|0:33||Intro. [Recording date: April 30, 2013.] Your book is about how our ability to communicate with each other has changed over time and how those changes affect history. The big four that you look at are language, writing, printing, and now, we're in the middle of the digital revolution. I want to start with language and writing. What were the most important developments and how did they affect history? Guest: Well, if we are going to start from the very beginning, we start roughly 100,000 years ago, which is the date that most anthropologists find for the start of our ability to formulate syntactically dense language. When David Hume and Adam Smith were noodling around in the last part of the 18th century about what made human beings unique, what they came up with was that if you put us down in a state of nature we very quickly became a predator's lunch because we don't have big scary claws or teeth; we don't run very fast; we don't have protective coloration; and we can't fly. What we can do is we can communicate, and so cooperate. And of course this explanation is the paragraph before the most famous one in the book about the baker and the butcher and it's not through beneficence and so forth [from Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations]. So basically our ability to communicate and cooperate defines our species. And when that's all that you can do, when the only method of communication you have is face-to-face communication, you wind up with a very curious political and social structure which tends to be very democratic or relatively democratic, and fairly small. And we still see that today in aboriginal tribes, and well into the modern period with pirate organizations as well. And that changes very radically with the introduction of writing, which I go into in some detail in the book. Russ: And the big breakthrough in writing--there's a couple of breakthroughs. There's some technological change about what we wrote on, and I'd like you to walk us through some of that because it's fascinating. For people who have always wanted to know what vellum is, this is your big chance. Or papyrus. But part of what we learned was what to write on; but equally important obviously was what we wrote. And the alphabet was a really big thing. Guest: I think it was Bronowski who said that without writing there's no civilization and without civilization there's no writing. But that's actually not strictly true, because writing as we know it was invented at a very specific place and a very specific time. The place was Uruk, which was a city in southern Mesopotamia, and the time was 3150 B.C.; and we know the story very well from archeological records. Now, the curious thing about Uruk was that it was already a very large city. It had about 2 square miles. And it enclosed about several hundred thousand people, which made it the largest city of its time for the next 3000 years. So the question is: how did it get to be that big if it didn't have writing? And the answer is it didn't have writing but it had record-keeping. Which is how you organized society, from the records that they used initially were these little clay tokens that were about a centimeter[?] or so in size, tetrahedrons and spheres and cones. And they evolved through several stages into writing. I might add that the person who figured this out, a woman by the name of Denise Schmandt-Besserat, an archeologist--her name really belongs up there with Watson and Crick, and Darwin. Because of the vicissitudes of history no one really knows her name. So that's how writing evolves. And the trick about this system, the system that evolved from these tokens, the cuneiform system, was unbelievably complex. It consisted of about a thousand characters. And its complexity derived from the fact that it was primarily a syllabography, composed of syllables. And the problem with that is that there are several thousand possible syllables. But they only used 500 of them to keep things relatively simple. And so you needed a vast amount of training to tease out all the ambiguity. So, it's a system that took about 10 years to learn to use, which meant that only a very small upper crust of people could run them--the scribes. Now we tend to think of a scribe as, you know, this guy sitting on a street corner writing letters for people. But in fact if you were a scribe in remote antiquity you were the equivalent of a rocket scientist and a high-tech entrepreneur or an investment banker or a GS-15 [General Schedule 15, highest U.S. civil service paygrade] all rolled up into one, because you determined the structure of society. You determined who worked, how much food a person got, what kind of work you did; you had the power of life and death, to say nothing of this magic power of extracting words from clay tablets. And so that basically defines a fairly despotic society where only a small upper crust can communicate with each other.|
|6:34||Russ: So, take us through some of the changes that take place in the media. So how language was preserved. So, it started off on these clay tablets in the Middle East. Talk about the evolution of the media that people used for writing. Guest: Well, for starters, even before there was writing, of course, there was story telling. And the story teller in the pre-literate age was a person also of great consequence. The media that was used originally in Mesopotamia was of course clay tablets. And this was a bonanza for people who were studying writing, paleographers and the philologists, because clay lasts a long time. And better yet, when a city is destroyed and burned it basically bakes the clay and preserves it for eons. Now the problem that people had in Egypt was that they used, from a very early point on, papyrus and ink, which was relatively easy to write on. It was basically ink and paper. The problem is it doesn't last very long. We do have some pieces of papyrus that are 3000 or 4000 years old, but those are the exceptions. Russ: Explain what papyrus is. Guest: Papyrus is basically--it's paper. It's an early form of paper. It's the product of a plant that grows in the Egyptian marshes. And for millennia really the only place you could get papyrus from was Egypt. You would beat it out; you would extract it and beat it out into what basically amounted to paper. It was very similar to paper. Russ: And then we got parchment and vellum, and then modern paper. What are the differences between those? Guest: Well, the really interesting thing about papyrus is that it doesn't last very long. And that Egypt was the sole, almost the sole source of it. And by the time you get to the Hellenistic Greek period, the great intellectual debate--the great arms race at the time--was intellectual. It was who was going to be the preserver of Plato and Aristotle and all the rest of them, the great plays and the rest of the classics. And so what the people who ran the library in Alexandria decided was they were going to forbid exports of papyrus. Now, the great competing library at the time was the one in Pergamon in western Turkey. And so the King of Pergamon, a man by the name of Eumenes settled on the use of parchment, which is basically a cat skin. And it's extremely expensive, but the advantage of it is it lasts much longer. And so the joke was on the people who ran the library in Alexandria, because their material crumbled into nothing whereas the parchment lasted a lot longer and got preserved through a very long and complicated daisy chain of events that led through the early Ottoman Empire and then back into Europe during the Renaissance. Russ: I'm sorry--since I promised the listeners, you have to say what vellum is. Guest: Oh, I'm sorry. Vellum is very similar to parchment except it comes from stillborn calves, or very young calves. So, it's yet more expensive. And if you've never--you tend to think of parchment and vellum as being these very thick skins. Vellum in fact is almost as thin as paper, and it feels beautiful to the touch, if you've never had the opportunity to handle it. Russ: And if you don't know where it's from. Guest: Exactly. The thing about, for example, a Bible that was made from vellum or parchment might come basically from an entire flock of sheep [cattle?]. Very expensive.|
|10:54||Russ: Now, the alphabet was quite a breakthrough because it simplified written language dramatically and it allowed writing to be dramatically more accessible. And you argue that literacy and the expansion of access to writing was central to Athenian democracy. So, explain why that is. Guest: All right. So, we start with this system in Egypt and in Mesopotamia, which, although they look very different, hieroglyphics and cuneiform, internally they were nearly identical. They consisted of about 1000 characters and some of them were logograms but most of them were syllabograms--they stood for syllables. Very, very hard to master; took about 10 years. Who had 10 years in those days, particularly at a point where life expectancy might not have been much more than 25 or 35 years? And the thing was that the Egyptian system did contain about 30 consonants, single consonants that were actually letters, but they were never used alone in the Egyptian system. And at some point probably at a place in the western Sinai called Serabit el-Khadim there was this turquoise mine where there were these Semites--they could have been Syrian, they could have been Canaanites; they might have been slaves, they might have been contract workers. Nobody really knows. But the Egyptians were there bosses. And somehow either they figured out on their own, or their Egyptian bosses showed them how to construct an alphabet consisting just of these 30 letters, these consonants, these phonemes. So it was a consonant-only system, and it evolved into Phoenician, which we kind of think of as the first alphabet--it wasn't. And it also evolved into Aramaic and into ancient Hebrew, and eventually into Arabic. And this system was much easier to learn. It still wasn't easy. It took about 4 years. And one of the ways we know this--if you've been to Hebrew school, you know that you really aren't able to read the vowel-less script, which they have in everyday use in Israel, till about the 4th grade. You need the vowel points before them. So you get a script that people can very slowly start to diffuse literacy with. Ordinary people can learn how to use this. And we actually see some hints of this in the Old Testament of the Bible, where some of the prophets used their literacy to challenge the power of the King, particularly in Jeremiah. Now the key players here, though, are the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians are a great trading people; they spread trade goods and their culture throughout the entire Mediterranean. And about 750 B.C. they wind up in Greece. Now the Greeks at this point are illiterate. The great epics came purely from the oral tradition. Homer didn't write the Iliad and the Odyssey. He was almost certainly just the first guy--if he was one person; might have been many people--who wrote it down when they acquired writing. And they get their writing basically from the Phoenicians. But they do it with a wrinkle. They look at the Phoenician alphabet and they say, golly, you guys are Semites, you have all these funny guttural sounds that come from deep in your throats. We don't need those. We're going to convert these letters we don't need into vowels. And all of a sudden you have a system that can be learned by a clever 5-year old. And I have no doubt that there were Athenian yuppies who were bragging to their next door neighbors about how young Alexandros could read Euripides by age four. And so you have a system that encourages mass literacy. It's estimated that by the late 5th century, early 4th century B.C., up to a third, maybe a half, of Athenian citizens could read and write. Well, where does democracy develop? It doesn't develop in Babylonia; it doesn't develop in Egypt. It develops in Greece, because you have a writing system and advanced communications technology which is easily accessible to ordinary people.|
|15:14||Russ: But of course you and I know well that correlation is not causation. There is the striking fact that Athenians were literate. There is the striking fact that they were democratic. You also connect some of those dots, though. You talk about why literacy was important for their democracy. Guest: Yes. And let me point out--I'm proposing a more general theory here, which I admit is purely speculative: That it's access to communications technology that is an important part in history and in politics and in democratic development. But obviously, your listeners are very sophisticated and they are very attuned to rejecting mono-causal explanations of history. Obviously there are many other factors involved. If you are going to overthrow a despot, one of the things that's really important that we know from modern history is the willingness of troops to slaughter their own citizens. That's far more important than social media in the modern world, for example. And we also know, from a fair depth of research in sociology and political science that there are a lot of factors that precede democracy and are probably causative of it, that, although we don't know for sure, that have nothing to do with communications technology, either. But it's a factor, and I think it's an important one, that isn't talked about. Russ: So, why was it important in Athens? Guest: Well, it was important in Athens simply because you had a society in which not only was there no monopoly on communications and in organizing the society--because that's how you organized any city-state. I mean, you couldn't have large empires until you had communications technologies, writing that was adequate to the task. A first-grade [?] empire was Sargon's empire, around 2300 B.C. It probably took until that time for the Sumerian and Acadian scripts to evolve to the point where they could transmit the kind of command and control you needed to run an empire, and also to write down laws. One of the points I make in the book is that if you are illiterate, someone who is literate has a magical power, appears to you to have a magical power. And of course ruling of the elites exploited that to the hilt. Well, in a world where everyone can read and write, or literacy is universal, that magic disappears. That despotic tendency, I think, disappears. Russ: But there's also practical issues that you talk about. You've got to be able to read the legislation; you've got to be able to share it with people. It wasn't like the Gettysburg Address where one man is speaking to a thousand people. They passed stuff around, right? Guest: Yeah, they certainly did. Now one of the things about Athenian democracy that tells you that there was a literate-empowered population that was running it was simply the way they chose their officers. All but a very small subset of key officers were chosen basically by lot. You might have someone who was randomly chosen to be the head of state basically for the day. And they also ran--you know, several ordinary citizens who were chosen at random were chosen to perform essential city duties. To put out contracts, collect taxes, pass sentence--you know, execute sentences on people--jail people. They weren't usually the ones who did it. They were directing slaves who did it. But it was participatory in a degree that we don't know today. That we don't experience today. And it really couldn't have been done without widespread literacy. Russ: It has a certain appeal, doesn't it? Ruler of today [?] Guest: It does. Russ: It's true you give up on the economies of scale and learning by doing, but as a certain focus for that one day for that one person. Guest: Yeah, yes. Russ: Now, for those who aren't interested in Greek democracy or Sargon, we are going to move to the modern era very shortly. But I want to mention one breakthrough that you remark on in the book. It seems rather obvious but it was an incredibly important breakthrough, which was the space between the words. Talk about that for a minute. Guest: Sure. Ancient Greek, ancient Latin, didn't have word separation. And it made reading--mass literacy--difficult. Obviously the Greeks did it to a certain extent. And it may seem obvious to us that we have space between, we should have space between, words. But in fact when children learn to write, they don't put space; they tend not to put space between words. And for centuries, neither the Greeks nor the Romans had it. Now, in the Semitic systems, you really did need space between words, because without vowels, you need to separate your words. Otherwise you just get a letter salad that can't be interpreted. And so around, I don't, around 500 or 600 B.C. there's some Irish monks who are looking at some Syriac texts which are--it's a branch of Phoenician, or proto-Semitic--in which they saw the word spacing, and they said: This is really cool. And so they started putting space between in the writing that they were using. And that took about a millennium to spread from Northwest to Southeast, finally, in the media, during about 1500 or so. It slowly spread over Europe. And that's a key point in the spread of literacy in Europe. Russ: You remark about children and the way they write. People don't speak with spaces between the words. Certainly not in your native language. I think one of the biggest challenges for a non-native listener to foreign speech is that we don't stop in between words. We just run everything together. But we are so aware of the sing-song and syllables, we anticipate what the next syllable is going to be and what the next word is, that we can decipher that. But if you'll notice, when we're talking, especially when we talk quickly like this, there are no spaces. The syllables just run together. And it's interesting that we can hear those but we can't read them very effectively. As you say, when you read them with the vowels, you've got a fighting chance. Without the vowels, very difficult. With the spaces without the vowels, that's another very efficient way to do it. But our ear is extraordinary, when you think about it. Guest: Yeah, it is. I have to admit I'm a little embarrassed as someone who in another life wasn't a neurologist not to have realized this until you just pointed it out to me. It's true, that somehow or other we are able to do it very easily verbally but we cannot do it visually. And I think, as I had to off the top of my head come up with an explanation, I think in an evolutionary sense we've had a lot more practice with speech than we had before-- Russ: Absolutely. And that's what we're wired to access.|
|22:42||Russ: Well, let's skip ahead. I want to skip ahead to Gutenberg, somebody whose name most of us know, but I knew very little about till I read your book. And I think in my mind, what happened in the world--and this is clearly wrong, so I want you to correct this perception--in my mind, well, we had scrolls, and then suddenly, all of a sudden there were books. And that was Gutenberg. But it's more complicated than that. So, give us a feel for what happened. Gutenberg himself wasn't exactly the biggest printer of all time. But he started something that was big. Guest: Yeah. The first people who actually converted from scrolls to books were the Benedictines. And we're talking about the middle of the first millennium, some time not too long after, well actually not too long after the fall of Rome, say, the 5th century A.D. And the advantages of the book, or as they called it back then, the 'codex', were enormous. Because you could thumb through pages; you could skip to the end; it was much easier to peruse a book than it was to obviously peruse a scroll. Now, what Gutenberg did was very interesting. I didn't really understand this fully until I dove into the subject. He sure didn't invent the printing press. I mean, most people know this. The Chinese had woodblock printing presses. And he didn't even invent moveable type. The Europeans had had steel punch, letter punches, which is moveable type, for centuries. And the Koreans not only had an alphabet, but an alphabet, bronze alphabetic moveable type, probably several decades before Gutenberg did. Now, if you think about a page in a book, it's got about 350 words, if there's no drawings on it. And that means nearly 2000 characters. And if you are going to run a print shop, you are going to need tens of thousands or maybe 100,000 or 200,000 pieces of type. Now, a letter punch--a piece of handmade moveable type--takes about 3 days to make. So obviously that's not economically feasible. Gutenberg was a mirror maker. And as such, he was someone who was skilled at metallurgy. And he figured out a way of using molds and punches, moving from harder materials, mainly steel, through softer materials, copper, and then finally to an alloy that he specially designed--and no one is quite sure of its composition because all of his type has disappeared. But it was probably mostly lead and a fair amount of antimonium tin. And he devised a molting technique, if you will, that enabled a skilled typecaster--I love that word--who could make one piece of type every 30 seconds or so, maybe even every 20 seconds. So could produce a couple thousand in a week. And so that's what he did, he enabled the production, the mass production, of moveable type, and thus made printing economically feasible. And made books cheap. Which was the key. Of course, the economic part of it. Russ: But he didn't make very many books. Guest: Well, yeah. He made pamphlets, he made calendars, he printed dispensations; and of course he made his famous Bible. And he made a total of something like 180 books, first a couple dozen of them, two or three dozen of them were on vellum and were thus just as expensive as the old Benedictine variety. But one of the points, if you'll allow me to extend just a little bit, that I make in the book, is that all disruptive change discomforts elites. And I've already mentioned the Benedictines. The Benedictines were absolutely apoplectic when Gutenberg invented his mass-produced moveable type and made books easy and cheap to make. Because it basically destroyed their rice bowl. And they sought protectionist legislation. They wanted to get the printing press banned. Russ: And the reason that they offered, of course, was? Guest: Well, we'll get there in a minute. Russ: It wasn't because it was hurting them. I'm sure they had a better reason. Guest: Well, actually, you know, this is funny. I'll read a quote which gets to that subject. It's really quite amazing how honest they were about it. This comes from a man by the name of Felipo Destratus[?], who was a Benedictine, who was living on the island of Murano in the Venician Archipelago. And he writes a letter to the Doge saying you've got to put these printing presses out of business. And I'll quote now:|
They shamelessly print at negligible cost material which may, alas, inflame impressionable youths while a true writer dies of hunger and a young girl reads Ovid to learn centralness.Okay, so they are producing all this awful smut.
Writing, indeed, which brings gold for us [so there's the honesty--WB] should be respected and held to be nobler than all goods unless she has suffered degradation in the brothel of the printing presses. She is a maiden with a pen, a harlot in print.Well, this is the, you know, the medieval version of: Look at all this crap on the Internet and it's destroying investigative journalism. Russ: And corrupting our youth. But it is a--at least there is some honesty there. That is unusual. I'll grant you that. They did admit that it was partly bad for them, which is unusually honest. So, how did printing though--which it starts off, it's not so revolutionary. And one of the reasons it's not at first, as you point out, is that they are not printing modern fonts. They are printing in the calligraphy--they found a way to print, to reproduce the calligraphy of Latin writing in books. Which is not the prettiest or easiest thing to do. It took them a while to figure out there was a simpler and easier way to do that. But ultimately, as the price of recreating, and creating, printed materials fell, it had dramatic effects on the power structure, which you talk about. Particularly the Catholic Church. Guest: Yeah. Well, the Benedictines of course weren't happy, but the Benedictines were part of the larger organization. And the Church also was very disturbed by this. If you think about what's the power of the Church in the medieval period, it really wasn't that they had the power to make people's lives better. Because in Hobbes's famous phrase, you know, life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. So it really wasn't that they controlled life on this earth. What the Church really derived its power from was that it controlled the gates to the hereafter. It determined who roasted in Hell and who went to Heaven. Roasted for eternity, in fact. And that's what people were truly frightened of back then. And the way that they maintained that monopoly was by maintaining a monopoly on the Bibles, not only on the production but also on the interpretation of the Bibles. And needless to say, they weren't terribly happy when other people began producing Bibles and began producing it for themselves, most particularly of course Martin Luther.
|30:24||Russ: So, let's jump ahead. Quite a bit. We're going to jump to radio. And you spend a lot of time on radio. And it's a medium--it's having a bit of a comeback in its own peculiar way, in the Internet age. A lot of people thought it would be dead. A lot of people thought it would be killed by television; a lot of people thought it would be killed by the Internet. And it's surviving. But what you explore is how it came to be. Which is really hard to understand and imagine for a non-technical person--the idea that we're doing right now is similar--the idea that you could talk or sing or play music and someone could hear it, wasn't possible for a long, long time. At first it was mimicking Morse code and telegram and very basic signals. But once you got to that level where you could transmit words, and music, and other things, it had important political implications. So, talk about why you make the claim, which is rather extraordinary to me, but provocative and interesting, that radio played a role in the totalitarian regimes of the mid-20th century. Guest: Well, all right. If you think about radio, and television as well--I don't talk as much about television because I found the story of radio so much more compelling. It's the classical low-access, one-way medium. Yes, everyone can own a television or a radio receiver, but only a very few people can own broadcasting stations. And in Europe it was only the governments that ran them. In the United States it was large corporations. So this is, at least in my paradigm, sort of the ultimate in despotic media. And it's also a very hypnotic one. And I actually put a little graph in the introduction, which is, you know, plots based on political science data base--the percent of despotic regimes in the world. And there is a very sharp uptick in 1920, with the advent of commercial radio broadcasting. You know, obviously that's a piece of correlative red meat for anyone who wants to criticize statistical correlations. And obviously there were other, small, things that were involved, like the Treaty of Versailles and the Great Depression and the reparations that were involved in WWI. But I don't think it's a coincidence that both the Soviets, and particularly the Nazis, were able to use it to enormous advantage to control their populations. And even in the United States. You know, Franklin Roosevelt was such a master of the technology and of the technique--you know, he was the only President who got elected to four terms. And he was able to do that in very large part from his ability to communicate over this very hypnotic medium. I mean, this was a medium that, after all, that was able to convince millions of people in 1938 that the Martians had landed. Russ: Correct. So talk about how the--and that was Orson and Wells--talk about how the Nazis used radio, and then the Soviets. And of course there's a corollary, in that the Soviets, they had widespread radio production, which came to bite them later. But start with how they used it to enhance their power. Guest: Well, we'll start in 1932 when the Nazis took power. There weren't a lot of radios in Germany, or for that matter even a lot of radio stations. And Paul Joseph Goebbels, immediately grasped its potential. And he ramped up production of a device called the VolksempfȨnger. Now you've heard of Volkswagen, the 'people's car.' But the VolksempfȨnger, the people's receiver, was much, much more important. It was an inexpensive radio sold initially for about $20 U.S. dollars, and they were able to cut that in half. And it was very specifically designed with population control in mind. It had no shortwave reception; it had very limited long-wave and medium-wave reception. So it was designed not to receive foreign broadcasts and only receive the local party broadcasts. And if that wasn't enough, there was a little red placard that came on these devices that said: If you listen to a foreign radio station, you will go to jail. If that wasn't enough, Goebbels appointed tens of thousands of radio wardens who made sure that when the Fuehrer or he were speaking that people stopped what they were doing when they were at home or at work, and these radio wardens were also tasked with listening through walls to see if you were listening to a foreign radio station. If you did, you went to jail. They would burst into your home; even if the radio was off and they saw the dial was pointed to a foreign radio station, you went to jail. And if you were so silly, so stupid as to listen to a foreign broadcast and talk to anyone else about it, you would be hung. So they understood very, very well the hypnotic power of radio. And I think it was in large part responsible for the way they were able to hypnotize their population. Now, Marx very famously lamented that he didn't want to see the revolution occurring first in Russia because he thought the Russians would foul it up. And we all know that they did. Russ: He was onto something. Guest: Yeah. But the way that the Russians fouled things up, it's not a story that people are very well aware of. Which was that there really weren't a lot of radios in the Soviet Union until after Stalin died, because Stalin had wired the country with tens of millions of loudspeakers that were everywhere. And they didn't think they needed radio. But the Commissars decided after Stalin had died that that was an archaic system and they should get into the modern era and use radio. And so through the genius of command economy, of central planning, they produced 50 million radios that had high-quality short wave reception, and again very poor long wave or medium wave reception. So again, they were basically designed not to receive local broadcasts but to receive foreign broadcasts. Now, if you ever listened to a Soviet radio broadcast 30 or 40 years ago, they were turgid. There was no news there. It was worse than listening to a deconstructionist powet[?]. And the news was very frequently old and out of date. And you were dealing with a population that in many respects was very highly educated, was hungry for foreign news and was hungry for history. And they got none of it from their local radio stations. So everyone from peasants on up to the operat[?] listened to the Voice of America, BBC (British Broadcast Company), Radio Free Europe, and so forth. And one of the reasons why the Soviets lost power when they did, I'm quite certain, was because they gave away their monopoly on this one-way communications medium.|
|37:43||Russ: So you write very eloquently about then, in the book, giving a lot of examples of how Soviet citizens were keeping abreast of what was going on in the world because they were able to listen to Western broadcasts. And of course the other extraordinary thing that was going on at the same time, for people like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who were using incredibly creative ways of preserving and smuggling writing out of the country and then back into the country, or out of the country where people were then--his book would be published in the West and then it could be read over the BBC or the Voice of America. And carbon paper--they were afraid, you point out--there weren't many copy machines. They were afraid to use copy machines. But they used all kinds of creative ways to copy manuscripts and books in really heroic fashion. Guest: Yeah. This was something that I really wasn't prepared for until I researched it. I thought it was going to be the story about FAX machines, and copying machines. But the real story, the real way that the Soviet dissidents worked their magic--and it was magic--was that they used carbon paper and typewriters. And if you think about it, if you can produce 10 copies from a single carbon, which they were able to do--they got very good at this--you don't need many iterations before you are up into 10s of thousands and hundreds of thousands of copies of things. And what would happen is that, really, the key event, the signal event, would be somebody smuggling a manuscript out. And it would get broadcast over the voices. People would receive it. They would laboriously transcribe it. Russ: The 'voices' being the Voice of America. Guest: Right. Russ: That's the term you use. For the BBC, and what's the other one. Guest: Well, there were several of them. Voice of America and the BBC were the two big ones. There was Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, which were CIA plants. And also Deutsche Welle and Vatican Radio were I guess the Big Six. And it became this echo chamber, a good echo chamber, that basically destroyed the credibility of the regime not only abroad but also domestically as well. It reached a point where during the trials of the dissidents that even the heads of the Western European parties were openly criticizing the party in Moscow, something that wouldn't have even left a wet spot during Stalin's era. Russ: But as you pointed out earlier in the conversation, the other factor that destroys despots, that destroys tyranny, is eventually sometimes at least there comes a point where the soldiers are unwilling to shoot their own neighbors. But I wonder how much these two factors interact. Right? If you are a soldier and you can listen to Radio Free Europe, you can listen to Voice of America, the BBC, or you hear about this undercurrent of what's really going on, that's being murmured about, I would suspect that that reduces your willingness to kill your neighbor. Guest: Well, sure. Obviously the two interact. And it recurs also at the level of the people who are ordering the soldiers to shoot. What the newer digital technologies do is they greatly increase that cost. But there are still places in the world where cost be darned; they will still do that. And that's what separates out, say, what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, where the troops weren't willing to slaughter the populations in large numbers, and what's happening in Syria, and for that matter what happened in Tian An Men. To me, the most fascinating story in the book had to do with the ultimate downfall of the Soviet regime in August of 1991 when the coup plotters, the people who had basically held Mikhail Gorbachev incommunicado in the forest on the Black Sea--they did order their troops to overrun the forces that Yeltsin had at the white house. And they could have done that very, very easily. But the troops basically refused their orders. And the reason why they refused their orders was that 7 months before that they had very bluntly slaughtered a very large number of people at a radio station, I think it was in Vilnia. And Gorbachev was embarrassed by the bad foreign press he got out of that, and hung the officers that got involved out to dry. And, you know, when they were ordered to do that a second time they said: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. And they decided not to carry out those orders, because they knew they would be doing it in full glare of the television cameras.|
|42:20||Russ: You mention in the beginning of the book, which--it's hard to remember what people thought the world was like in say, 1940 or 1950. And you talk about how George Orwell saw technology, reasonably so, as a relentless force for oppression. That the ability to, in 1984, to monitor--and every dystopian novel and every dystopian movie, much of it is about how technology is used by the powerful to control the masses. And yet we came to a turning point, incredibly--because it didn't have to be this way--where it worked against the power. And I think that's the sub-theme of your book. And it's such a remarkable historical transformation. Guest: Yeah. You know, you can't fault Orwell for not foreseeing the rise of modern digital two-way communications. The world that he lived in was the world of radio which he understood as a very despotic medium. And he actually said so. There was a lot of dispute when 1984 was published about what exactly it was about. But Orwell said quite clearly in commentary he wrote afterward that one of the big reasons he wrote it was because he thought that the world's dictatorships held all the technological cards. And because these were very expensive, difficult to use technologies. But now they are available to everyone. You can't fault Orwell for failing to perceive that. Russ: No, I think everybody failed to foresee it. The trends seemed inexorable. The fact that it had a U-shape or a V-shape, inverted U, is quite surprising and not obvious that it had to be that way. Guest: Yeah. Now, we've made a complete vault-face[about face?]. Now, of course, the conventional wisdom is that it's ordinary people who are slowly taking power using these digital media. Sure, governments can use their own technological tools, like the Iranians are for example doing very, very effectively. And the Chinese have been trying to do. But the playing field has been leveled. We've not seen a level playing field like that in human history for a communications playing field for a very, very long time. And I think the assumption is that that is only going to increase and improve; and that assumption, unfortunately, may not turn out to be true. Technological advance is a very hard thing to predict. Russ: Yeah.|
|45:23||Russ: One thing that struck me--I'm going to read a short paragraph in the book that really is quite stunning. Here it is:|
None of the inventions discussed in this book, from writing onward, were designed with mass communication in mind. Their development hinged for the most part on limited commercial, government, and military uses, and in some cases on intellectual and technological curiosity alone. Gutenberg, after all, printed only 180 Bibles, and the creators of the telegraph had mainly railroad and financial applications in mind.And there are all these famous examples like this. The copying machine was viewed as a curiosity. Even the computer--the idea that it would someday be used by nearly everybody--well, everybody in some form or another, was unimaginable. Do you find it interesting how unimaginable that was? How people can consistently fail to appreciate what they were on the verge of? Guest: Yeah. Again, it gets back to something I said before, which is it's almost impossible to predict technological advance; and the more you knew about a small area the more prone you are to make that mistake. For example, if you look at who have been the people who have been routinely wrong about oil supplies, it's been geologists. Because they know too much about how hard it is to get oil supplies, oil out of the ground. The people who have been routinely right about it have been the social scientists and the economists, most famously, of course, Julian Simon. One of my favorite stories from the book has to do with Guglielmo Marconi, who was a commercial genius. But Marconi lived in an era when the radio really wasn't very useful, when it was first invented, because if you wanted to get a message around the world, you already had the internet--you had the Victorian internet, the telegraph. And it was much more reliable and much less expensive than radio was. Radio was only good for one thing, and that was maritime communications: military, commercial uses, commercial shipping and insurance, commercial companies. And there secrecy is paramount. So he was not very open at all to the idea of using it as a mass communication tool. It took one of his employees, David Sarnoff to realize that golly, we can use this for mass communication. It did not occur to anyone else. It seems obvious to us now; it sure was not obvious then. Russ: It just--that they would make that mistake over and over again--not a mistake: the failure to imagine what could be. The copying machine is an obvious example. For a long, long time making copies in the modern era--we mentioned carbon paper, which I think for many of our listeners, they have no idea what it is--was a difficult, unpleasant piece of technology that you put in between a piece of paper in your typewriter and another piece of paper, if I remember correctly, to make a second copy. And the idea that you could do that with what we now call a 'copying machine' which was therefore ink-free compared to your fingers, compared to carbon paper, and more reliable and more precise--the idea that that wouldn't be really, really useful, that no one could think, at least at the beginning, that that wouldn't be an incredibly powerful thing is strange to me. Guest: Yeah. And you see people making the mistake-- Russ: I'm not suggesting by the way that I would have foreseen. I'm just saying that the human enterprise startles to see future, obviously. Guest: Well, you know, psychologists have a term for this, called the 'end of history illusion,' which is that it is so very difficult to foresee how complex systems, mainly technological events, are going to evolve, that we default back to this sort of stage-zero assumption, which is that there is no change. So, for example, we saw a paper written by a very distinguished economists, Robert Gordon, who said economic growth is going to decrease very rapidly because all the great inventions have already been invented, and--I'm overstating his case. But he basically says that he just doesn't foresee where the next great inventions are going to come from. Well, of course you can't. Because if you could foresee them, they'd already have been invented. Russ: Yeah. We had an episode with Kevin Kelly, where he expresses skepticism that we are in for a period of stagnation. But I'm not sure that, to be fair to Gordon, he's that pessimistic. But I think he is suggesting that the current revolution has maybe run its course and it might be a while for the next one. I don't know if he's saying that there won't be a next one. Guest: On the other side of it, I don't really see--I'm not an enthusiast of the Singularity. One of the best assumptions you can always make is that things will continue to progress as they have always progressed, which is, you know, 2% productivity growth per year. And I think if you are going to come up with a number that is much higher than that or much lower than that, I think the onus of proof is on you. Russ: I'm with you there.
|50:40||Russ: Let's turn now to the Internet. And you have some things to say about the Internet's effects on our communication style and thinking. Some have argued that the Internet is making us stupid, easily distracted, rewiring our brains. Your reaction? Guest: Yeah. I mean, this is just one more hail[?] from threatened elites. You can, the sort of things I've been describing in the past, very familiar pattern. There are a large number of experiments done by clinical psychologists that are almost designed to demonstrate how we can be distracted by the technology. The classic experiment basically has people having to follow information through a hypertext maze. Well, of course, if you have to follow information through a hypertext maze you are going to get distracted. And you won't retain it as easily as if you are presented in linear fashion. But the funny thing is that that's not real life. The world rarely gives us the truth of a complex subject between two cardboard covers or on one web page. You have to follow a very complex--if you are going to do useful work, you are going to have to follow a very complex trail of information over some very, very complex webs and tangles. So I don't think there is any question that the Internet has made us more intellectually productive. And it certainly hasn't made us stupid. Russ: Now, you talk at the very end of the book a little bit about Twitter. But I want to ask you about something that came in after the book, which is the Boston bombings that we just recently had happen. And I and at least one other person I've talked to--I haven't talked to many people about it but I suspect we are not alone--noticed that we did not watch the news for keeping up with what was going on. We followed Twitter. Did you do that? Did you notice that phenomenon? We're not--you and I are not living in Iran; we are not living in Egypt. But it's interesting that this bizarre, strange, 140-character system is having such an impact. Guest: Well, I have an admission to make, which is: I don't tweet. And I don't follow Twitter. I stay with the more ancient medium, just the version 1, version 2 web. I use Google news, I use the conventional websites, I get the occasional odd hard newspaper. I certainly don't watch network news. And I did follow the, you know, the whole controversy, of how Reddit, the whole story of how Reddit got things initially wrong; but to me it's part of a larger pattern, the web, which is that the web very quickly, very frequently gets things wrong but the corrective power of the web is quite remarkable. Yes, a lot of mistakes get made initially, but it's remarkable how blindingly quickly things get corrected. Russ: You are referring to the crowd-sourcing of who the bombers were from photographs that fingered three people--turned out not to be any of them. Awkward, and quite unpleasant for those three people. Guest: And the conventional news sources, you know, didn't do a much better job either nationally. [?] made.|
|54:20||Russ: Let's close talking about you. You are an interesting person. You are a physician, I think, by training. You confessed to that earlier in this conversation. You've written a set of very influential books on investing. You've written a set of very thoughtful works of economic history. I don't know what you'd call this book. It's economic history in some dimension but it's more than that. It's an intellectual history. You're quite a polymath. What's next for you and what's it like to dabble deeply--that's what you do; you don't just dabble; you go deeply into a bunch of things. And I suspect the Internet has helped you do that; which I think is probably why you are a defender of it. But talk about how you choose what to work on and what do you think might be next for you. Guest: Well, I write at the beginning of this book how I came to write it, which is that it came right out of my last book, which was A Splendid Exchange, which was a history of world trade, and the story of the repeal of the Corn Law in 1846 was just to me a blindingly clear demonstration of how access to communications technology affects political structure. The Corn Laws didn't get repealed until the railroad came in and the Penny Post allowed people to communicate with each other. Before only the wealthy could communicate and collaborate with each other. And that disempowers the forces of reform, that people wanted to get rid of the Corn Laws and other bad things about the English political system in the early part of the 19th century. I tend to look at writing as a process that organizes my reading. It's interesting to just look at book reviews and talk to your friends and direct your reading according to that. But I find it much more satisfying to decide that I am going to learn a great deal about a given subject that helps me understand the world, and along the way I might as well write a book about it. And that's sort of how I come to do this. I don't know what's next. I've got 5 or 6 ideas; we don't have the time to go through them. I guess I'll talk about one idea. It's the idea that Philip Tetlock has popularized, that it's really the foxes who get things right and not the hedgehogs. And we've wound up with this society that's run unfortunately by hedgehogs. Russ: Explain that Isaiah Berlin image. Explain the fox and hedgehog metaphor. Guest: Yeah. There are a couple of ways to interpret it. The way Berlin interpreted it, hedgehog is someone who explains everything he or she sees in the world according to one grand over-riding theory, and sort of forces the facts sometimes into that. Whereas the fox is someone who is really never quite willing to come to a definite conclusion about anything and looks for whatever data he or she can find that bears on the subject, and often doesn't come to conclusions. And the key thing is the foxes have better forecasting ability than the hedgehogs do. But what you see when you look at the highest levels of government is you see hedgehogs running things. For example you see in the Supreme Court now, all 9 of them are legal scholars. Not one of them has any real political experience, you know, with O'Connor and Rehnquist leaving the Court, there's no one on the Court any more who has any real-world political experience. You look at the people who have become our national security advisers and they are basically all political science majors. By the time they got sucked into the system they really had no significant military or diplomatic experience. Yet they wind up moving carrier groups around the world. Russ: We do have--I think of that as a groupthink problem. You grow up in a particular environment. It comes back to your earlier point about geologists and petroleum experts, limited in how well they can foresee what's going to happen in the oil market. It's such a strange thing to be educated in a single discipline and hanging out only with those people because you will inevitably adopt most of their views. For some reason it reminds me of the conversation with Johan Lehrer about his book Creativity and Imagine, where he talks about--I forget which company it is, but they created a website for companies for problem solving, where they admit: We can't solve this; we have the best people in the world in this area but we can't solve it; and we'll pay a large sum--a large sum being maybe $50,000 or $100,000--to anybody who can solve it who doesn't work for us. And the interesting thing about that isn't that the problems get solved--which they often did--but that the people who solved them weren't the people with the expertise in the area. They were people with seemingly unrelated skills but were able to see things from a different perspective. And that does seem to be a very useful thing to exploit that we don't exploit much in policy. Guest: Yeah. I think that's very true. If you look back, for example, getting back to the Supreme Court, if you look at who were our Supreme Court justices 50 or 100 years ago, they were people who had been President--William Howard Taft, who had run for President; Charles Evans Hughes; who had been governors and senators, and who had a wide degree of expertise. We don't have those people any more, and so we get Citizens United. Russ: Yeah, it's an interesting challenge. It goes back to my point about Athenian democracy. I think it's a William F. Buckley joke, if you'd rather have the random people out of the Cambridge Massachusetts phone book than the faculty of Harvard running the country. I don't know if we really would have a better country if that were true. There's a temptation, of course, to feel that way. I understand the urge and the appeal of it. But we're very uneasy about letting amateurs do things. But sometimes amateurs do a better job. Guest: Yeah. That's one of Tetlock's points. His threshold is the degree of knowledge about a subject that the average reader of The New York Times has, and beyond that your forecasting accuracy is flat.|