History Repeats Itself

After the arrival of the printing press on the human cultural scene, ideas were much less able to be contained and controlled by what was, in effect, a priest class of idea manufacturers. Before this technology, ideas were printed as social currency from the central authority that consisted of the government and church. This set of ideas was consumed as the map of reality by the population at large. With the printing press ideas became far more distributed and less contained by the mandates and hegemony of a robust social institutional base. The institutions had a stranglehold on the narrative map with which the culture navigated and therefore largely defined the culture were now under threat.

A whole new economy of influencers entered the scene, unleashed by the technology. Turmoil followed as the former centers of influence saw their ecological niche threatened and fought to retain their relevancy. Enlightenment ideas such as deism, liberalism, toleration, and scientific progress eroded the supremacy of these former undisputed champions of culture. These new narratives were harshly crushed with physical and ideological warfare because they threatened the now weakened institutions.

After the printing press, it took some time to get the reins back from the effects that “ideas in the wild” had. A time of chaos ensued until a new equilibrium was forged – until these new ideas developed into cultural institutions themselves – until they became well entrenched in the culture with formal institutions of their own – complete with a priest class of “experts” and the attending flocks of faithful followers along with those who get caught in the currents of influence produced by whatever ideological coin of the realm happens to be popular at the time – the “zeitgeist du jour” The organs of influence that emerged in this new climate fitfully found a place of equilibrium among the traditional forces once the boundaries of influence were sufficiently defined. Books, newspapers and later, radio and television were the new centers of power that coexisted with government and church. They now controlled the narrative and defined the culture.

This newfound expansion of the narrative territory didn’t mean that society transformed into a place of justice or any other high virtue. In fact; exploitation, or what could be called social farming (where a small group that holds control of the narrative entices larger groups to act in unison under the banner of a set of ideas that serves the interests of that small group) reemerged after some time. The former concentrated seats of power were disrupted for a time but not the principles on which the human social economy operates. Grifters and those who ride on waves of authority rather than the much harder work of authentic contribution to the human condition dressed up in lofty ideas like freedom and justice while they reestablished the reins of influence. Once again the influence was leveraged to parasitic and predatory effect on the many to serve the few. In other words, the new boss was the same as the old boss.

This same period of chaos and fight for control of the narrative is happening again with the advent of the internet. Like the printing press, this technology unlocked the ability for one person to reach thousands and millions with a keyboard and a camera. This has once again disrupted the institutional layer of society – the few that control the narrative for the many. The same painful and bloody birthing process that happened in the wake of the printing press is once again unfolding. I suspect that a new equilibrium will form over time. I’m not sure we have the maturity as a species just yet to redefine the principles on which our new social contracts will operate. Will we generate the emergent fruits that result from a commitment to the realization of each other’s full potential, or will we reestablish the poverty inducing climate produced by the image so well defined in George Orwell’s book Animal farm, where the creatures used the ideas of freedom and equality to reestablish exactly what they claimed to be fighting against?

Freedom and justice cannot be expected to flow from untended soil, it has to be continuously and carefully cultivated by what we do for each other, not by what we can get from each other. I hope we can develop the insight and discipline to choose the former because the latter is a recipe to author our continued poverty.

5 responses to “History Repeats Itself

  1. Síochána Arandomhan

    I appreciate how you frame this in history. I have of course heard the internet compared to the printing press but not the further analysis of how hegemony is re established.

  2. Síochána Arandomhan

    Also I enjoyed Eugene Vodolazkin’s observations on individual history vs world history and maybe you would too:


    • Thanks for the comment and the reference. I did enjoy that perspective and will read the full interview later on. I will say based on the snippet I saw in the blogpost that I think Eugene Vodolazkin appears to hold an assumption that our cognitive maps are synonymous with our episodic territory whether personal or group. I think what we experience has a full-fledged impact on the nature of our being which is not always captured in our abstract net of words.

      The best we get is to see a sliver of the totality through our cognitive lens – a lens that is inherited largely from the environmental womb we develop in – the people already here that preceded us – and is, therefore, more of an echoing interpreter from the past than a real-time accurate recorder of the present. I see our cognitive maps as largely a byproduct of nonverbal memories. The same way the word stone is a token for an object, our verbal sense of self – what we focus on and ignore – what the limits of our abstract net can capture – is based on a much deeper nonverbal language – biological algorithms which determine who we are and what we experience which we then rub some words on. We confuse that superficial verbal dressing for the whole territory which it barely catches a sliver of.

      Here is an abstract for a paper illustrating the kinds of nonverbal influences that define us which I am trying to refer to:

      Birth record data were gathered for 412 forensic victims comprising suicides, alcoholics and drug addicts born in Stockholm after 1940, and who died there in 1978-1984. The births of the victims were unevenly distributed among six hospitals. Comparison with 2,901 controls, and mutual comparison of categories, showed that suicides involving asphyxiation were closely associated with asphyxia at birth, suicides by violent mechanical means were associated with mechanical birth trauma and drug addiction was associated with opiate and/or barbiturate administration to mothers during labor.

      Source: Perinatal origin of adult self-destructive behavior – Jacobson B, Eklund G, Hamberger L, Linnarsson D, Sedvall G, Valverius M.

      • Síochána Arandomhan

        How interesting (and disturbing!)

        I have never been a fan of the “is there or isn’t there free will” discussion – it is too abstract for me most of the time – but if the evidence you cite here has merit then it implies we are even less in control of our lives than we think.

        I am not quite understanding the connection to Volodazkin yet….

  3. He said; “Memory is the consciousness of a person, whereas history is the consciousness of the people…” If I understand that correctly he assumes what we remember verbally captures what happens instead of some weak low-resolution image of what is useful to survive; which often means sacrificing accuracy on the altar of belonging to a group As social creatures we are inclined to perceive useful things, not accurate ones. Underneath these abstract tokens is a whole other set of nonverbal thoughts – chemical relationships that define our sense and experience of being. The abstract maps we use to say things like my name is and here’s what happened to me and here’s what I believe are subordinate to those deeper inclinations as far as I can tell.

    I could be missing something(s)

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