Escaping Gutenberg’s castle

We may observe today the poor of the Earth attempting to cultivate a better garden, or invade one, as a consequence of the hand-held computer.
Sunday 09/09/2018
Greener pastures. An Algerian migrant shows a picture on his mobile of fellow migrants walking in Macedonia in the northern city of Thessaloniki. (Reuters)
Greener pastures. An Algerian migrant shows a picture on his mobile of fellow migrants walking in Macedonia in the northern city of Thessaloniki. (Reuters)

A bout ten years ago, my wife, who is German, took me to an impressive ancient castle in Bavaria, in south-western Germany. It is inhabited by descendants of the family that built it more than 600 years ago.

A tall tower, which had steep steps allowing access to living rooms, bedrooms, servant quarters and attics, was punctuated by little windows against which the branches of immense pine trees moved.

The main rooms were hung with family portraits, the early ones painted on wood. Most of the males resembled one another. They had round heads, prominent foreheads, button noses and small bright eyes. They were Guttenbergs. Our host, the current Count Guttenberg (the living family uses a double ‘t’), a professor of music at a Bavarian university, looked exactly like his forebears.

Guttenberg is a direct descendant of the inventor of the printing press. As a schoolboy, I was allowed to put on gloves and open the school’s rare copy of a Gutenberg Bible.

Printing changed the course of European history irrevocably. Martin Luther translated the Bible from Latin into German. Monks and church professionals lost their nearly absolute hold on literacy. The Protestant idea of an individual’s direct relation to God, one that required, in the end, little organisational intermediation, took hold.

The transition was irrevocable but not easy. Three centuries of religious, or what we now call sectarian, wars followed. As is ever the case with human conflict, ideas were just banners waved by competing interests. True motives were the usual ones: power, territory, status, wealth, revenge.

Printing, however, was what moved Europe from the mediaeval to the modern world. I found it a moving experience to spend time in a Guttenberg home.

Today, thanks to Alan Turing, Tim Berners-Lee, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and other giants of the revolution in personal electronic communication, we have started to escape Gutenberg’s castle. There are losses. I love sitting in my library and depend on others for my digital life.

Here is the question: Is the personal computer, the smartphone especially, liberating the 21st century from established authority, received ideas, the chains and the dead weight of previous ideological conflict?

The last century was a golden age for print. Newspaper moguls could influence people and gain authority. One of these, the Australian Rupert Murdoch, is still active in Britain and the United States in his late 80s. His immense fortune was generated by satellite TV and his understanding that you can, at least in the United States, use TV to promote political ideas.

In Britain, the example set by the BBC and its doctrine of political impartiality make this more difficult. Britain has a long tradition of unregulated newspapers entitled to promote anything they like.

Always hostile to the idea of multinational regulation, Murdoch disliked a European Union too concerned with moderating market freedoms for his taste. He adopted the British Conservative Party, though he himself would best be described as a neo-liberal. It is hard not to detect his hand in the pickle both major political parties in Britain find themselves in over Brexit.

The British voted to restore a sovereignty that is largely an illusion. Modern economies, large and small, are all affected by regulation. International trade depends on standardisation. Modern consumers demand health and safety protection, environmental protection (think of the Volkswagen scandal and that $7 billion fine) and sometimes, though less forcibly, human rights protection (fewer T-shirts assembled by 5-year-olds, for example).

Most arguments about loss of national sovereignty have become irrelevant. When I flew to Australia via stops in Moscow and Tokyo in the 1980s, my air traffic controllers were operating on regulations agreed to by different sovereignties. However, in joining Europe, the British retained a rare and priceless element of national sovereignty. They issue their own currency and control its rates of interest.

The European Union is sorry that Britain is leaving but the Franco-German project of creating a power block on the scale of China or the United States is helped by Britain’s departure. Many British voters wished to remain in the European Union. Virtually none wished to abandon the pound.

In spite of the success of the Brexit referendum from his point of view, Murdoch’s influence is on the wane. A highly intelligent man, he has seen the writing on the wall. He loves newspapers and is still a big player among its more elderly customers in Britain but he has been selling off his empire quite rapidly.

News and TV programming are increasingly matters of personal choice and individual transmission. We are all playing at being Murdoch, US President Donald Trump especially. There is YouTube and Twitter. Fake news has become a part of real news.

The smartphone, the personal digital revolution, is changing things. The 21st century is discovering itself. An interesting Viewpoint in this newspaper by Yousef Alhelou (May 6) showed how social media (in effect, smartphones) provide Palestinians, Gazans especially, with new umbilical “cords” to their homeland.

The use of social media is for terrorists a double-edged sword. Britain has the world’s most sophisticated centre for eavesdropping, though Vladimir Putin’s Russia is catching up. The British government’s Communications Headquarters is an invaluable pivot of the Atlantic alliance, which of course includes EU members.

One of the reasons the fundamentalists’ September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States were so successful is that they maintained what used to be called “radio silence.” Let us rename it Dark Cyber. The attacks of 9/11 had the priceless quality of surprise but cyberspace also stores weapons of soft, that is to say, bloodless, warfare. Witness the row over Russia’s supposed intervention in the last US presidential election.

Just as, with time and the shedding of much blood, Luther’s German Bible printed by Gutenberg “liberated” Western Europe from clerical monopoly and papal authority, we may observe today the poor of the Earth attempting to cultivate a better garden, or invade one, as a consequence of the hand-held computer.

Young men, and, increasingly, young women across those huge dry reaches of North Africa and Arabia that are so visible from space, have visual access, at fingertip touch, to the lush pastures and consumer toys of northern peoples.

Printed books were remote, luxury items for many centuries. Smartphones now lower their prices almost as fast as their command of information swell. Today, a teenage boy in Somalia can gaze on a hand-held device at a red and gleaming Ferrari. No wonder he is prey to the modern slave-trade, the people traffickers who exchange an entire family’s savings for one place on an overcrowded rubber dinghy and a sea voyage more uncertain than any undertaken over the last 1,000 years or more.

The West, as we inaccurately call it (it is really the North), may no longer colonise. It may no longer mount ideological or religious missions. It needs quickly to invest in people and help them develop their own territory to stay within it. There are signs that the Chinese, while not always innocent of exploitation, understand this very well.