The dark soul of technology
When people think of faith, I suspect the dark soul of technology is not usually their first thought.
But perhaps it should be.
Indeed, the technology of written language—a technical process invented to enhance human communication and memory—succeeded in widely spreading shared religions among humankind, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In fact, Islam specifically refers to the adherents of these religions as “people of the book,” meaning written scripture, including the Bible and the Torah. Islam, in turn, created its own sacred book, the Quran.
Unexpectedly, however, the original technology that stored hand-written sacred texts in “book” form (i.e., on papyrus sheets, animal skins and scrolls) ultimately came back to bite the descendants of its creators, especially the Catholic Church establishment. What directly led to a new, transformative technology was handwriting’s enormously cumbersome and time-consuming nature.
The agent of a religious revolution that emerged in the 1500s was a mechanical system of printing that could produce far more text far faster than earlier stamp-style presses perfected by ancient Chinese technologists. German tradesman Johannes Gutenberg in 1439 unveiled his new invention, a printing press based on a wine-grape press and moveable, reusable metal letters to create “pages” of text for the press to print. Whereas hand-writing bible text could take many days to produce a page and sometimes years to make a book, Gutenberg’s press could crank out hundreds of pages an hour and thousands of books a year. Thus made Gutenberg’s process massively cheaper, as well.
One of the most spectacular unintended effects of Gutenberg’s press was its unleashing of what we now term “mass communication.” Ad hoc production of any bibles, much less in languages other than the official Latin and without church approval, was forbidden up to Gutenberg’s time. But the new ability to produce many bibles quickly in any language stimulated a boom in scriptural tomes in many languages. Within a few years, millions of bibles of every major language had been printed and were circulating in Europe.
This new technology greatly aided insurgent German priest Martin Luther, who launched the Protestant Reformation against tyrannical Catholicism with a document summarizing 95 criticisms against the church hierarchy —the Ninety-Five Theses—which he reportedly nailed to a local church door in the fall of 1517. Mechanical printing of his theses and wide distribution of copies allowed this seminal religious-political document to go, as we now say, viral. Before long, bibles in colloquial German were in wide distribution, and scripture that had heretofore been available only to the wealthy and powerful was suddenly in the hands of the masses in their own tongues.
This convergence of revolutionary religious ideas and a powerful new technology in short order transformed the entire religious and political landscape of Europe. And it also fundamentally informed how the New World—in particular, America—would later develop.
So, to a great degree, the United States can thank Johannes Gutenberg for how it turned out.
Still, technology’s inherently dark soul (think gunpowder) often reveals itself, and is doing so again in the 21st century with the astonishing global influence of the internet. A technology that once promised a free, fully democratic landscape for unfettered human interaction has become a swamp of terror, cruelty, untruth and anarchy. And, as when Gutenberg’s bibles swamped Europe and the alarmed Catholic Church could do little to stop the deluge, nobody seems able to effectively control the rabid dogs of cyberspace today.
It is a cautionary tale, reminding us, as always, to be very careful what we wish for.