Before the invention of movable type in the 15th Century, the media of mass communication was limited to architecture, paintings, sculpture, and images on coins and songs song by balladeers. Christians learned about the dangers of Hell from the stained glass stories in the cathedrals. The people might have had an idea of what their king looked like by his minted (usually heroic) image on coins. But they might not have known much about their king or what he was doing that might change or even end their lives suddenly.
After the printing press, the sliver of humanity that was literate (mostly clerics, some of the more motivated aristocracy and a few merchants) engaged in continental communication of key new ideas. Slowly over centuries, literacy spread downward, and politics and news began to be informed by books, newspapers and pamphlets.
Prior to the invention of the telegraph in the 1840s, whatever news there was could move no faster than the trot of a horse — although semaphore, yodeling, smoke signals and carrier pigeons could move some vital information slightly faster over short distances.
In fast succession, mass and long-distance communication was advanced by the general availability of telephones (1870s), linotype-fast newspapers (1880s), radios (1920s), televisions (1950s), computers (1970s), the Internet (1990s), and cellular text, audio and now video devices (2000s).
Over those centuries we have gone from ignorance of the events of the world due to the absence of information to today’s condition of confusion and ignorance due to an unending glut of information. We are living out the truth of Sherlock Holmes’ insight that to hide something, surround it in plain sight with many similar items. In his fictional case, a criminal hid an incriminating broken piece of plaster in a room filled with broken plaster. Which was the piece that mattered?
Today, as snippets of news flash past our consciousness at a rate and volume greater than our capacity to absorb, we don’t know what to know and what to ignore. And of the information we decide to notice and absorb, there are so many versions of it that we don’t know what is true and what is false or distorted.
For example, on Monday, the Washington Post reported that war was likely to break out between Ethiopia and Somalia Tuesday morning. On Tuesday, the BBC reported that the threat of war between Somalia and Ethiopia was receding as both sides indicated a desire to negotiate.
In September, Pakistan entered into an agreement with North Waziristan (part of Pakistan), which a few commentators such as I characterized as our ally, Pakistan negotiating a separate peace with (and effectively a surrender to) our joint enemies, the Taliban and al Qaeda. Other news organizations reported the event, but did not characterize it as I did. Was this event a central and dangerous development in our war in Afghanistan (the evidence grows to support my analysis), or was it merely an internal administrative Pakistani matter of little consequence?
Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi has announced that on the evening of Jan. 4, it will cost you $15,000 to celebrate her ascension to the speaker’s chair with her. She has also announced that on the morning of Jan. 5, you can meet her in "The People’s House" for free. Depending on which of those items passes into the consciousness of people next month, they might think she is either a Democrat or a plutocrat. Or they may be so confused by the conflicting images of the same person that come at them from one nanosecond to the other that they give up on trying to understand the world and mentally retreat into their own private lives. Of course, it is not just Pelosi’s conflicting images, but the images of every political fact and event that is coming at people.
How different, functionally, is the man or woman of 2006 who mentally checks out from the chaos of the world’s events and news to that European villager of 1400 who isn’t sure who his king is, what he looks like, or what he is doing?
Well, one difference is that today, the people — whether ignorant or informed, whether wise or foolish — can strongly influence the state actions of their country. In the 14th Century, kings and princes were free to act unhindered by a public opinion that didn’t exist — although the contingency of riots, rebellions, and revolutions usually hovered at the back of kingly minds.
Of course the sovereignty of the people has — and I hope will continue to be — the benefactor of their happiness and dignity. But in the technologically driven growing chaos of public information overload and distortion, the leader must — by force of mind, word, image and personality — define for the public some semblance of objective reality. As never before, the leader who fails in that mission will fail in his office.
And rule by the people, itself, is threatened if the people are unable to gain a plausible grip on reality. The threat to democracy in the future will be less from above, than from our mind-numbed selves.