Saturday, July 10, 2010

Retro: James Burke's Connections, the Roman Empire, and the Printing Press

About a week ago I saw a post from The Anchoress about a 1970s television series: Connections. Connections was a documentary narrated by James Burke and each episode focussed on the historical roots and innovation behind some modern bit of technology. Above, is the five part YouTube playlist for Episode 4, "Faith In Numbers". The total show time is just under 50 minutes. The Anchoress writes:
At about the 3:30 mark, you find Burke once again presenting past as prelude:
The last time a world empire fell apart, it was about 1500 years ago. Then, the empire was Roman…. … What led the Barbarians walk over Rome is something that won’t take you a second to sympathize with. The taxes were too high, to pay for the army that was losing all the battles, and a bunch of freeloaders in government, and of course, and to pay for thousands of civil servants.
At its height, the Roman empire extended into the British Isles, up to Hadrian's Wall. Early in the fifth century, the Romans withdrew from Britain as their empire gradually disintegrated and outlying territories were returned to the natives.

Recently, I've heard others compare the United States and ancient Rome (like For a few months now I've been pondering Clay Shirky's indirect reference to Rome in the context of complexified business models:
In 1988, Joseph Tainter wrote a chilling book called The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter looked at several societies that gradually arrived at a level of remarkable sophistication then suddenly collapsed: the Romans, the Lowlands Maya, the inhabitants of Chaco canyon. Every one of those groups had rich traditions, complex social structures, advanced technology, but despite their sophistication, they collapsed, impoverishing and scattering their citizens and leaving little but future archeological sites as evidence of previous greatness. Tainter asked himself whether there was some explanation common to these sudden dissolutions.

The answer he arrived at was that they hadn’t collapsed despite their cultural sophistication, they’d collapsed because of it. Subject to violent compression, Tainter’s story goes like this: a group of people, through a combination of social organization and environmental luck, finds itself with a surplus of resources. Managing this surplus makes society more complex—agriculture rewards mathematical skill, granaries require new forms of construction, and so on.

Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.
The next straw, the next regulation or expectation, breaks the camel's back, as they say. It's not that these cultures don't want to simplify, it's that they can't.

In March 2009, Shirky wrote another article. I consider this one to be the most important blog post of that year. It's about newspapers and their inevitable collapse—one wonders if broadcast media will face the same fate. Shirky begins by explaining how newspapers continue to experiment with business models that will not work (micro-payments, paid subscriptions, etc) in the Internet Age:
Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. In ordinary times, people who do no more than describe the world around them are seen as pragmatists, while those who imagine fabulous alternative futures are viewed as radicals. The last couple of decades haven’t been ordinary, however. Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones simply looking out the window and noticing that the real world increasingly resembled the unthinkable scenario. These people were treated as if they were barking mad. Meanwhile the people spinning visions of popular walled gardens and enthusiastic micropayment adoption, visions unsupported by reality, were regarded not as charlatans but saviors.

When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en bloc. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.
And we see how collapse becomes unavoidable. Newspapers have devolved into a cargo cult worshiping an unsustainable business model. They are slated to collapse in bankruptcy courts around the country at a time and speed that has not yet been set. They know this and it's why they're seeking government assistance. The truly visionary newspapermen hope for a future as a government agency. They understand that bureaucracies never enter bankruptcy.

Shirky continues with the revolution caused by the printing press:
Elizabeth Eisenstein’s magisterial treatment of Gutenberg’s invention, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, opens with a recounting of her research into the early history of the printing press. She was able to find many descriptions of life in the early 1400s, the era before movable type. Literacy was limited, the Catholic Church was the pan-European political force, Mass was in Latin, and the average book was the Bible. She was also able to find endless descriptions of life in the late 1500s, after Gutenberg’s invention had started to spread. Literacy was on the rise, as were books written in contemporary languages, Copernicus had published his epochal work on astronomy, and Martin Luther’s use of the press to reform the Church was upending both religious and political stability.

What Eisenstein focused on, though, was how many historians ignored the transition from one era to the other. To describe the world before or after the spread of print was child’s play; those dates were safely distanced from upheaval. But what was happening in 1500? The hard question Eisenstein’s book asks is “How did we get from the world before the printing press to the world after it? What was the revolution itself like?”

Chaotic, as it turns out. The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t know what to think. If you can’t trust Aristotle, who can you trust?
We're living in interesting times... A revolution spawned by the Internet is underway.

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