| December 5, 2011

The New Technology: Lessons from History

History teaches us that technology can be a great force for human freedom, but it can also be used to strengthen despotism. In these remarks, adapted from his keynote address at OCPA’s recent symposium on digital learning, our distinguished fellow J. Rufus Fears says it’s up to us to decide.

There have been three great transformations in the way that knowledge is preserved and new knowledge is transmitted.

The first was the invention of writing. This occurred around 3000 BC, at the beginning of history, in Egypt and in Mesopotamia—the area we would call Iraq today. Monumental architecture was being created that led to the pyramids. Hydraulic engineering was developed that enabled large numbers of people to live together in cities and feed themselves. Copper tools were invented that enabled this monumental architecture to be constructed. Writing was developed, and so were complex government structures.

It was believed that a strong leader was needed to mobilize the labor to feed the people. In Egypt, Pharaoh was god. And in Sumerian cities like Ur, he was the chosen one and his word was absolute. It is almost as though, at one Friday afternoon meeting, he called in his advisors and said, “I think I’m getting cheated on taxes. I don’t think I’m getting all the tax revenues that are due to me. And all you’re doing is coming up with some estimates. I want a system by which I can record every penny that comes into my treasury, and I want it on my desk by Monday morning.” Thus was writing invented: to record taxes. And it created whole schools of bureaucrats.

That’s how writing came into being. To be sure, writing has served wonderful purposes. It could take down poetry like the Epic of Gilgamesh. It could take down Homer’s poems and transfer them from oral traditions into great poetry that we know today, printed. But it came into being as a means of making despotism stronger. And that is always the great danger of all this technology you have before you, technology which you believe will make the world a freer place. That is not necessarily so.

But I want to focus on the second great transformation, the printing press, and specifically its impact upon education. And I’d ask you to go with me to October 31st in the year 1517. You are in Wittenberg, Germany, at the fairly newly created University of Wittenberg. Just as in our day, when we’re told that universities are the only means by which you’re going to achieve earthly salvation by getting rich, so too in 1517 were universities the key to success.

But they had an even more dominant hold: they were also the only way by which priests were trained that could save your soul. And in 1517 people cared deeply about their souls. Yes, you were greedy and wanted to get rich, but you cared about your soul and salvation. And that’s where the priests were trained. But they also had faculties of law and faculties of medicine. And that’s what most people sent their kids to study for—they didn’t want to send you to be a priest because you wouldn’t make any money, but a lawyer or a doctor, that sounds great.

A young teacher, Professor Martin Luther, had been very successful so far in his academic career. He was a monk and was chairman of the department of theology. One day he was called into the dean’s office. The dean basically said, “Brother Martin, you know that Brother Thomas is ill, and you’re going to have to teach his course. We will give you a small grant of money so over the summer you can devote yourself entirely to study.”

“What am I supposed to teach?”

“The letters of Paul.”

“Well now that’s outside of my field. I haven’t really studied this.” (Professors never change.) But he agreed to do it.

In 1453 a new invention had become available, a printing press, almost certainly designed by Johannes Gutenberg. This transformed the way knowledge was transmitted. From the time writing had been invented, a single person had to sit down with a clay tablet, papyrus, or piece of parchment, and copy out word for word an entire book. This was very laborious and very time-consuming, and it meant the number of books in circulation was very small and they were very costly.

But Gutenberg changed all that. You could print hundreds or thousands of books. You could sell a thousand books for what one parchment manuscript cost. You could reach the people at large. And there grew up a large reading public. Ordinary people saw to it that their children learned how to read because it was useful. And they had cheap textbooks, and cheap schools were opened up on a private basis. So by 1517 there were a large number of books in print. One of the results of this was the growth of a whole class of scholars who devoted themselves to the study of ancient Greek and ancient Latin, the poetry of Virgil and the poetry of Homer. Greek was relearned in Western Europe. (It had all but died out in the thousand years following the fall of the Roman Empire.)

Luther had learned some Greek, and the scholar Erasmus had brought out a cheap edition of the New Testament in Greek. So now you weren’t reading what St. Jerome, a very great man, had translated from Greek into Latin. You could now read for yourself exactly what Paul had said. And so Luther went to his dean and said, “You know, I’m going to spend the summer reading this edition in Greek.”

What did the dean say? “Don’t do it! It’s something new and untried.”

Well, Luther was a hardhead. The dean said, “Well, be careful. Just read those to the class. I don’t want any trouble with my donors.”

Luther resisted. He came to certain passages about the relationship between grace, faith, and works. How did you get to heaven? The Catholic Church, a very noble institution, taught that you needed both grace and faith but also works—you had to have good deeds. But in reading this, that’s not what Paul had said: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

So again Luther went to his dean and the dean said, “I told you not to read that book! I don’t want to hear any of that in class.” But this was the word of Paul—the word of God—speaking directly to Martin Luther.

Well, as the fall came on, the situation became more difficult for Luther because the Catholic Church in those days had a system very much like the universities have today—they never seemed to have enough money and they were always trying to get donations. In particular, the pope at the time had to have a brand new church designed in the most modern fashion by Michelangelo, the greatest artist of the day. So they were deeply in debt. They would go all over Europe and they would come to a meeting and say, “Brethren, we want you to give money to the Church.”

And the response was, “What am I going to get out of it?”

“Well, we have something here: indulgences. The pope, as the Vicar of Christ on earth, has an unlimited amount of grace that he can give out. The way we have this set up is, you’ve been a very bad person, correct? You’ll go to hell, you have no good deeds. Now for $500,000 you can be a Sponsor. However, your wife is no angel either. (Oh yeah, we keep records.) You can get her out for just a total of $750,000. That will put you in the Silver Associates range. Now your grandfather was a really bad person, and you are raising your kid to be a bad person. For $2 million you can be a Papal Friend.”

Luther heard of this and he was outraged. How could they sell grace? After all, it is given only by God. So on All Hallows Eve, he nailed on the door of the chapel a set of theses that he wanted to debate with the development officer.

Eventually all this got back to the pope, and he said, “We have to stop this immediately. We have a big capital campaign going on. Look right outside of my office. We have some crazy monk out there causing all of this trouble.”

So there was Martin Luther, a simple professor, arguing with the most learned theologians in Christendom. And he essentially told them: “I tell you with all respect, if you can show me anywhere in the actual words of Paul where he says you are saved by deeds and where you can sell indulgences, I will recant everything and you can burn me. But if you cannot show me in the Holy Scripture, the word of God, I take back nothing. Here I stand, I can do nothing else.”

Well, they found him guilty. They were taking him off to Rome to burn him when suddenly out of the dark woods of Saxony came a band of knights who rescued him and took him back to the duke’s castle. The duke asked him, “Can you translate this into German?” Luther said, “I’ll do it.” And very quickly he had a German translation that is still what is read in German churches today. Then he translated the Old Testament from the original Hebrew. And so it was that ordinary people, first in Germany, then in England and all over Europe, began to read the Bible for themselves. And it came into their hands only because of this new technology of printing.

And not all of them reached conclusions that their governments liked. Some were thrown out of their homelands, but there was a place they could go where they could read the Bible the way they wanted. So they braved the ocean and came to the inhospitable shores of Massachusetts, and there worshiped God the way they wanted.

And in Jamestown and in Philadelphia and all over this new land they read the Bible the way they thought it should be read. And when the time came, they looked at the Bible and they said, “We don’t think King George has any power over us. Yes, Paul says that the powers that be are ordained of God, but he also says they ought to be good rulers. George III is one of the worst rulers we’ve ever had.” So in pulpits all over this country, from 1763 onward, they read the Bible as they saw fit, and ministers said, “You owe your allegiance to your conscience, and your conscience tells you to rebel. You’re going to set up a government of ‘we the people,’ not ‘I the king.’ And you’ll have a Declaration of Independence that mentions God four times.”

And so a vast wave of freedom flowed first from this country and then to other parts of the world. And in many ways it traces to the courage of one man who changed history: Martin Luther.

The third great transformation—after writing and the printing press—is one we see all around us: technology and the Internet. We need to decide if this is going to be a great tool for human freedom, if it’s going to carry a message, or if it’s going to become nothing more than a means of cheap communication, a means of advertising, and instead of ennobling the soul, bringing down the idea of the soul through cheapening the idea of what truth is. After all, anything can be put up on Wikipedia. What is truth? It’s whatever is on Twitter today.

So it is up to us to decide whether human freedom will grow ever greater with this new technology, or whether it will become a mechanism for despotism and dehumanization. And we are the people to make the choice.

J. Rufus Fears (Ph.D., Harvard University), a classics professor at the University of Oklahoma, serves as the Dr. David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow for Freedom Enhancement at OCPA.

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