Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses. Source: British Museum
It’s popular to say that we live in unprecedented times. Things like mobile computing and global social networks are totally new. And from a technological perspective, that’s absolutely correct: we’ve never had so much power in our pockets. Apple’s new A11 Bionic chip on their iPhone X can execute more operations per second than a MacBook Pro, which in turn was way more powerful than a Cray Supercomputer (cooled with liquid nitrogen) from the ‘80s. And it has to be, in order to run a screen with 2.7 million pixels and to do on-the-fly facial recognition.
Mobile computing combined with the internet and social networking has moved us all closer. We used to talk about six degrees of separation, that everyone in the world was connected by, at most, six relationships. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn may have cut that number in half. We used to rely on publishers to get books into print. Now, anyone can write, publish, and distribute our own eBooks with nothing but a laptop and a wifi connection.
Illustration: Daniel Walker. Source: Wikipedia
Today’s technology has enormously increased the power of networks, at the expense of centralized authority. That’s why we see the “Facebook Effect” impacting totalitarian regimes, or the Russian government buying ads on Facebook, Twitter, and Google to influence elections around the world. Nationalistic populist initiatives like Brexit or the Alliance for Germany don’t rely on a single charismatic leader to achieve electoral results. Instead, they seem to ride a bottom-up wave popular discontent.
But just because something hasn’t happened before doesn’t mean there are no precedents. The technology is new, but human nature hasn’t changed. Have we seen this before?
The long-ish answer is yes, but not in the way that compares Trump or Marine Le Pen to Hitler. Five hundred years ago Johannes Gutenberg introduced printing with movable type to Europe – an innovation that is widely considered to be the most important innovation of the second millennium. This allowed printers to distribute ideas and information on a massive scale. Martin Luther used this new technology to initiate and lead the Reformation – posting his “95 Theses,” translating the Bible into the everyday language of the people, and publishing works of scholarship and exhortation.
His intention was to reform the Roman Catholic church, to call it back to its original roots, where individuals would devote themselves lives of repentance and faith and there would be a priesthood of all believers. The Reformation brought much of this into the world, but it also brought schism and civil war and a Peasant’s Revolt and the rise of nationalism. None of this would have been possible without Gutenberg’s printing press.
Our modern networks allow us unprecedented access to each other. But increased democracy can be a mixed blessing. Ennobling ideas have to compete with cat videos and phishing attacks. There are no gatekeepers, and people don’t always gravitate towards the “better angels of our nature.” The times are a’changin’. But, like the Reformation, that change will take us in unexpected – and diverse – directions.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA