely. Nor is there much on the connections between transportation and communication, so important to the arguments that Innis, James Carey and others have made about the political functions of media. Saving the material on other media for later projects and concentrating on the significant events in contemporary print culture – for example, the massive, ongoing shifts in newspaper publishing and the book trade – might have produced a more satisfying volume.
With a more sustained focus on print culture, Masters of the Word could have included some reference to the important recent contributions of media historians such as Adrian Johns, Robert Darnton, Johanna Drucker, Lisa Gitelman, Friedrich Kittler and John Durham Peters. Oddly, Marshall McLuhan is also missing, though the last line of the book paraphrases his famous aphorism “the medium is the message.” The result of such omissions is that the book’s account of writing and political power is limited in some significant respects.
One problem is that Masters of the Word doesn’t spend enough time on Asian contributions to print technology. Though the book devotes a few pages to the history of papermaking in China, there’s no mention of the Jikji, the Korean Buddhist text printed with movable type that predates Gutenberg’s press by more than 75 years. In any contemporary rewriting of media history, especially one with this sort of epochal scale, part of the point should be to correct such oversights.
Another problem has to do with the way that the book imagines media’s role in culture. For Bernstein, media causes political change. For example, he writes that carbon paper “deserves the greatest credit for bringing down Communism.” This sort of determinism serves the book’s concluding argument, that there is a strong link between democracy and prosperity, and that democracy is synonymous with access to media. But there are more nuanced ways to describe the complex relationships between media technologies and culture.
Media technologies do matter, but Masters of the Word suffers from a limited understanding of political power as oppressive. As Michel Foucault argued, governments have known for centuries that it’s far simpler to train people to provide their own information willingly than to rule them by brute force. Or, as Howard Rheingold wrote in The Virtual Community in 1993, “When Big Brother arrives, don’t be surprised if he looks like a grocery clerk, because privacy has been turning into a commodity, courtesy of better and better information networks, for years.”
Without any coercion, we happily type our most private thoughts into Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon every day, trading away basic rights for conveniences in the process. The latest and best trick of the real Masters of the Word has been to convince us that we are in charge.
Darren Wershler is the Concordia University Research Chair in Media and Contemporary Literature. He is the author or co-author of 12 books, most recently Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, and Update, with Bill Kennedy.