Not the first technology to divide us

Legend holds that 501 years ago this week, a young priest nailed 95 specific complaints about the Roman Catholic Church to the door of the church at Wittenberg Castle in Germany. So began a revolution.

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, Albany Times

Legend holds that 501 years ago this week, a young priest nailed 95 specific complaints about the Roman Catholic Church to the door of the church at Wittenberg Castle in Germany. So began a revolution.

The schism in Christianity that followed Martin Luther's defiance yielded centuries of political upheaval and wars, the Renaissance era of discovery and exploration and, of course, theological disputes that remain today. Nothing has been the same since Oct. 31, 1517.

But what came to be known as the Reformation, and the battles and progress that followed, arguably wouldn't have happened if not for the invention a few decades before of the first printing press in Europe by a German goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg. That is, if inexpensive printing hadn't been at Luther's disposal, his "95 Theses" might have been noticed only by those folks who walked by the church door in a picturesque city on the River Elbe.

Gutenberg couldn't have foreseen Luther and the Reformation, any more than, say, Tim Berners-Lee might have imagined what would follow his invention of the World Wide Web in 1990. Can we blame Sir Tim for angry tweets and fake Facebook posts?

The digital revolution is often compared to what happened after the invention of moveable type, meaning that we are living in an era comparable to Luther's. If this peak political season has you on edge, it may be little comfort to remember that it got more than a little crazy back in the 16th century, too.

Aaron Pedinotti, a Skidmore College media studies professor, was reminding a group of us the other night about the turmoil that the early printing press caused, including two centuries of religious warfare in Europe after Luther posted his "95 Theses."

"The printing press was used by people on both sides of these conflicts in ways that resemble internet trolling today," Pedinotti said.

He had asked me to speak to his students about challenges to journalism in the digital era, and soon the conversation turned to journalists being labeled "enemies of the people," and to people doubting even verifiable information if a political idol tells them to. No surprise there: People fought over facts in Luther's day, too.

"Protestants produced propaganda pamphlets and woodblock cartoons that depicted Rome as Babylon and the Pope as the Antichrist," Pedinotti said, "and Catholics circulated similar literature about Protestants."

Printed material also stoked conflict in England's Civil War and the French and American revolutions, "leading to situations in which nobody on either side could agree about the basic nature of reality," Pedinotti said.

"In other words," he said, "for the first few centuries of its existence, print played a role in processes wherein entire systems for understanding the world drew further and further away from each other, eventually resulting in violent conflict."

The question before the class, then, was whether digital media can evolve from what is often "a destabilizing source of blatantly biased information," as Pedinotti put it, into a trustworthy medium. Of course, there's a lot on the Web that's solid as a rock, and plenty published in the old-fashioned ink-on-crushed-trees mode that isn't worth a bucket of pulp. But digital technology puts over-simplified half-truths and distortions in front of vast audiences, leaving more complex reality at a disadvantage.

We had ample display of that during the 2016 campaign: Hundreds of thousands of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts created in Russia, purporting to be written by Americans, regularly posted messages that attacked Hillary Clinton, fueling a fire of partisanship in a polarized country. More sophisticated attacks are likely occurring right now, ramping up hostility in a campaign season that is, blessedly, just about to end.

You can't blame the internet for America's divisions, of course, any more than you'd say the printing press caused Martin Luther's dissent. But the new communication technology of each era can be seen as heightening the conflicts and making resolution of differences elusive.

Now malicious and often untrue digital posts sweep across our screens every day. Because technology allows us to avoid media that challenge our biases, what we think is reinforced by the digital and televised messages we choose to see. So we grow ever more sure that we're right and ever more angry at the other side. Leaders lie with little consequence, as their followers shut out honest questions.

Society eventually stabilized after the disruption of the printing press, but not until many had perished in brutal conflict. Maybe we'll be smart enough to avoid that fate, but right now feels uncomfortably like 1517.

Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union. Contact him at rsmith@timesunion.com.

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