seventeenth century, when Western culture undertook to reorganize itself to accommodate the printing press, until the mid-nineteenth century, no significant technologies were introduced that altered the
of information. As a consequence, Western culture had more than two hundred years to accustom itself to the new information conditions created by the press. It developed new institutions, such as the school and representative government. It developed new conceptions of knowledge and intelligence, and a heightenedrespect for reason and privacy. It developed new forms of economic activity, such as mechanized production and corporate capitalism, and even gave articulate expression to the possibilities of a humane socialism. New forms of public discourse came into being through newspapers, pamphlets, broadsides, and books. It is no wonder that the eighteenth century gave us our standard of excellence in the use of reason, as exemplified in the work of Goethe, Voltaire, Diderot, Kant, Hume, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Vico, Edward Gibbon, and, of course, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, and Thomas Paine. I weight the list with America’s “Founding Fathers” because technocratic-typographic America was the first nation ever to be
The Rights of Man
, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and the
were written and printed efforts to make the American experiment appear reasonable to the people, which to the eighteenth-century mind was both necessary and sufficient. To any people whose politics were the politics of the printed page, as Tocqueville said of America, reason and printing were inseparable. We need not hesitate to claim that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution stands as a monument to the ideological biases of print. It says: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging freedom of speech or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” In these forty-five words we may find the fundamental values of the literate, reasoning mind as fostered by the print revolution: a belief in privacy, individuality, intellectual freedom, open criticism, and community action.
Equally important is that the words of that amendment presume and insist on a public that not only has access to information but has control over it, a people who know how to useinformation in their own interests. There is not a single line written by Jefferson, Adams, Paine, Hamilton, or Franklin that does not take for granted that when information is made available to citizens they are capable of managing it. This is not to say that the Founding Fathers believed information could not be false, misleading, or irrelevant. But they believed that the marketplace of information and ideas was sufficiently ordered so that citizens could make sense of what they read and heard and, through reason, judge its usefulness to their lives. Jefferson’s proposals for education, Paine’s arguments for self-governance, Franklin’s arrangements for community affairs assume coherent, commonly shared principles that allow us to debate such questions as: What are the responsibilities of citizens? What is the nature of education? What constitutes human progress? What are the limitations of social structures?
The presumed close connection among information, reason, and usefulness began to lose its legitimacy toward the mid-nineteenth century with the invention of the telegraph. Prior to the telegraph, information could be moved only as fast as a train could travel: about thirty-five miles per hour. Prior to the telegraph, information was sought as part of the process of understanding and solving particular problems. Prior to the telegraph, information tended to be of local interest.