Futurists often have to imagine things that seem impossible today. This is why we have to be as much historians as future thinkers. People are naturally predisposed to think about the future as an extension of today. We tend to assume that many established ways of being and doing are immutable—that they are a part of the natural order of things. It is difficult today, for example, to see how one might live without having a job. It is hard to imagine an alternative economic system beyond capitalism or communism.
Immersing oneself in the past widens the repertoire of what we might consider possible. When we read history, we discover that wage employment—the idea that our labor is a commodity we can sell to others—is a relatively recent concept (about 300 years old). We learn that throughout the span of our human existence, societies and communities have developed many different systems of gifting, transacting, and trading that did not fall into traditional communism-capitalism dichotomy.
In light of today’s spread of “fake news” and debates about post-truth society, I’ve been re-reading the history of the printing press, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention dating back to the mid-1400’s. Probably the most exhaustive exploration of the subject is in Elizabeth Eisenstein's two-volume book The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. In her writings, Eisenstein refers to the “Unacknowledged Revolution” that followed Gutenberg’s invention, which encompassed not only the Protestant Reformation, but also the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. Print media allowed the general public to access ideas and information not previously available to them. This in turn led to the growth of public knowledge, and enabled individuals to formulate and share their own thoughts, independent from the church. Hence, new, non-church authorities and influences grew, and the arts and sciences flourished.
I would argue that we are living through our own Gutenberg moment—a moment of transformation in our fundamental tools for creating, expressing, and sharing information, ideas, and knowledge. And like the invention of the printing press, the rise of digital communication tools will likely lead to multiple revolutions—in how we govern, learn, and organize our economy. “Changes in the information age will be as dramatic as those in the Middle Ages in Europe,” wrote James A. Dewar in a 1998 RAND research paper titled, “The Information Age and the Printing Press: Looking Backward to See Ahead.” At a very deep level, changes in our basic communications tools and technologies alter existing power dynamics; they re-define who has the power of voice, the power to shape our dominant narratives, and the power to influence how we think and act. While acknowledging that we will likely see dramatic social changes, Dewar warns that such changes will result from unintended consequences of technological advances, rather than deliberate technological design, as was the case in the past. “The Protestant Reformation and the shift from an earth-centered to a sun-centered universe were unintended consequences in the printing press era,” he wrote. These unintended consequences will likely re-shape the basic elements of our society and culture.
As we try to adjust and make sense of the dizzying changes that seemed to climax in the latest US presidential election, a few lessons from history seem particularly relevant. First, we should probably ignore the utopian pronouncements of many tech creators. With their “inventor” or “marketer” zeal, they are too eager to sell us the promises of future glories—democratization, personal freedoms, more access, more transparency. Remember Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s tech-savvy campaign manager, declaring, ‘‘The Internet is the most democratizing innovation we’ve ever seen, more so even than the printing press”? The tech zealots are only partially right: Yes, we are getting all of those great things, but for every utopia, we also get a dystopia. David Sarnoff, radio and television pioneer and founder of Radio Corporation of America (RCA), saw new broadcast technologies as avenues for enlightening the public—bringing classical music, opera, theatre, and the arts into people’s living rooms. Today, with hundreds of broadcast channels, you can probably find great operas, theatre, and a lot of other educational programming. But along with education, we are served Jerry Springer and Real Housewives of New Jersey. As we open up new channels, we can expect more of everything to pour in—more opera and more reality shows, more truths and more lies, more objective journalism and more Breitbart news. The unintended consequence of democratization of media channels is that good stuff gets harder to find or pay attention to as it gets drowned out in the sea of trash. And as more trash pours in, we begin to see a second unintended consequence: the undermining of established sources of expertise and judgment.
Of course, who is to say what is art and what is garbage? Who is to say what is true and what is not? This leads to a third enduring lesson from history: As established sources of authority and expertise fade away, we turn to our social relations as guides for who to trust, and to help us discover what is true and what is not. In the Middle Ages, these were people in our towns or guilds who shared newly printed leaflets with their friends and neighbors. Today, it is our friends on Facebook or people we follow on Twitter. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that we live in extreme filter bubbles; reliance on social networks as filters makes it inevitable.
In view of the challenges the new media, what do we focus on? What is the most urgent task? I believe it is creating mechanisms for spotting the unintended consequences and developing ways to mitigate them. In other words, we need to design well-functioning signaling and feedback mechanisms—the types of mechanisms biological systems use to keep natural environments healthy. How do we make the costs of creating and distributing malevolent media viruses high, and the costs of creating and distributing beneficial information low? Who might be the new, trusted curators of quality, and how can we empower them to signal their knowledge and serve as filters for the larger system? How do we build immunity against weaponized viral memes in our media ecosystem? What tools can we build to bust some of the filter bubbles, and promote a sense of a shared rather than divided reality?
It might take decades for us to work out all of these challenges and more. We didn’t jump from printed leaflets to trusted newspapers to Edward R. Murrow in one generation. The revolutions ushered in by the printing press were not peaceful and bloodless. The ability of people and groups to spread news and opinions also sowed divisions—between Catholics and Protestants, between scientific and religious doctrines, between groups within the society who could now use the power of the printed word to sway public sentiment. Such divisions led to the Thirty Years’ War in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648. One of the bloodiest religious wars between Protestant and Catholic states, it devastated Germany, killing between 25 percent and 40 percent of its total population. Let’s not kid ourselves that this is easily done.
But history is not destiny, and we don’t have to repeat it. In our own Gutenberg moment—a moment that history is bound to assign its own yet-unknown name centuries hence—let’s capitalize on everything we learned since the bloody European wars to not repeat mistakes of the past. The most important mistake we should avoid is thinking that we can maintain the institutions and ways of doing things we have built up since the printing press. Instead, we need to imagine and prototype new institutional arrangements and new ways of governing a democratic society, given today’s technological capabilities and challenges.
Innovative efforts in this direction are already taking place. For example, globally networked groups of journalists—using open data repositories, local expertise, and algorithms—can uncover large crime and corruption operations that no sovereign government can (as witnessed by Panama Papers revelations). Professional and citizen scientists, with the help of sensor networks, are tracking fishing violations. Workers empowered by mobile technologies can report labor violations along supply chains, bringing a new level of transparency to global labor conditions. These and many others efforts signal how we will have to adjust to our own Gutenberg moment, and we need to pay attention to them. They may appear small and marginal, but the future often starts on the margins, and the faster we recognize this, the better we will be able to adapt to the new reality.