The most important revolutionary aspect of the printed page: it allowed people to learn how to improve themselves and change the way they thought about the world
Disinfo has echoed the point that the internet is alike to the printing press here: The Global Awakening. It’s an observation which is almost a cliché and it certainly wasn’t new when I wrote that article. The frustrating thing about the comparison is how hard it is not to be drawn toward the headline grabbing side of what happened next,- The French Revolution and a whole lot of violence. This is partly because it terrified the world’s leaders so much at the time that they’ve never let us forget about it. For me though what’s more important is the spread of radical ideas which preceded and underpinned those events, a period known as “The Enlightenment”. That process is less spectacular and blood thirsty but far more important, long lasting and relevant to you right now.
In our universe the further away an event is the more our minds give it a false symmetry it lacks when seen close up. The moon looks like a perfect round sphere but get closer and its crater marked surface is revealed. This is also true for events in our past and there’s a danger the most positive direct consequence of the printing press could be misunderstood by overly excited would be authoritarians keen to rouse “the masses” and “occupy” positions currently held by an “elite” they claim to despise. In my opinion such an exchange of power would not serve us because no matter what your ideology a seat of domination in the future will encounter the same problems those who currently claim to lead are experiencing: the entire notion of a hierarchical dictatorship is coming apart.
I try to explain why I believe this here: Why We’re Not Living In 1984 Today: Orwell’s Oversight but in short, leaders lead by controlling information and the communications revolution makes this impossible. Furthermore, victory in the oncoming ‘war on information’ is beyond their power, no matter how hard they try, just like the ‘war on drugs’. The Western World’s massive financial difficulties limit their ambitions for now but make no mistake, the internet is causing them to lose their grip on consensus reality.
The fact we’ve lived in a world where the common narrative implied it was their responsibility to sort things out means some people are focusing upon the likely indirect results which the internet may have upon a small few, the infamous 1% but this is to miss the point of the new era in which we find ourselves. I believe would be “revolutionaries” would do well to concentrate upon the less publicised but far more profound aspect of the net: its an incredible learning tool! It represents the fact that we can now teach each other how to think.
I’m old enough to remember the pre-internet world. Back then people would often say, “ooh, he’s even bought a book on it” when they spoke of a friend or relative who was learning a new skill. This is an echo of the most important revolutionary aspect of the printed page: it allowed people to learn how to improve themselves and change the way they thought. This is the driving force behind any meaningful long term social change ever experienced in any society ever. A violent revolution, where the ruling elites have their heads cut off and are replaced by equally excitable “left wing” or “right wing” demagogues, would mean nothing in the long term other than a depressing game of spot the difference.
I was very disappointed by the Occupy protests I attended in London. I felt I was watching some of the dull Labour Party activist types who put me off politics during my time at University and ultimately led to my total disenfranchisement because Tony Blair. As I chatted to them they seemed hugely in favour of censorship, were quick to anger if I questioned their ideas and seemed wholly focused upon fixing other people rather than themselves. I have had similar encounters with people who adopt the Anonymous pose.
The dangers of censorship are key to my argument here. When one person censors someone else they deny you access to a perspective. Even if they’ve done this because they’ve decided it’s for the collective good you’ve lost the chance to learn something. This is why censorship is one of the roots of limited intelligence within a society and conversely what’s so great about free speech. I believe my generation, and the ones beneath it, have been badly let down by the education system. It’s tempting to think this is because it’s not in the immediate interests of our rulers to explain how the game is weighted in their favour but this is only an unfounded, perhaps unfair, suspicion. Either way their keen appetite to control the information you’re allowed to find should not be supported by anyone without serious consideration and a solid counter argument to this piece you’re now reading.
Although I’m suggesting something that I’d like everyone to do I am aware of the fact that collectives tend towards fascism. Any idea that requires other people to do as you say can be a dangerous first step towards the authoritarian mindset. People usually know what’s best for them in their life and if they don’t it’s always better they learn how to spot hazards rather than rely upon others to do it for them. That’s partly why my call to action is so vague and subjective; improve yourself.
Any movement which requires you to move in a particular direction someone else has chosen will teach you how to follow. What our nations need now is a people who can think for themselves and choose their own path. An uncensored internet lets us do that and without question Western liberal democracy, for all its faults, has the potential to grow individuals who are capable of unique thought. This must be encouraged, not suppressed.
That’s where you come in. The true path for a revolution in my opinion begins with self improvement and learning not what to think but how to think. As we approach the new year there will be a lot of people indulging our culture’s practice of making a “New Year’s Resolution” or two. I suggest that you use this opportunity to do precisely that, sort yourself out and improve who you are. If you’re a political revolutionary do it with the same conviction which you’d use to challenge The Illuminati, or The evil Tories, or The Communist leftards, or The Racist Republicans or The Dozy Democrats, or whomever it is you oppose.
This meme is embedded in most of the decent movements that have sprung up recently, including Occupy and Anonymous, but it often gets ignored by followers. This blog entry is an attempt to remind you of it. The phrase “be the change you want to see” often comes up. This article is perhaps a bit of meat on that bone. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think we may have some quite dicey times ahead of us in the next couple of years but it’s not the most important aspect of what is happening to people right now, it’s only a distracting headline.
If you look for it there appears to be a self-improvement revolution happening already, although it may just be the company I keep in my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I’ve seen plenty who used to be fat but have now lost weight, I suspect they’ve used the net to learn about diet and exercise. More subtle though are those people who used to be total idiots at school but are now capable of occasionally admitting they were wrong or behaving more reasonably, I suspect they’re on a similar trip. Digital communications technology such as mobile phones and the net force a form of self awareness by recording conversations and activities. Revisiting events at a later date can be incredibly powerful. Re-reading a drunken or angry conversation in your Facebook chat box is a very profound change to the way you can see yourself. Looking at a picture of the night out you went, on where your clothes were too tight, puts the issue of your weight into sharp relief.
It is these changes, which seem small but are magnified by the volume of people they impact upon, that will lead to a better society as a whole. The biggest most important changes that you can make to your world are the ones you can make right now to yourself and the way you think. The more people who take up this challenge of fixing themselves first the less unlikely the wider changes needed in our society will be. Joining those who are using the net as a tool for self development seems to me like the most useful thing you can do. If we all do that we might well all move in different directions but the definition of the word “revolution” will move away from something which involves violence and brings long term suffering.
Nick Margerrison ( tries to fix himself regularly on Twitter here )
 The Labour party is the UK equivalent of The Democrats.