On the technologies of freethought, information bubbles, and groupthink

Woodcut of a printer from 1568. Public domain — Wikipedia.
“What gunpowder did for war, the printing press has done for the mind.” ―Wendell Phillips

On this day (February 19) in 1878 Thomas Edison patented the phonograph, enabling the capability of mechanical recordings and the reproduction of sound. The magic lantern (an early type of image projector) had already been invented in the 17th Century and was increasingly applied to educational purposes during the 1800s. Combining these two capabilities would have a significant impact on the way we share information, and today many of us carry devices around that enable us to take selfies and stream live video to our Facebook friends in real-time. But it was the invention of the printing press, by the German Johannes Gutenberg around 1440, that remains “one of the most influential events in the second millennium revolutionizing the way people conceive and describe the world they live in, and ushering in the period of modernity” (Wikipedia).

The printing press also played a major role in the Reformation, which I mentioned yesterday. But even before that, in 1516, Erasmus of Rotterdam had published the first Greek New Testament, and in 1526 another German, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, would publish a skeptical satire of the sad state of science at the time. Agrippa also argued against the persecution of witches and wrote about magic— although its not clear if he supported or rejected it. Agrippa’s book on magic (De Occulta Philosophia libri III) would have a major influence on Giordano Bruno who was tried for heresy and burned at the stake on February 17, 1600 for his denial of eternal damnation, the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the virginity of Mary, and transubstantiation.

Also on this day in 1473, Nicolaus Copernicus died. The revolution his book started would eventually result in the trial and condemnation of Galileo Galilei by the Roman Catholic Inquisition in 1633, which I wrote about last week. And as noted in another piece I wrote last week, David Hilbert’s work would help plant the seeds that lead us to Alonzo Church, Alan Turing, and the field of theoretical computer science which led to the “magic” devices we carry around with us to take those selfies and stream live video to our Facebook friends.

Turing’s work in breaking the Nazi Enigma code during World War II would also give the Allies an edge against Hitler — as portrayed recently in the highest-grossing independent film of 2014, The Imitation Game. The British would later (chemically) castrate Turning for his homosexuality, but he is widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence (Wikipedia). He would posthumously receive a pardon from Queen Elizabeth II in 2013 — 59 years after his death.

Another Englishman named Tim Berners-Lee would later invent the World Wide Web in 1989. His invention would also encourage freethought by providing opportunities for people to find information about people of other religions, or none, and to interact with them personally (Downey, 2014). As Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project, noted in 2014: “There is no neutral position when it comes to the Internet. Whether you use it or you don’t, it still affects your organization.”

According to Jonathan Sacks, a British rabbi and scholar of Judaism, the internet is “transforming our civilization” and could lead to new types of religion, but it is also being used by extremists and terrorists in an attempt to return us to the dark past. While Lord Sacks may be right about the internet ushering in a “spiritual revolution” for some, the evidence so far suggests that it encourages both freethought and groupthink. And it is largely up to us, the consumer, to decide how to use this new global information and communications infrastructure to combat the regressive voices and widespread misinformation that come along with it.

If you enjoyed this post, please click the to recommend it. You might also enjoy my eBook on applied humanist philosophy and my paternal German ancestors in Amerika.