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Masters of the Word: How Media Shaped History Hardcover – 1 May 2013

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[Bernstein] enables us to see what remains the same, even as much has changed: Henry VIII had William Tyndale burned at the stake for making the Bible available in English; today, dictators and their henchmen beat up and murder protesters by the hundreds, likewise (simply put) to maintain control of information. "Library Journal," Editors Picks In "Masters of the Word," a master storyteller, synthesizer, and historian shows us how the power of the word has toppled tyrants. I love reading what Bernstein writes. Ed Tower, Professor of Economics, Duke University "Masters of the Word" takes you on a fascinating trip, from the invention of writing to the creation of the world-wide Web. Bernstein masterfully describes not just the inventions and the inventors that created modern media, but the forces underlying their impact. Riveting and thoroughly researched, it brims with interesting ideas and astonishing connections. Phil Lapsley, author of "Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell" Fascinating an engaging mix of theory, fact and enlightenment from across the millennia that wears its rich scholarship lightly. Peter Preston, "The Guardian" (UK) [Bernstein s] narrative is succinct and extremely well sourced. . . . [He] reminds us of a number of technologies whose changed roles are less widely chronicled in conventional histories of the media. "Irish Times" This sweeping, although selective, historical narrative by award-winning financial historian Bernstein elucidates in highly readable fashion the role of media in which he includes advances from ancient alphabets to movable type to twenty-first-century technologyin shaping civilization and determining democratic versus despotic tendencies. Bernstein s thesis that power accrues to the literate should not be taken simplistically; his larger arguments are learned and elegantly made. His occasional invocation of modern phenomena in a nonmodern context lend charm and clarity to what might have otherwise been dauntingly erudite. Instead, Bernstein offers an accessible, quite enjoyable, and highly informative read that will hold surprises even for those familiar with some of the history he covers. Mark Levine, "Booklist" "Fascinating." "Irish Examiner" " --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

William Bernstein is a historian. He lives in the United States.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 19 reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
the written word is everythng 3 Jun. 2013
By Michael Burke - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book explains why and how written communications are so persuasive. The Written Word has the power to convey messages over distance, over time. Speech lasts a second; writing can last for milennia. The most amazing discoveries about how the alphabet came to be. Why cuneiform was successful. Well written and engaging. Informative. Makes me think about what I write now. And how well written stuff survives. and persuades...
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Five Thousand Years of Communications History 17 Oct. 2013
By Robert In Pennsylvania - Published on
Format: Hardcover
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 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."
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Interesting 14 Jun. 2013
By doreen binder - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Interesting, educational and very well written. Bernstein's books are written for everyone to understand and (want to) learn. I continue to be amazed at his depth and range of knowledge.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
a good survey 26 July 2013
By Ken - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I've read all of Dr. Bernstein's books. This is a survey of the history of the ability to communicate in ways other than face-to-tace speech. The upshot is that, provided despots don't starve their populations, soldiers aren't willing to shoot their nation's citizens, and people get basic physiological needs met, then the net, twitter, etc., should lead to better and more truthfully informed democracies. The book was written before the "Arab Spring" was revealed to be nothing more than a deliberately false narrative, before Snowden blew the cover on the US intelligence service, before Pelosi killed efforts to require probable cause to intercept all electronic information, before the Director of the National Intelligence Service committed perjury in Congressional testimony, and before it was revealed that Silicon Valley companies are now being pressured to give up account user names and passwords. The later would allow others to send emails using your account and bearing your "signature." Paper and pen will make a comeback, I predict. A good history. I hope a Second Edition with updated material will be forthcoming.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
An insightful view of history 28 May 2013
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Bernstein has, with his usual highly researched and well informed insight, shown how the technologies of communication--all those beyond simple speech--have shaped the power structures of humanity ever since the first such technologies, early handwriting, were invented. Fascinating; detailed; a must read for fans of his other histories.
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