“(Writing) crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides,” a monk wrote in the margins of a manuscript he was copying in a medieval monastery.
Printing had much more evil potential. It was attacked on aesthetic grounds. Shortly after Gutenberg’s 15th century invention of movable type, a great copyist, Vaspasiano, said “a gentleman would never foul his library with a roughly inked, manufactured book on coarse rag paper”. More seriously, those who had controlled the flow of information – notably the church– feared losing their hold on people’s minds and beliefs.
As late as the 1660s, England’s chief book censor, Sir Roger L’Estrange, was asking “whether more mischief than advantage were not occasioned to the Christian world by the invention of typography”. Poet Andrew Marvell wrote: “O Printing! How thou has disturbed the peace of Mankind!”
In that country, printing could only take place in London, Oxford or Cambridge and until 1695 all books had to be scrutinized and approved before they could be reproduced.
That media had to be controlled was barely debated. The question was how much. Romances
of chivalry were fine to some, but denounced by an Italian Jesuit as “stratagems of Satan”.
An Italian writer complained of the information explosion – “so many books that we do not even have time to read the titles”. And that was in 1550.
Radio, of course, was the tool of demagogues like Hitler and Stalin, as well as Churchill and Roosevelt. It was strictly controlled, even in democracies.
Film introduced dangerous role models and threatened children with pornography and violence.
And television drew fear and loathing across the board. Serious warnings were penned, such as the book “Four arguments for the Elimination of Television”. In South Africa, the government resisted television for two decades because they feared its impact on our morals, our behaviour and our politics.
In short, every new media technology has evoked fears that it will introduce foreign and dangerous ideas, break down social structures, run out of control and reduce us all to blathering idiots.
Such is the case now with Facebook. Our newspapers have been filled with the danger of social networking and how it is being used to spread hate speech, particularly in the fallout from the murder of rightwinger Eugene Terreblanche.
I have had a dozen calls from journalists wanting comment on the dangers of the Internet and particularly Facebook and MixIt, and asking how it can be controlled.
Like all new media before it, these are just tools which can be used for the social good or abused in a way that does harm. To blame Facebook is like blaming the telephone for the fact that it is mostly used for banal, pointless, time-wasting conversations and occasionally as a tool for untold evil.
It is true that each of these technologies have changed our lives, our ways of thinking, and our social relations. They have all been abused by demagogues.
But they have also empowered people, spread knowledge and information and done much more good than harm. The internet, more than any technology since Gutenberg, has the power to connect and empower people, spread knowledge quicker and cheaper and facilitate social links across the globe and break national, racial, religious and other borders.
It is also the most difficult to control. By its nature, it has fewer gatekeepers and therefore anything goes on it. It has spread child pornography and linked racists and criminals across the world, just as it has empowered the forces of law and order and allowed progressive forces to link up across continents.
Facebook – like blogging, Twitter or MixIt – is an idiots’ tool if you want to behave like an idiot, and share pointless information with friends and strangers. Intelligently used, it is a powerful tool for linking people across time and space. The choice lies with the user.
With each new technology, we get used to it and find ways of isolating and dealing with potential abuse. Let’s not fall for the temptation of saying we need to control and censor the internet, and thus limit the good it can do. We will in time learn how to isolate and deal with those who want to spread racism, hated and destruction – and we will use Facebook, Twitter and blogging to do it.
* This column first appeared in Business Day, April 28, 2010