Most of us have heard or read the phrase, “One thing leads to another. There is even a song on this theme. It’s about the history and the connections and how seemingly disconnected inventions and events, years apart, come together with unintended and unintended consequences.
Consider two inventions, the printing press and the telegraph: they occurred about 500 years apart and apparently have no direct connection with each other – yet their consequences, unintended or not, describe who we are and where we are today.
Paper and movable type were already in use in China in 1440 when Johannes Gutenberg brought them together and invented the printing press. It was the Renaissance and some thinkers were already asking controversial questions about God, man and the nature of the universe and questioning the Church’s teaching on these subjects.
These debates were then largely among academics and clergymen. The majority of the population was unschooled and illiterate, but then came Gutenberg and Martin Luther and his 95 theses and the questions exploded. More people were asking why? The Inquisition came with its own set of answers. There was heresy, rebellion, war, and the eventual emergence of capitalism and the nascent nation-state. It is said that ideas in themselves have no legs. The printing press gave them legs and they started to walk.
“What did God do? Samuel Morse asked on May 24, 1844 in the first telegraphed message from the US Supreme Court chamber in Washington DC to Baltimore, forty miles away. The response has been slow. So slow that it continues to this day. Ask Alexander Graham Bell, Marconi, David Sarnoff, William Shockley, and the dozens of other inventors, mathematicians and physicists who have brought us to where we are. None of them had a clear picture of the world in 2021. They had ideas, maybe inspiration, and “one thing led to another”.
Where would we be if the great thinkers of Antiquity had been able to disseminate their knowledge and ideas and had a great debate throughout the Mediterranean? So we were so close to inventions and discoveries that only happened recently. We could have had Facebook in AD 400. Think about it. I do, and it’s scary because too often technology goes way ahead of our laws and institutions, even the need for the technology itself – self-driving cars?
The Internet brought us social networks. I would argue that the invention of the flush toilet has more significance for the long term good of mankind than social media and the explosion of disinformation it has spawned. Mark Zuckerberg had the idea that the world would be a better place if he was on “a party line” where everyone could communicate and share information and ideas. What he and others have chosen to ignore, largely for their own financial gain, is that rumors, innuendos and lies have their own momentum.
Freedom of expression is obvious for the dissemination of ideas, but it requires a critical audience; one who is willing to question and question what he reads and chooses to believe. A non-critical mind is the stuff of sects and true believers. There are too many of them on social networks. It’s fun to read some of their stuff, but a filter is needed. The Europeans have noticed this and are imposing the regulations. We should do the same. How about removing their liability protections? The plaintiff’s lawyers would thrive – and of course, there is antitrust action.
There is another remedy. Years ago, I sampled Facebook and other social media sites and ‘ditched’ them all. I don’t do supermarket tabloids and I don’t do social media – I never will. The Internet is a portal to the world, but it takes discernment.
John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who worked for 40 years in the transit industry and is the author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul” . Paul Union Depot. To submit questions or topics to community columnists, email [email protected]