The blog is possible through the convergence of many new technologies: revolutions in human communication that were both tipping points (of ideas) and points of the tip (of new things). In parallel, more than half a millennium ago (1452-1454/55), Johann Gutenberg printed his two-volume, 1,282-page, 42-line Bible in Mainz. He produced 180 copies (150 on paper and, it is believed, 30 on parchment), using about 20 assistants in the process. His innovations included a screw press (a converted wine press) and moveable type with individual elements (periods, letters, upper- and lower-case letters).
Interestingly, the small number of Bibles hardly represented a “mass” communication, but one of Gutenberg’s follow-up projects did. To raise money to pay for a crusade against Muslim Turks, the Roman Catholic Church contracted with Gutenberg to print thousands of Letters of Indulgence–certificates the Catholic faithful could buy for cash, absolving them of their sins. The practice was among the chief complaints of a young German monk named Martin Luther who, in 1517, nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, signaling the beginning of the Reformation. It is hard to imagine that such heresy could have spread so widely and so quickly in the pre-print era. In fact, Luther’s theses would have become only sketchily known by world of mouth (and probably easily suppressed before they became too widespread). But in the developed printworks of Germany, the “Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” would become a mass document.
Unlike in China or Korea, which had invented printing earlier but were unified countries with established ruling classes, the print world of Gutenberg was the free-for-all arena of ideologies and political partisanship of 14th century Europe. Printing, therefore, became an instrument of both orthodoxy and revolution. During the religious wars of the 16th century in Central Europe, for instance, each side would prepare innumerable books that propagandized their cause and demonized the enemy. Crucially, however, it was not quite a marketplace of ideas. In areas under stable Church or government control, censorship in what people could print and what they could read was the norm. In Henry XIII’s England, for example, printing a book without the king’s license was punishable by death.
Many philosophers of the Enlightenment rebelled against such edicts. The principles they crafted in their writings during the period highly influenced the Founders of America and the Framers of the Constitution. “Freedom of the Press,” for instance, assumes that presses will be in competition with each other as bulwarks against government abuse, ensuring freedom from monopoly by any power. One of the originators of such a concept was John Milton, the seventeenth-century English poet, who published a pamphlet in 1644 titled Areopagitia (subtitled “A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing)in which he insisted that open debate freed the mind to find truth:
“Well knows he who uses to consider, that our faith and knowledge thrives by exercise, as well as our limbs and complexion. Truth is compared in Scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetual progression, they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition.”
In American history the principle of the “marketplace of ideas” became set as a value of both journalism and society. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote in a decision in a First Amendment case in 1919:
“[W]hen men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas–that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution.”
By Holmes’s time the mechanics of that marketplace had changed to an industrial model of the press, but the principle remains with us to this day, and blogs and those who embrace blogging as a democratic revolution in media often call the phenomenon the best incarnation of the perfect marketplace of ideas.
Not by coincidence, times of great political upheaval, and even revolution, were when the marketplace seemed at its utmost fury of competition. The great flowering of the print press in England as an expression of countervailing political ideas came during Milton’s time, the troubled period in the mid-seventeenth century that saw struggles between King Charles I and the English parliament followed by several civil wars, the execution of Charles, the election of Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan faction to supremacy in England, and then the death of Cromwell and the restoration of the monarchy under Charles’s son.
Newspapers at that time were known as “news books”; most of them carried the prenomen “mercurius,” a reference to the Roman messenger god Mercury, today commonly drawn with a winged cap or winged feet. It was a good metaphor for these news books, titled such as “Mercurius Aulicus” (a royalist periodical); “Mercurius Britannicus” (a vehicle of the anti-royalist “Roundheads”); “Mercurius Democritus”; “Mercurius Elenticus”; “Mercurius Melancholicus”; Mercurius Politicus”; Mercurius Hibernicus” “Mercurius Pragmaticus”; and “Mercurius Rusticus.” Each represented the opinion of either a particular government or faction in power or oppositional groups, religious, political, class, or otherwise. They comprised a huge literature that, while not read by every farmer and apprentice boy, was talked about or mentioned as part of the political debate of the day.
These periodicals were, of course, blog-like in that (a) they represented the opinions of diverse political factions, (b) they were the creations of a few individuals, either independently or representing factional interests, (c) while they cost some expense to publish and distribute, they were not beyond the means of individuals, and (d) they were often scathing in their attacks on political figures and others.
For example, Mercurius Impartialis blamed “the ruines both of King and people” to “the Pulpit and the Presse” and charged further that: “his Majesties Subjects [have] beene Poysoned with Principles of Heresie, Schisme, Faction, Sedition, Blasphemy, Apostacie, Rebellion, Treason, Sacriledge, Murther, Rapine, Robbery, and all” the other “enormous Crimes, and detestable Villanies, with which this Kingdome hath of later times swarmed.” But the partisan Mercurian newspapers could vilify in either direction. Oliver Cromwell, the executioner of the king, complained, “My very face and nose are weekly maligned and scandalized by those scribbling mercuries.”
Among the most celebrated editors of the many regularly published pamphlets put out, along with periodically published news books, was Milton himself, an adoring supporter of Cromwell and the anti-monarchist government. One of his most famous pamphlets reads like a 17th century blog-post title: “The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates: Proving that is it lawful and Hath been Held so through All Ages, for Any who Have the Power, to Call to Account a Tyrant or Wicked King, and after Due Conviction to Depose and put him to death.” Milton was “posting” in reply to arguments made by the more moderate faction in Parliament (the Presbyterians) who were arguing for a retention of the monarchy and the sparing of the king’s life. Milton was later appointed by the government to be “Secretary to Foreign Tongues” where–again blog-like–he ended up doing most of his work from his own home.
An important note: When Milton called for free competition of ideas–Unlicenc’d Printing–in 1644, his faction was one of many. In 1655 Lord High Protector Oliver Cromwell banned all newsbooks except one favorable to the government: there is no record that his loyal civil servant John Milton objected to such censorship!
The challenges of the marketplace model that blogs seem to embody are, thus, as follows:
a) Will people actually avail themselves of the various goods (facts, ideas, opinions) at the marketplace or just go to vendors that confirm their preexisting prejudices?
b) Will the competition of the market lead to, not healthy and vigorous debate, but permanent fissures in the body politic that, in previous eras, have resulted in civil wars?
c) Will the excesses of the marketplace of blogs invite government reaction in the forms of regulation or even censorship?
Originally posted December 27, 2005 at PolicyByBlog