At a joint press conference in Berlin earlier today, President Obama and Germany Chancellor Angela Markel blamed the internet and digitizationon making a “clash of cultures” more direct and instilling uncertainty in people about their identities and economic security.
Merkel suggested the internet and digitization would have to be regulated like the printing press or industrialization in order to limit its disruptive effects. “It led to enormous transformational processes within individual societies,” Merkel noted. “It took a while until societies learned how to find the right kind of policies to contain this and to manage and steer this,” Merkel said.
The printing press was easily the most disruptive technology in the history of Western civilization. Since its invention in the 1440s and subsequent widespread use, the ability to mass produce printed material has helped foment social and political revolutions around the world. The printing press created the opportunity for communication on a scale never seen before. It helped populations around the world to self-radicalize—it’s hard to imagine how the American revolution could have been sustained without a printing press and the ability that provided for colonists to share stories about imperial outrage and to convince each other of the necessity of revolution through pamphlets like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.
When pro-slavery mobs wanted to shut down the work of the abolitionist Rev. Elijah Lovejoy, they destroyed his printing press, not once, not twice, but three times. The fourth time, he was killed trying to defend his newest printing press. The printing press helped movements like abolitionism to build a community organized around them. On a larger scale, printing presses, helped in the process of nation-formation, by making it possible to build imagined communities through the use of national newspapers, literature, and so on, as posited by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities. The printing press helped people build connections over vast distances of space, and time, fundamentally altering the pace of change in the world.
It’s not difficult to see similar forces unleashed by the internet, allowing people separated by long distances to find common cause with each other and build imagined communities of their own. In the aftermath of the presidential election, this gets called a “bubble.” But the imagined ideological communities we build are only the most prominent now. I’d argue the rapid progress on gay rights was probably helped along by the internet making it easier for people to learn that they are not alone and better work for change. The same kind of imagined community-building is also happening across the political spectrum.
The desire by the political class to control these processes is frightening but, as Merkel admitted, not new. Since the invention of the printing press, governments of all sorts have sought to control its use and influence. The first newspaper in the American colonies, for example, Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick, was shut down by the British imperial government less than a week after its first issue. After that, the British demanded newspaper publishers receive government permits. This was one of the reasons the framers of the Constitution included freedom of the press in the Bill of Rights. And yet even some of the people involved in drafting the Constitution, like John Adams, ended up pursuing policies when in power that stymied the freedom of speech. This year, both major party presidential nominees, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, called for shutting down portions of the internet to stop militant radicals from communicating with each other.
Obama noted in the press conference, before Merkel’s call for more speech regulation, that freedom of speech was one of the principles that, if they were maintained, would help ensure that “over the long term progress will continue.” Yet contemporary governments show little understanding of this, participating in the erosion of free speech rights and other mechanisms Obama mentioned, like checks and balances, that ensure “progress.” Merkel, for her part, decried the “simplistic solutions” offered by populist politicians, saying they had “unfriendly policies.” Obama decried simplistic slogans and soundbites and snippets people get on social media, yet is no stranger to them.
“If we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems,” Obama said, offering little in the way of self-reflection on his role in these trends. “If people, whether they are conservative or liberal, left or right, are unwilling to compromise and engage in the democratic process, and are taking absolutist views, and demonizing opponents, then democracy will break down.”
“My most important advice is to understand whether the foundations of a healthy democracy and how we have to engage in citizenship continuously, not just when something upsets us, not just when there’s an election, or when an issue pops up for a few weeks, it’s hard work,” Obama continued, saying he had hope in political and social activism by young people.