As good as your words

Masters of the Word
William Bernstein, Atlantic, £14.99

UNSPOKEN TRUTHS: whoever controls the media, from rudimentary writings to the internet, is in control.

A TEAM from Eircom is upgrading my broadband, telephone and modem connections, binding me to Eircom for the next 18 months. I am a willing prisoner, but I rely on the promise that everything will be faster, better and cheaper. I live in hope that the technicians know what they’re about, as I certainly don’t. My ignorance is not unique, not even remarkable. It is the most reliable response to technological advance, which, since the first scratches on stone, has given political power to those who can communicate not only the most, but the fastest.

William Bernstein’s status as an author of financial and economic histories suggests that this topic is a little beyond his usual catchment. However, this is what makes Masters of the Word more relevant, because his earlier themes describe the consequences of control of communication. His focus here is the relationship between accessibility to communications technology and individual liberty. Searching for references to Bernstein on Google, by tapping in the title of his book, the browser went into convulsions of responses for ‘Masters of the World’. An appropriate error, for Bernstein makes the strong point that those who master the word have the power, and have used it to master their world.

Disturbing and fascinating, this chronology of human messaging techniques and technologies is illuminated by Bernstein’s own gift for the management of words. His insights are supported by memorable phrases, and his impressive scholarship is never oppressive. In the beginning was the word, according to St. John. In the light of succeeding centuries, John was prophetic: ‘and the Word was God’. Before we get to the generations during which ownership of the word of God was used as a scourge, Bernstein traces the origins of written communication and the growth of what we might now lazily call ‘media’.

In the beginning, the ‘word’ was more the ‘picture,’ from which developed complex writing systems cut into clay tablets, then brushed onto papyrus or, until the West learned paper-making from China, onto animal skins, when “the production of a single folio might consume an entire herd of sheep.”

It was a very expensive and very valuable business, even as alphabets were customised. By 400 BC, literacy in Athens was increasing. Although cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing systems originated in Egypt and Mesopotamia, it was with phonemic awareness and the arrival in Greece of the Phoenician alphabet that the transformational significance of writing began. As Bernstein says: “That democracy developed in Greece, rather than Egypt or Mesopatamia, was no accident.” This engaging, if complicated, history lesson proceeds almost from the dawn of time to the world domination by the internet, and it is all about politics. It is about the rise, fall, and rise again of tyrannies and, at last, about the liberating impact on society of methods of communication available to all.

Now that we have WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden as ironic counter-balances, Bernstein reminds us that surveillance, whether in a totalitarian state or a western democracy, is still part of the communications exchange. Word and power go together; spies, informers and undercover agents sidle alongside them. ‘Oh, well,’ one might say, ‘so do Homer and Shakespeare.’ But Bernstein makes it clear that Shakespeare is a collateral benefit; he and his ilk were never intended. Neither, of course, was Hitler, nor the much more recent Rwandan genocide so loudly provoked by radio broadcasts. Bernstein opens his account with the nightmare of George Orwell’s novel, 1984, and the all-seeing, ever-present Big Brother. No fantasy this; East Germany, by 1948, was in the grip of the dreaded Stasi, a surveillance organisation of relentless efficiency. These, and other despotic systems — the Spanish Inquisition is another — could flourish so long as the majority of the population had little or no means of reaching the tools of control, whether those be reading and writing or the more sophisticated systems of telegraph, telephones, radio and television.

Language, literature, history and philosophy were in the hands of a small, and sometimes savage, elite until Johannes Gutenberg, whose invention of the printing press began the slow development of more widespread literacy. As Bernstein says: “It was not Luther the theologian who effected the Reformation, but rather Luther the publisher.” As Bernstein journeys from Ptolemy to Twitter, he plots the different, immense and world-changing shifts in the control, use, and dissemination of information. That knowledge is power seems never more acutely true than in his chapters of lucid and penetrating relevancies. If EM Forster’s ‘only connect!’ is one of modern literature’s more noted instructions, Bernstein follows it, well, to the letter. It is easy to understand why the first act of the fascists, for instance, was to buy newspapers and take over radio networks. The more benign President Franklin D Roosevelt inhibited joint ownership of print and broadcast media, but made deals with the broadcasters that ensured his own access to the airwaves, while restricting that of his opponents. The story of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s attempts to publish The Gulag Archipelago is told in the chapter on Russia’s hysterical censorship and security laws, the malice of the state-controlled KGB, and the part played by radio, video cameras, television and Glasnost in the dissolution of the USSR.

Summing up that collapse, Bernstein says that over roughly 30 years “the simplest of copying technologies, carbon paper, had combined with a colossal error of central planning — the production of shortwave radios — to allow the Winston Smiths of the communist world to bypass their rulers’ monopoly on information,” ending George Orwell’s nightmare of Eastern Europe. When Bernstein moves into what might be called the modern era, there is a perceptible change in language, although not in emphasis. Now, it’s the mobile, the iphone, the web, surfing, browsing, hyperlinks, compatibility, nonlinear processing, Facebook, flash drives, digital versus analogue. But in a chapter of compelling analysis, Bernstein remarks, also, that while digital media have empowered citizens everywhere to resist or depose rotten regimes, “the bad news is that most despotic leaders generally rule poor, socially conservative, traditional societies, a soil in which democracy does not spout.”

Twitter has made us all publishers now. But perhaps nowhere in current events are the contradictions of word-mastery in the global knowledge economy so clearly revealed as in the Barack Obama US presidential campaign of 2008, when his media-wise team used the internet, the mobile, and the blogs to ensure success, repeating that achievement in 2012. In contrast, only a month ago that liberal-minded president was attempting to alleviate public and political alarm at revelations of America’s all-seeing, inter-continental spying apparatus. If, as Bernstein believes, the explosion of communication benefits humanity, and its good outweighs its bad, we remaining cyber-pessimists fear that the fallout might do as much harm as good.

I put down Bernstein’s book to check if my broadband is moving at warp speed, like everything else in the internet world. It isn’t, at least not yet.


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