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What the Printing Press Can Teach Us About Digital Media

October 4, 2016

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I came across this passage today while reading When We Are No More: How Digital Memory is Shaping Our Future by Abby Smith Rumsey.

The subject is the effect of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in the 16th Century, but it is directly relevant to the impact of digital media in today’s tribal, post-factual, false-equivocal environment (tribal in that we pick a position on any issue based on our professed group identity—e.g. political party—then post-rationalize; post-factual in that we seem perfectly comfortable with any facts that bolster our position, regardless of source, quality or quantity of those facts; and false-equivocal in that we point to any counterargument as proof of a valid counter-position).

Through print, ideas and opinions acquired physical life of their own and a passport to travel [with today’s digital life of ideas, it’s faster and wider]. Made-up facts were particularly powerful agents of opinion making and persuasion. The mere fact of print carried with it an implicit imprimatur of authority…

In such times, when the confusing circulation of contradictory ideas and so-called facts cry out with equal force to be given credence, we face a crisis of authority. As authorities and institutions fail, we are forced to decide for ourselves which sources are trustworthy and which are not. The question of what to believe becomes, almost imperceptibly, a question of who to believe. Because there is so much information swirling around us, we turn instinctively to the individuals and groups whose authority speak to speak on the matter seems most trustworthy. We turn to friends. And when they fail us, we turn to experts and hope for the best.

It follows that a deft, insidious, and possibly winning tactic for anyone [e.g. political party] with a losing argument but tribal base is to flood the system with noise and disinformation. Confusion and obfuscation lead not to true fact-finding but a turn to trusted voices—friends, political pundits, public personalities and celebrities.

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