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Robert In Pennsylvania
- Published on Amazon.com
William Bernstein's "Masters of the Word: How Media Shaped History from the Alphabet to the Internet" chronicles the key mass communications breakthroughs of the last 5,000 years and how the power structures of human societies have been reshaped as ordinary people gain control of new communications technologies.
Bernstein examines how the invention of writing in the ancient Middle East made it possible for the first states, led by literate elites, to command and control large numbers of their illiterate masses, how the spread of mass literacy fostered the growth of democracy in ancient Greece, how the patricians of ancient Rome maintained their dominance over a largely illiterate society and how the medieval Christian church used its exclusive access to literacy and books to maintain its status as the most powerful religious and political force in Europe throughout the Dark Ages until Gutenberg's printing press, inexpensive paper and an explosion of new books and pamphlets written for a growing population of literate Europeans helped bring about the Reformation and undermine the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
Bernstein traces the history of newspapers in Britain and America in which the advent of nineteenth century capital-intensive production methods in the form of steam power and then electrical power and expensive high-speed, large-scale Linotype and Monotype printing machinery and reliance on expensive new telegraph technology concentrated newspaper publishing in the hands of far fewer highly capital-intensive large modern newspapers. "In the twentieth century," he writes, "the high cost of producing a newspaper meant that only a relative few could own and maintain one." And the "next great communications advance, radio, proved even easier to dominate; because the transmitters were so expensive, it was an almost exclusively one-way medium. That ease of control, along with radio's emotive power, further contributed to the rise of totalitarianism in the early twentieth century, leaving repression, suffering, and mounds of corpses in its wake."
Bernstein tells the story of the how the Nazis wielded radio, a centralized, one-way medium, to bolster the power of the German state. He quotes Cesar Saerchinger, Edward R. Murrow's predecessor as CBS's chief European correspondent, who wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1938: "In [the Nazis'] hands the radio has become the most powerful political weapon the world has ever seen. Used with superlative showmanship, with complete intolerance of opposition, with ruthless disregard for truth, and inspired by a fervent belief that every act and thought must be made subservient to the national purpose, it suffuses all forms of political, social, cultural, and educational activity in the land."
Bernstein describes the use of radio 50 years later by the Hutus of Rwanda, whose RTLM network triggered and directed the genocidal slaughter of Tutsis that began in 1994. RTLM's "primary product," he writes, "was a murderous hatred of Tutsis...as thieving, sexually and financially predatory 'cockroaches,' usually coupled with exhortations for their murder."
"Tragically," says Bernstein, "both the Nazis and the Rwandan Hutus well understood the despotic and murderous potential of radio."
In our own era we've seen a proliferation of new media that have empowered ordinary people and helped them challenge the power of elites and expose the abuse of power. The internet has brought an explosion of voices and allowed people far from the centers of power to take new roles as publishers, reporters, pundits and filmmakers. "For the first time," Bernstein writes, "a significant fraction of the world's citizens can be in instant communication with one another and send words, pictures, and videos across the planet."
Bernstein is cautiously optimistic about the role the internet's new media will play in bringing about political change around the world. "The digital infrastructure of the Arab Spring uprisings," he writes, "cannot help inspiring optimism about the prospects for democratic progress in the developing world."
"It is even fair to ask if the Rwandan genocide could have occurred today" in a world where images of atrocities are much more likely to be captured and shared with a global audience capable of actively responding. "The hope for the new media," says Bernstein, "is that they will provide more images, and, accordingly, fewer atrocities not only in Africa, but in the rest of the world as well; since genocide requires secrecy, we might even reasonably hope that Twitter has made it less frequent and more localized."
Even with the power of the new media, the forces of democracy may not be able to overcome the resistance of the world's most tradition-bound and repressive societies. "As powerful as the Web, Google, and Facebook are, they cannot bring democracy to poor, traditional, religiously dominated societies."
Still, Bernstein writes, "the Web and social media have greatly empowered citizens all around the world. In despotic states, leaders can no longer easily suppress, imprison, torture, and slaughter their people free from the gaze of the outside world; their corruption can no longer be hidden; and citizens can organize and resist with enormously powerful communications tools. Yes, the Internet has also given despots the power to spy on and suppress their citizens, but on balance, the ground has shifted in favor of the latter. Before 1995, the foes of dictators brought a communications knife to a gunfight. Now, both sides have guns."