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MASTERS OF THE WORD by William J. Bernstein

MASTERS OF THE WORD

How Media Shaped History

By William J. Bernstein

Pub Date: April 1st, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2138-7
Publisher: Grove

Financial historian Bernstein (A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, 2008, etc.) shifts gears slightly to focus on communication as an engine of change.

In the author’s hands, “media” is a broad term, encompassing the invention of writing and the development of a workable alphabet, as well as such better-known innovations as the printing press, telegraph, radio, TV and Internet. Bernstein emphasizes the control of information as the decisive factor in all struggles for power. In societies like ancient Egypt, where only a small number of people could read and write, the ability to communicate over distances enabled the creation of vast empires. Increasing literacy brought increasing democracy in Greece. Early Christian dissidents, like John Wycliffe, did not have the world-shaking impact that Martin Luther did, since Luther’s criticism of the Catholic Church swiftly spread through Europe via multiple copies made possible by the printing press. Bernstein does a nice job explaining the technical issues that made Gutenberg’s process so revolutionary and later does the same for the Web. The Catholic Church may have lost control of the dissemination of information, but nation-states like England and France initially did better in muzzling newspapers, and authorities in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union harnessed radio to their totalitarian ends. Bernstein makes the fascinating point that photocopying has played a vital role in making public materials that the powers that be very much want to keep to themselves—e.g., the Pentagon Papers. With the rise of the Internet, he points out, Daniel Ellsberg could have made those documents available to millions with a few computer keystrokes. Dire warnings about the destructive impact of blogging, etc., on responsible journalism “are simply the age-old howls of communications elites facing the imminent loss of status and income.” The author touches only briefly on the role of social media in the Arab Spring, which in this context, is merely a further development in historic trends capably delineated throughout his provocative book.

A smart take from an unusual angle on a much-discussed media trend.