Anarchy and Hierarchy, by A. Griscom


The purpose of historical examination

"Every age may be called an age of transition --- the passage from one state to another never ceases. But in our age the transition is visible," wrote Edward Bulwer-Lytton of the early-industrial landscape of England in the 1830s. These words have particular relevance today, at the close of the twentieth century, as the Digital Revolution is upon us and we hear skeptics and promoters alike demanding that we are on the threshold --- no, in the belly of --- a mighty agent of change: a digitized communications medium dilating in ubiquity and potential at lightning speed. It reaches and affiliates almost every corner of the earth, allowing otherwise geographically and ideologically estranged members of humanity to inform, challenge, and respond to each other. For better or for worse, this new medium has ushered us into a new stage of history---some argue even a new geological stratum (Joycelyne 116) --- governed by the technologies of transmission which, at their best, are marked by such massive scope and egalitarian accessibility as to create a world-wide community of authors and critics, continually feeding off of and modifying one another. Digital communications are capable of promoting (and already have, to some extent) a more comprehensive instantiation of variegated human understanding --- shattering long-entrenched Western notions of unitary, authoritative Truth. This new technology --- based on a decentralized, distributed network of participants and information --- grants the power of authorship to masses of hitherto unrecognized voices, encouraging the formulation of opinions and giving new weight and powers of persuasion to synthesized words, sounds, and images.

Be it the means to an apocalyptic eradication of humanity as we know it or a generative panacea, this newfangled medium is bringing about radical and unalterable transformations in most every aspect of living --- not just the politics of free speech, education, and consumerism.

During the alarming time of its reception into the public sphere, this quantum leap in communications technology seems to be alien, foundationless, unprecedented... appearing out of thin air, literally. But nothing in the course of history appears out of nowhere. Although tangible evidence of the structure or substance of this vast network of information is virtually nonexistent --- the information itself is no more than pulses of electricity --- we are not dealing here with sorcery.

I, myself, find this dramatic transition in history, precipitated by the introduction of this mysterious new communications system, mystifying. My thesis project attempts to make sense of this upheaval by examining it next to its historical predecessor: the communications revolution spawned by Johan Gutenberg's five-and-a-half-century-old printing press, and more specifically, the rash of pamphleteering surrounding the British Civil War. Admittedly these two medium-inspired revolutions share as many differences as they do similarities. But in laying down some historical groundwork I hope to persuade the reader that we are revisiting some of the same travails, controversies and challenges that humanity has faced before.

Can we use the dusty old episodes of the past to predict the future? Certainly not. But by examining an historical precedent which shares significant cultural and thematic similarities with the present cultural trends, we can better understand the dilemmas and the potential successes that loom before us; the fate of which we are now deciding.

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