The technologies are different, but the habit of sharing information horizontally and in two directions is a lot older than the Internet, argues the Economist’s digital editor.
Indeed, writes Standage (An Edible History of Humanity, 2009, etc.), it’s the mass media of the 19th and 20th centuries that are the anomalies. Humans are innately social animals, “built to form networks with others and to exchange information with them.” Once writing was invented and literacy became relatively widespread in ancient Rome, news could be shared outside a small, physically proximate group, and “the stage was set for the emergence of the first social-media ecosystem.” Educated Romans spread news (and gossip) by letters, which they expected to be copied and passed on, similar to the way emails are forwarded and tweets are retweeted today. Standage draws similar parallels between the Internet and the printed pamphlets that spread the Protestant revolution in the 16th century and the American and French ones in the 18th. Among the many other, sometimes-specious historical precedents he cites are the coffee houses in which 17th-century Europeans gathered to exchange news and poetry circulated in manuscript among members of the Elizabethan elite. The author’s main point is well-taken: In the mid 19th century, steam printing presses made it possible to print newspapers much faster and sell them much more cheaply; they also made it much more expensive to set up and maintain a newspaper, which now involved a staff of paid professional journalists. Radio and TV expanded this trend of disseminating information from the top down, with particularly sinister results in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. The creation of the World Wide Web allowed people to reclaim their traditional roles in both spreading news and commenting on it.
Many of these points were made with greater intellectual rigor in William Bernstein’s Masters of the Word (2013), and Standage’s habit of seeing a proto-Internet in every historical use of media eventually prompts fatigue and disbelief.