How Photos Were Transmitted by Wire in 1937: The Innovative Technology of a Century Ago

When did you last send some­one a pho­to? That ques­tion may sound odd, owing to the sheer com­mon­ness of the act in ques­tion; in the twen­ty-twen­ties, we take pho­tographs and share them world­wide with­out giv­ing it a sec­ond thought. But in the nine­teen-thir­ties, almost every­one who sent a pho­to did so through the mail, if they did it at all. Not that there weren’t more effi­cient means of trans­mis­sion, at least to pro­fes­sion­als in the cut­ting-edge news­pa­per indus­try: as dra­ma­tized in the short 1937 doc­u­men­tary above, the visu­al accom­pa­ni­ment to a suf­fi­cient­ly impor­tant scoop could also be sent in mere min­utes through the mir­a­cle of wire.

“Trav­el­ing almost as fast as the tele­phone sto­ry, wired pho­tos now go across the con­ti­nent with the speed of light,” declares the nar­ra­tor in breath­less news­reel-announc­er style. “It’s not a mat­ter of send­ing the whole pic­ture at once, but of sep­a­rat­ing the pic­ture into fine lines, send­ing those lines over a wire, and assem­bling them at the oth­er end.”

Illus­trat­ing this process is a clever mechan­i­cal prop involv­ing two spin­dles on a hand crank, and a length of rope print­ed with the image of a car that unwinds from one spin­dle onto the oth­er. To ensure the view­er’s com­plete under­stand­ing, ani­mat­ed dia­grams also reveal the inner work­ings of the actu­al scan­ning, send­ing, and receiv­ing appa­ra­tus.

This process may now seem impos­si­bly cum­ber­some, but at the time it rep­re­sent­ed a leap for­ward for mass visu­al media. In the decades after the Sec­ond World War, the same basic prin­ci­ple — that of dis­as­sem­bling an image into lines at one point in order to reassem­ble it at anoth­er — would be employed in the homes and offices of ordi­nary Amer­i­cans by devices such as the tele­vi­sion set and fax machine. We know, as the view­ers of 1937 did­n’t, just how those ana­log tech­nolo­gies would change the char­ac­ter of life and work in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. As for what their dig­i­tal descen­dants will do to the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, as they con­tin­ue to break down all exis­tence into not lines but bits, we’ve only just begun to find out.

via Kids Should See This

Relat­ed con­tent:

The His­to­ry of Pho­tog­ra­phy in Five Ani­mat­ed Min­utes: From Cam­era Obscu­ra to Cam­era Phone

Watch a Local TV Sta­tion Switch From Black & White to Col­or for First Time (1967)

Cre­ative Uses of the Fax Machine: From Iggy Pop’s Bile to Stephen Hawking’s Snark

The His­to­ry of Amer­i­can News­pa­pers Has Been Dig­i­tized: Explore 114 Years of Edi­tor & Pub­lish­er, “the Bible of the News­pa­per Indus­try”

From the Annals of Opti­mism: The News­pa­per Indus­try in 1981 Imag­ines its Dig­i­tal Future

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

51 Propaganda Techniques Explained in 11 Minutes: From Cognitive Dissonance to Appeal to Fear

The con­cept of pro­pa­gan­da has a great deal of pow­er to fas­ci­nate. So does the very word pro­pa­gan­da, which to most of us today sounds faint­ly exot­ic, as if it referred main­ly to phe­nom­e­na from dis­tant places and times. But in truth, can any one of us here in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry go a day with­out being sub­ject­ed to the thing itself? Watch the video above, in which The Paint Explain­er lays out 51 dif­fer­ent pro­pa­gan­da tech­niques in 11 min­utes, and you’ll more than like­ly rec­og­nize many of the insid­i­ous­ly effec­tive rhetor­i­cal tricks labeled there­in from your recent every­day life.

You won’t be sur­prised to hear that these man­i­fest most clear­ly in the media, both offline and on. The list begins with “agen­da set­ting,” the “abil­i­ty of the news to influ­ence the impor­tance placed on cer­tain top­ics by pub­lic opin­ion, just by cov­er­ing them fre­quent­ly and promi­nent­ly.”

Scat­tered through­out the news, or through­out your social-media feed, adver­tise­ments bring out the “beau­ti­ful peo­ple,” which “sug­gests that if peo­ple buy a prod­uct or fol­low a cer­tain ide­ol­o­gy, they, too will be hap­py or suc­cess­ful” – or, in its basest forms, oper­ates through “clas­si­cal con­di­tion­ing,” in which “a nat­ur­al stim­u­lus is asso­ci­at­ed with a neu­tral stim­u­lus enough times to cre­ate the same response by using just the neu­tral one.”

In the even more shame­less realm of pol­i­tics, the com­mon “plain folk” strat­e­gy “attempts to con­vince the audi­ence that the pro­pa­gan­dis­t’s posi­tions reflect the com­mon sense of the peo­ple.” When “an indi­vid­ual uses mass media to cre­ate an ide­al­ized and hero­ic pub­lic image, often through unques­tion­ing flat­tery and praise,” a pow­er­ful “cult of per­son­al­i­ty” can arise. And in pro­pa­gan­da for every­thing from pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates to fast-food chains, you’ll hear and read no end of “glit­ter­ing gen­er­al­i­ties,” or “emo­tion­al­ly appeal­ing words that are applied to a prod­uct idea, but present no con­crete argu­ment or analy­sis.” You can find many of these strate­gies explained at Wikipedi­a’s list of pro­pa­gan­da tech­niques, or this list from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia of “pro­pa­gan­da tech­niques to rec­og­nize” — and not just when the “oth­er side” uses them.

via Laugh­ing Squid

Relat­ed con­tent:

Han­nah Arendt Explains How Pro­pa­gan­da Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Moral­i­ty: Insights from The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism

A Field Guide to Fake News and Oth­er Infor­ma­tion Dis­or­ders: A Free Man­u­al to Down­load, Share & Re-Use

An Archive of 800+ Imag­i­na­tive Pro­pa­gan­da Maps Designed to Shape Opin­ions & Beliefs: Enter Cornell’s Per­sua­sive Maps Col­lec­tion

“Glo­ry to the Con­querors of the Uni­verse!”: Pro­pa­gan­da Posters from the Sovi­et Space Race (1958–1963)

The Red Men­ace: A Strik­ing Gallery of Anti-Com­mu­nist Posters, Ads, Com­ic Books, Mag­a­zines & Films

Sell & Spin: The His­to­ry of Adver­tis­ing, Nar­rat­ed by Dick Cavett (1999)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Open Culture is Now on Post (and Mastodon)

A quick FYI. If you want to fol­low Open Cul­ture on social media, we would encour­age you to find us on Mastodon and now also Post. Right now, Mastodon feels like the ear­ly days of Twit­ter, when the dis­course was more edi­fy­ing and the mood less tox­ic. Mean­while, Post is a new ser­vice (cur­rent­ly in beta) that hopes to pro­mote learn­ing and civ­il conversations–something that could be right up our alley. Here’s to new begin­nings. Hope to see you there…

P.S. If you have favorite people/accounts to fol­low on Post or Mastodon, feel free to add them to the com­ments below.

How Postwar Italian Cinema Created La Dolce Vita and Then the Paparazzi

Those who love the work of Fed­eri­co Felli­ni must envy any­one who sees La Dolce Vita for the first time. But today such a view­er, how­ev­er over­whelmed by the lav­ish cin­e­mat­ic feast laid before his eyes, will won­der if giv­ing the intru­sive tabloid pho­tog­ra­ph­er friend of Mar­cel­lo Mas­troian­ni’s pro­tag­o­nist the name “Paparaz­zo” isn’t a bit on the nose. Unlike La Dolce Vita’s first audi­ences in 1960, we’ve been hear­ing about real-life paparazzi through­out most all of our lives, and thus may not real­ize that the word itself orig­i­nal­ly derives from Fellini’s mas­ter­piece. Each time we refer to the paparazzi, we pay trib­ute to Paparaz­zo.

In the video essay above, Evan Puschak (bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer) traces the ori­gins of paparazzi: not just the word, but the often both­er­some pro­fes­sion­als denot­ed by the word. The sto­ry begins with the dic­ta­tor Ben­i­to Mus­soli­ni, an “avid movie fan and fan­boy of film stars” who wrote “more than 100 fawn­ing let­ters to Amer­i­can actress Ani­ta Page, includ­ing sev­er­al mar­riage pro­pos­als.” Know­ing full well “the emo­tion­al pow­er of cin­e­ma as a tool for pro­pa­gan­da and build­ing cul­tur­al pres­tige,” Mus­soli­ni com­mis­sioned the con­struc­tion of Rome’s Cinecit­tà, the largest film-stu­dio com­plex in Europe when it opened in 1937 — six years before his fall from pow­er.

Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, Cinecit­tà became a vast refugee camp. When peace­time returned, with “the stu­dio space being used and Mus­solin­i’s thumb removed, a new wave of film­mak­ers took to the streets of Rome to make movies about real life in post­war Italy.” Thus began the age of Ital­ian Neo­re­al­ism, which brought forth such now-clas­sic pic­tures as Rober­to Rossellini’s Rome, Open City and Vit­to­rio De Sica’s Bicy­cle Thieves. In the nine­teen-fifties, major Amer­i­can pro­duc­tions start­ed com­ing to Rome: Quo Vadis, Roman Hol­i­day, Ben-Hur, Cleopa­tra. (It was this era, sure­ly, that inspired an eleven-year-old named Mar­tin Scors­ese to sto­ry­board a Roman epic of his own.) All of this cre­at­ed an era known as “Hol­ly­wood on the Tiber.”

For a few years, says Puschak, “the Via Vene­to was the coolest place in the world.” Yet “while the glit­terati cavort­ed in chic bars and clubs, thou­sands of oth­ers strug­gled to find their place in the post­war econ­o­my.” Some turned to tourist pho­tog­ra­phy, and “soon found they could make even more mon­ey snap­ping pho­tos of celebri­ties.” It was the most noto­ri­ous of these, the “Volpe di via Vene­to” Tazio Sec­chiaroli, to whom Felli­ni reached out ask­ing for sto­ries he could include in the film that would become La Dolce Vita. The new­ly chris­tened paparazzi were soon seen as the only ones who could bring “the gods of our cul­ture down to the messy earth.” These six decades lat­er, of course, celebri­ties do it to them­selves, social media hav­ing turned each of us — famous or oth­er­wise — into our own Paparaz­zo.

Relat­ed con­tent:

“The Cin­e­mat­ic Uni­verse”: A Video Essay on How Films Cin­e­ma­tize Cities & Places, from Man­hat­tan to Nashville, Rome, Open City to Taipei Sto­ry

Fed­eri­co Felli­ni Intro­duces Him­self to Amer­i­ca in Exper­i­men­tal 1969 Doc­u­men­tary

Cin­e­mat­ic Exper­i­ment: What Hap­pens When The Bicy­cle Thief’s Direc­tor and Gone With the Wind’s Pro­duc­er Edit the Same Film

Cinecit­tà Luce and Google to Bring Italy’s Largest Film Archive to YouTube

Mus­soli­ni Sends to Amer­i­ca a Hap­py Mes­sage, Full of Friend­ly Feel­ings, in Eng­lish (1927)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

Is the Viral “Red Dress” Music Video a Sociological Experiment? Performance Art? Or Something Else?

Before it set itself on fire, HBO’s Game of Thrones res­onat­ed deeply with con­tem­po­rary moral­i­ty, becom­ing the most meme-wor­thy of shows, for good or ill, online. Few scenes in the show’s run — per­haps not even the Red Wed­ding or the nau­se­at­ing finale — elicit­ed as much gut-lev­el reac­tion as Cer­sei Lannister’s naked walk of shame in the Sea­son 5 finale, a scene all the more res­o­nant as it hap­pened to be based on real events.

In 1483, one of King Edward IV’s many mis­tress­es, Jane Shore, was marched through London’s streets by his broth­er Richard III, “while crowds of peo­ple watched, yelling and sham­ing her. She wasn’t total­ly naked,” notes Men­tal Floss, “but by the stan­dards of the day, she might as well have been,” wear­ing noth­ing but a kir­tle, a “thin shift of linen meant to be worn only as an under­gar­ment.”

What are the stan­dards of our day? And what is the pun­ish­ment for vio­lat­ing them? Sarah Brand seemed to be ask­ing these ques­tions when she post­ed “Red Dress,” a music video show­cas­ing her less than stel­lar singing tal­ents inside Oxford’s North Gate Church. In less than a month, the video has gar­nered well over half a mil­lion views, “impres­sive for a musi­cian with hard­ly any social media foot­print or fan base,” Kate Fowler writes at Newsweek.

“It takes only a few sec­onds,” Fowler gen­er­ous­ly remarks, “to real­ize that Brand may not have the voice of an angel.” Or, as one clever com­menter put it, “She is actu­al­ly hit­ting all the notes… only of oth­er songs. And at ran­dom.” Is she ludi­crous­ly un-self-aware, an heiress with delu­sions of grandeur, a sad casu­al­ty of celebri­ty cul­ture, forc­ing her­self into a role that doesn’t fit? Or does she know exact­ly what she’s doing…

The judg­ments of medieval mobs have noth­ing on the inter­net, Brand sug­gests. “Red Dress” presents what she calls “a cin­e­mat­ic, holis­tic por­tray­al of judg­ment,” one that includes inter­net sham­ing in its cal­cu­la­tions. Giv­en the amount of online ran­cor and ridicule her video pro­voked, it “did what it set out to do,” she tells the BBC. And giv­en that Brand is cur­rent­ly com­plet­ing a master’s degree in soci­ol­o­gy at Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty, many won­der if the project is a soci­o­log­i­cal exper­i­ment for cred­it. She isn’t say­ing.

Jane Shore’s walk end­ed with years locked in prison. Brand offered her­self up for the scorn and hatred of the mobs. No one is point­ing a pike at her back. She paid for the priv­i­lege of hav­ing peo­ple laugh at her, and she’s espe­cial­ly enjoy­ing “some very, very wit­ty com­ments” (like those above). She’s also very much aware that she is “no pro­fes­sion­al singer.”

The style in which I sing the song was impor­tant because it reflect­ed the sto­ry. The vocals don’t seem to quite fit, they seem out of place and they make peo­ple uncom­fort­able… and the video is this out­sider doing things dif­fer­ent­ly and caus­ing dis­com­fort and elic­it­ing all this judge­ment.

All of this is vol­un­tary per­for­mance art, in a sense, though Brand has shown pre­vi­ous aspi­ra­tions on social media to become a singer, and per­haps faced sim­i­lar ridicule invol­un­tar­i­ly. “Part of what this project deals with,” she says, is judg­ment “over­all as a cen­tral theme.” She cred­its her­self as the direc­tor, pro­duc­er, chore­o­g­ra­ph­er, and edi­tor and made every cre­ative deci­sion, to the bemuse­ment of the actors, crew, and stu­dio musi­cians. Yet choos­ing to endure the gaunt­let does not make the gaunt­let less real, she sug­gests.

The shame rained down on Shore was part misog­y­ny, part pent-up rage over injus­tice direct­ed at a hat­ed bet­ter. When any­one can pre­tend (or pre­tend to pre­tend) to be a celebri­ty with a few hun­dred bucks for cin­e­matog­ra­phy and audio pro­duc­tion, the bound­aries between our “bet­ters” and our­selves get fuzzy. When young women are expect­ed to become brands, to live up to celebri­ty lev­els of online pol­ish for social recog­ni­tion, self-expres­sion, or employ­ment, the lines between choice and com­pul­sion blur. With whom do we iden­ti­fy in scenes of pub­lic sham­ing?

Brand is coy in her sum­ma­tion. “Judg­men­tal behav­ior does hurt the world,” she says, “and that is what I’m try­ing to bring to light with this project.” Judge for your­self in the video above and the … inter­est­ing… lyrics to “Red Dress” below.


Came to church to praise all love
Sit­ting, com­ing for some­one else
It didn’t stew well for me
But I said it was a lover’s deed

Didn’t trust my own feels
Let some­one else behind my wheel
Said it was love dri­ving me
But the only one who should steer is me

Cuz what they saw

They see me in a red dress
Hop­ping on the dev­il fest
Think­ing of lust
As they judge in dis­gust
What are you doing here?

They see me in a red dress
Hop­ping on the dev­il fest
Think­ing of lust
As I judge in dis­gust
What am I doing here?

Let­tin’ some­one else steer

I saw a love, pre­cious and fine
Thought I should do any­thing for time 
Time to change the hearts and minds
Of peo­ple not like me in break or stride

Shouldn’t be me, try­ing to change
Thought I’d be some­thing if I remained 
It just ain’t me singing of sins
Watch­ing exclu­sion get­ting its wins

Cuz what they saw

They see me in a red dress
Hop­ping on the dev­il fest
Think­ing of lust
As they judge in dis­gust
What are you doing here?

They see me in a red dress
Hop­ping on the dev­il fest
Think­ing of lust
As I judge in dis­gust
What am I doing here?

Let­tin’ some­one else steer

Came to church 
To praise love
Com­ing for
Some­one else

But all the eyes
Judg­ing in dis­guise
They don’t see me
Just the lies

They see me in a red dress
No dif­fer­ent from the rest
Start­ing to trust
As they join in a rush
What are we doing here?

They see me in a red dress
No dif­fer­ent from the rest
Start­ing to trust
As I lose my dis­gust
What am I doing here?

Strik­ing the fear

They see me in a red dress

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Hear the Exper­i­men­tal Music of the Dada Move­ment: Avant-Garde Sounds from a Cen­tu­ry Ago

The 15 Worst Cov­ers of Bea­t­les Songs: William Shat­ner, Bill Cos­by, Tiny Tim, Sean Con­nery & Your Excel­lent Picks

Bri­an Eno Explains the Loss of Human­i­ty in Mod­ern Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge: Part 3

Edi­tor’s Note: MIT Open Learning’s Peter B. Kauf­man has just pub­lished The New Enlight­en­ment and the Fight to Free Knowl­edge, a book that takes a his­tor­i­cal look at the pow­er­ful forces that have pur­pose­ly crip­pled our efforts to share knowl­edge wide­ly and freely. His new work also maps out what we can do about it. Gen­er­ous­ly, Peter has made his book avail­able through Open Cul­ture by pub­lish­ing three short essays along with links to the cor­re­spond­ing freely licensed sec­tions of his book. Today, you can read his third essay “The Repub­lic of Images” (below). Find his first essay, “The Mon­ster­verse” here, his sec­ond essay “On Wikipedia, the Ency­clopédie, and the Ver­i­fi­a­bil­i­ty of Infor­ma­tion” here, and pur­chase the entire book online.

In Novem­ber 1965, after some hondling between the Carnegie Cor­po­ra­tion and the Ford Foun­da­tion, a senior exec­u­tive from Carnegie called for­mer pres­i­dent of MIT James Kil­lian with an invi­ta­tion. Would Kil­lian be inter­est­ed in assem­bling a com­mis­sion to study edu­ca­tion­al tele­vi­sion with an eye toward strength­en­ing the Amer­i­can sys­tem of learn­ing on screen, and could he start right away? Kil­lian jumped; a com­mis­sion was formed; and two years, eight meet­ings, 225 inter­views, and 92 site vis­its lat­er, the Carnegie Commission’s report comes out, a bill gets writ­ten, the bill becomes law, and Pres­i­dent John­son is sign­ing the 1967 Pub­lic Tele­vi­sion Act to cre­ate pub­lic tele­vi­sion and radio.

At the sign­ing cer­e­mo­ny, John­son said, “Today, we reded­i­cate a part of the air­waves – which belong to all the peo­ple – and we ded­i­cate them for the enlight­en­ment of all the peo­ple. We must con­sid­er,” he said, “new ways to build a great net­work for knowl­edge – not just a broad­cast sys­tem, but one that employs every means of send­ing and stor­ing infor­ma­tion that the indi­vid­ual can use.”

Heady stuff.  But it gets even bet­ter:

Think of the lives that this would change:
The stu­dent in a small col­lege could tap the resources of a great uni­ver­si­ty. […]
The coun­try doc­tor get­ting help from a dis­tant lab­o­ra­to­ry or a teach­ing hos­pi­tal;
A schol­ar in Atlanta might draw instant­ly on a library in New York;
A famous teacher could reach with ideas and inspi­ra­tions into some far-off class­room, so that no child need be neglect­ed.
Even­tu­al­ly, I think this elec­tron­ic knowl­edge bank could be as valu­able as the Fed­er­al Reserve Bank.
And such a sys­tem could involve oth­er nations, too – it could involve them in a part­ner­ship to share knowl­edge and to thus enrich all mankind.
A wild and vision­ary idea? Not at all. Yesterday’s strangest dreams are today’s head­lines and change is get­ting swifter every moment.
I have already asked my advis­ers to begin to explore the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a net­work for knowl­edge – and then to draw up a sug­gest­ed blue­print for it.

The sys­tem he was sign­ing into law, John­son said, “will be free, and it will be inde­pen­dent – and it will belong to all of our peo­ple.”

A new net­work for knowl­edge.


Fifty years lat­er, total­ly (seem­ing­ly) unre­lat­ed, then MIT pres­i­dent Charles Vest went on to speak of some­thing else, some­thing that became MIT Open Course­ware.  Togeth­er with new foun­da­tions – this time the Hewlett Foun­da­tion and the Mel­lon Foun­da­tion led the way – Vest envi­sioned “a tran­scen­dent, acces­si­ble, empow­er­ing, dynam­ic, com­mu­nal­ly con­struct­ed frame­work of open mate­ri­als and plat­forms on which much of high­er edu­ca­tion world­wide can be con­struct­ed or enhanced:”

A meta-uni­ver­si­ty that will enable, not replace, res­i­den­tial cam­pus­es, that will bring cost effi­cien­cies to insti­tu­tions through the shared devel­op­ment of edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als. That will be adap­tive, not pre­scrip­tive.  It will serve teach­ers and learn­ers in both struc­tured and infor­mal con­texts.  It will speed the prop­a­ga­tion of high-qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion and schol­ar­ship.  It will build bridges across cul­tures and polit­i­cal bound­aries. And it will be par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant to the devel­op­ing world.

Today, in our time of severe truth decay, our great epis­temic cri­sis, it might be time again to envi­sion anoth­er inter­ven­tion, for­ma­tive and trans­for­ma­tion­al as the estab­lish­ment of pub­lic broad­cast­ing, imag­i­na­tive and dar­ing as the launch of open course­ware and the open edu­ca­tion move­ment.  Indeed, some­thing as breath­tak­ing as the events above, and their own vital for­bear over a cen­tu­ry ago – the found­ing of a net­work of pub­lic libraries across Amer­i­ca and oth­er parts of the world (which also hap­pened with Andrew Carnegie’s finan­cial sup­port).

The orig­i­nal Enlight­en­ment brought us Newton’s physics, Rousseau’s polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, Linnaeus’s tax­onomies, Montesquieu’s laws, the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence, the Dec­la­ra­tion of the Rights of Man – it was the Age of Rea­son.  Its founders – as we not­ed in [Parts 1 and II on] Open Cul­ture – com­prised between them­selves what became known as the great Repub­lic of Let­ters.  They were all men, though; and they all were white; while they had access to their own means and to the mean of media pro­duc­tion, and they deliv­ered new sys­tems of think­ing much of the mod­ern world is based on today, their cir­cles were lim­it­ed; their imag­i­na­tions were not our imag­i­na­tions.

Today we have a chance to do more – to take advan­tage of the cul­tures and com­mu­ni­ties that have arisen in the cen­turies and from the strug­gles since that time, to launch a new Enlight­en­ment, and to real­ize per­haps in bold­er and more secure ways this new net­work for knowl­edge.  Video, more than text now, has tak­en over the inter­net; video is a new key to our net­worked world. The com­pa­ny Cis­co Sys­tems – which makes many of the devices that con­nect us – deploys a fore­cast­ing tool it calls the Visu­al Net­work­ing Index (VNI). The lat­est VNI tells us that there were 3.4 bil­lion Inter­net users on the plan­et in 2017, almost half of the planet’s cur­rent pop­u­la­tion of 7.7 bil­lion peo­ple. By 2022, there will be 4.8 bil­lion Inter­net users: 60 per­cent of the plan­et, and more peo­ple in the world will be con­nect­ed to the Inter­net than not. By 2022, more than 28 bil­lion “devices and con­nec­tions” will be online. And – here’s the kick­er – video will make up 82 per­cent of glob­al Inter­net traf­fic. Video is dom­i­nant already. Dur­ing peak evening hours in the Amer­i­c­as, Net­flix can account for as much as 40 per­cent of down­stream Inter­net traf­fic, and Net­flix – Net­flix alone – con­sti­tutes 15 per­cent of Inter­net traf­fic world­wide. All this fore­cast­ing was com­plet­ed before the pan­dem­ic; before 125 mil­lion cas­es of Coro­na virus; before 3 mil­lion deaths world­wide; before the explo­sion of Zoom.

We are liv­ing in a video age. What will be our next media inter­ven­tion?  How do knowl­edge insti­tu­tions secure their deserved­ly cen­tral place in search and on the web?  We need to look over our rights vis-à-vis the gov­ern­ment and the giant com­pa­nies that increas­ing­ly con­trol our Inter­net; we need to look at the grow­ing pow­er we have to con­tribute to access to knowl­edge and share our wealth espe­cial­ly in the online Com­mons; we need to make sure that the pub­lic record, espe­cial­ly video (and espe­cial­ly video of all the lies and crimes, and of all the out­ra­geous false­hoods lead­ers cir­cu­late about COVID) is all archived and pre­served. We need to strength­en how much of the net­work we own and con­trol.

What’s impor­tant is that we have begun to reach toward the point where there is equi­ty in the lead­er­ship of our knowl­edge insti­tu­tions. No longer are white men and only white men in charge of the Library of Con­gress, for exam­ple, or the Smith­son­ian Insti­tu­tion, or, and thus by exten­sion, of our new Enlight­en­ment. New and diverse study and action groups are being formed specif­i­cal­ly to address our infor­ma­tion dis­or­der. But many more of our lead­ing knowl­edge insti­tu­tions – and, crit­i­cal­ly, foun­da­tions and fund­ing agen­cies again – need to lead this work.  This is a 20th-anniver­sary year for MIT Open Course­Ware, for Wikipedia, and for Cre­ative Com­mons; indeed, MIT OCW starts to cel­e­brate its birth­day this month. Many oth­er like-mind­ed pro­gres­sive insti­tu­tions and their sup­port­ers are on the move. That net­work for knowl­edge is com­ing again: this time, our new Enlight­en­ment moment will belong to all of us.

Peter B. Kauf­man works at MIT Open Learn­ing and is the author of The New Enlight­en­ment and the Fight to Free Knowl­edge

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The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge: Part 2

Edi­tor’s Note: This month, MIT Open Learning’s Peter B. Kauf­man has pub­lished The New Enlight­en­ment and the Fight to Free Knowl­edge, a book that takes a his­tor­i­cal look at the pow­er­ful forces that have pur­pose­ly crip­pled our efforts to share knowl­edge wide­ly and freely. His new work also maps out what we can do about it. In the com­ing days, Peter will be mak­ing his book avail­able through Open Cul­ture by pub­lish­ing three short essays along with links to cor­re­spond­ing sec­tions of his book. Today, you can read his sec­ond essay “On Wikipedia, the Ency­clopédie, and the Ver­i­fi­a­bil­i­ty of Infor­ma­tion” (below), plus down­load the sec­ond chap­ter of his book here. Read his first essay, “The Mon­ster­verse” here, and pur­chase the entire book online.

When the ideas that mat­ter most to us – lib­er­als, democ­rats, pro­gres­sives, repub­li­cans, all in the orig­i­nal sense of the words – were first put for­ward in soci­ety in order to change soci­ety, they were advanced fore­most in print. The new rules, new def­i­n­i­tions, and new cod­i­cils of human and civ­il rights that under­gird many of the free­doms we val­ue today had as their heart text and its main deliv­ery mech­a­nism, the print­ing press.

In that sense the first Enlight­en­ment was based upon the foun­da­tion of the print­ed word. And of the 18th century’s con­tri­bu­tions to knowl­edge and soci­ety – Newton’s physics, Montesquieu’s laws, Linnaeus’s tax­onomies, Rousseau’s polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence, the Dec­la­ra­tion of the Rights of Man – there was per­haps no greater print­ed offer­ing than the 22-mil­lion-word Ency­clopédie that the French Enlight­en­ment philoso­phers start­ing writ­ing, com­pil­ing, and offer­ing to the pub­lic in 1750.

The Ency­clopédie was mon­u­men­tal. Not just from a con­tent-assem­bly per­spec­tive – an effort to gath­er all the world’s knowl­edge and to print and pub­lish it – but also from a sociopo­lit­i­cal one, giv­en the pow­er­ful forces sup­press­ing knowl­edge that such an effort would pro­voke. The Ency­clopédie found the state and the church ban­ning at one time or anoth­er almost every one of its 72,000 arti­cles, 18,000 pages, and 28 vol­umes and invok­ing a hun­dred ways to for­bid its dis­tri­b­u­tion.

The encyclopedia’s entire approach to col­lect­ing and pre­sent­ing knowl­edge was rad­i­cal.  The arti­cles pre­sent­ed truths – some hereti­cal, some blas­phe­mous – that aston­ished con­tem­po­rary read­ers.  And its inno­v­a­tive approach to the ver­i­fi­ca­tion its own con­tent, to prov­ing what could be proved, which was real­ly its nuclear core, rocked the West­ern world.

The Ency­clopédie smote 18th-cen­tu­ry ortho­doxy with ink-and-paper sledge­ham­mers. The arti­cle on “RAISON,” or “REASON,” for exam­ple, told every read­er who for cen­turies had been steeped in church doc­trine and the divine rights of roy­als that:

No propo­si­tion can be accept­ed as divine rev­e­la­tion if it con­tra­dicts what is known to us, either by imme­di­ate intu­ition, as in the case of self-evi­dent propo­si­tions, or by obvi­ous deduc­tions of rea­son, as in demon­stra­tions.  It would be ridicu­lous to give pref­er­ence to such rev­e­la­tions, because the evi­dence that caus­es us to adopt them can­not sur­pass the cer­tain­ty of our intu­itive or demon­stra­tive knowl­edge…

Cler­ics and kings, need­less to say, were not fans. Arti­cles on reli­gion, phi­los­o­phy, and pol­i­tics and soci­ety chal­lenged the gov­ern­ment and the church even as the cen­sors watched.  Direct swipes at the monar­chy and the church appeared even where you might not expect – in arti­cles on CONSCIENCE, LIBERTÉ DE; CROISADES; FANATISME; TOLÉRANCE; etc.  The entry for FORTUNE spot­light­ed the gross inequal­i­ties of wealth already evi­dent in 18th-cen­tu­ry Europe. And a zing­ing con­dem­na­tion of slav­ery in the arti­cle on the SLAVE TRADE made few friends among any who had a hand any­where in the busi­ness.

Slave trade is the pur­chase of Negroes made by Euro­peans on the coasts of Africa, who then employ these unfor­tu­nate men as slaves in their colonies. This pur­chase of Negroes to reduce them into slav­ery […] vio­lates all reli­gion, morals, nat­ur­al law, and human rights.

The Ency­clopédistes announced from day one that this new work would be, as we would say today, fact-based. There would be an under­ly­ing and over­ar­ch­ing com­mit­ment on the part of all con­trib­u­tors and the work as a whole to the ver­i­fi­ca­tion of all of its source mate­ri­als. Ver­i­fi­ca­tion is poten­tial­ly “a long and painful process,” Diderot wrote in his intro­duc­tion to the whole enter­prise – the famous “Pre­lim­i­nary Dis­course” that these philoso­phers used to sell in the whole project:

We have tried as much as pos­si­ble to avoid this incon­ve­nience by cit­ing direct­ly, in the body of the arti­cles, the authors on whose evi­dence we have relied and by quot­ing their own text when it is nec­es­sary.

We have every­where com­pared opin­ions, weighed rea­sons, and pro­posed means of doubt­ing or of escap­ing from doubt; at times we have even set­tled con­test­ed mat­ters.… Facts are cit­ed, exper­i­ments com­pared, and meth­ods elab­o­rat­ed … in order to excite genius to open unknown routes, and to advance onward to new dis­cov­er­ies, using the place where great men have end­ed their careers as the first step.

What this meant in prac­tice was rev­o­lu­tion­ary.  There would be no accept­ed truths but for those that could be proven and cit­ed. Fact-based ver­sus faith- and belief-based: the start and spark of the Enlight­en­ment.  One of Diderot’s biog­ra­phers explains that approx­i­mate­ly 23,000 arti­cles had at least one cross-ref­er­ence to anoth­er arti­cle in one of the encyclopedia’s 28 vol­umes. “The total num­ber of links – some arti­cles had five or six – reached almost 62,000.” And all while retain­ing a sly sense of humor.  The arti­cle on CANNIBALS end­ed with “the mis­chie­vous cross-ref­er­ence,” as anoth­er his­to­ri­an would lat­er describe it: “See Eucharist, Com­mu­nion, Altar, etc.”

That com­mit­ment to ref­er­ence cita­tion con­tin­ues in the Enlightenment’s most impor­tant suc­ces­sor project – Wikipedia, found­ed by Jim­my Wales and col­leagues 20 years ago this year. It’s the foun­da­tion of what today’s Wikipedia terms ver­i­fi­a­bil­i­ty, and in many key ways it’s the foun­da­tion for truth in knowl­edge and soci­ety today:

“Ver­i­fi­a­bil­i­ty” … mean[s] that mate­r­i­al added to Wikipedia must have been pub­lished pre­vi­ous­ly by a reli­able source. Edi­tors may not add their own views to arti­cles sim­ply because they believe them to be cor­rect, and may not remove sources’ views from arti­cles sim­ply because they dis­agree with them.

[V]erifiability is a nec­es­sary con­di­tion (a min­i­mum require­ment) for the inclu­sion of mate­r­i­al, though it is not a suf­fi­cient con­di­tion (it may not be enough).

In 1999, free-soft­ware activist Richard M. Stall­man called for this uni­ver­sal online ency­clo­pe­dia cov­er­ing all areas of knowl­edge, along with a com­plete library of instruc­tion­al cours­es – and, equal­ly impor­tant, a move­ment to devel­op it, “much as the Free Soft­ware Move­ment gave us the free oper­at­ing sys­tem GNU/Linux.”  That call (repro­duced in full as the appen­dix in my book) is cred­it­ed by Wikipedia as the ori­gins of the work that is now the largest knowl­edge resource in his­to­ry.

The free ency­clo­pe­dia will pro­vide an alter­na­tive to the restrict­ed ones that media cor­po­ra­tions will write.

Stall­man pub­lished a list of what that the ency­clo­pe­dia would need to do, what sort of free­doms it would need to give to the pub­lic, and how it could get start­ed.

An ency­clo­pe­dia locat­ed every­where.

An ency­clo­pe­dia open to anyone—but, most promis­ing­ly, to teach­ers and stu­dents.

An ency­clo­pe­dia built of small steps.

An ency­clo­pe­dia built on the long view: “If it takes twen­ty years to com­plete the free ency­clo­pe­dia, that will be but an instant in the his­to­ry of lit­er­a­ture and civ­i­liza­tion.”

An ency­clo­pe­dia con­tain­ing one or more arti­cles for any top­ic you would expect to find in anoth­er ency­clo­pe­dia – “for exam­ple, bird watch­ers might even­tu­al­ly con­tribute an arti­cle on each species of bird, along with pic­tures and record­ings of its calls” – and “cours­es for all aca­d­e­m­ic sub­jects.”

1999, and it sounds famil­iar. Wikipedia, of course, is one of the world’s most pop­u­lar web­sites (the world’s most pop­u­lar non­com­mer­cial one) now and an irre­place­able source of ver­i­fi­able infor­ma­tion – open to any and all.  Its process­es are trans­par­ent, and thanks to hack­ers affil­i­at­ed with the project, you now can watch and lis­ten to its edits live online:

Com­mu­ni­ties that work with Wikipedia are like­ly to ben­e­fit from this com­mit­ment to cita­tion, and new col­lab­o­ra­tions that take effect around it are like­ly to ben­e­fit soci­ety. The Inter­net Archive is work­ing with Wikipedia now, dig­i­tiz­ing books so that links to sources in Wikipedia link all the way through to the books them­selves – and ren­der images and text on the cit­ed pages. The ref­er­ence link to a biog­ra­phy by Tay­lor Branch at the bot­tom of a Wikipedia arti­cle on Mar­tin Luther King, Jr., for exam­ple, now hotlinks to the read­able book online at  That work is essen­tial.  “Only the use of foot­notes and the research tech­niques asso­ci­at­ed with them” – as Prince­ton his­to­ri­an Antho­ny Grafton writes – “makes it pos­si­ble to resist the efforts of mod­ern gov­ern­ments, tyran­ni­cal and demo­c­ra­t­ic alike, to con­ceal the com­pro­mis­es they have made, the deaths they have caused, the tor­tures they or their allies have inflict­ed.…  Only the use of foot­notes enables his­to­ri­ans to make their texts not mono­logues but con­ver­sa­tions, in which mod­ern schol­ars, their pre­de­ces­sors, and their sub­jects all take part.”

Can we take ver­i­fi­a­bil­i­ty fur­ther now, espe­cial­ly as our epis­temic cri­sis deep­ens?  Can we improve cita­tion for the medi­um that’s begin­ning to over­take us all, which is video?  Can we make resources on the web – also a new thing – ver­i­fi­able?  What is a cita­tion like in a … pod­cast?

The great his­to­ri­an of the Ency­clopédie, Robert Darn­ton, tells us in his new book, “When the print­ed word appeared in France in 1470, the state did not know what to make of it.”  So, 700 years from now, what will tomorrow’s his­to­ri­ans say about us?  Fur­ther thoughts about how we can start more con­scious­ly col­lab­o­rat­ing with one anoth­er and pro­duc­ing – but imme­di­ate­ly – for our bur­geon­ing knowl­edge net­works: next week.

Peter B. Kauf­man works at MIT Open Learn­ing and is the author of The New Enlight­en­ment and the Fight to Free Knowl­edge. This is the sec­ond of three arti­cles. You can find the first one in the Relat­eds below:

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The New Enlight­en­ment and the Fight to Free Knowl­edge: Part 1

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Voltaire: Enlight­en­ment Philoso­pher of Plu­ral­ism & Tol­er­ance

The Diderot Effect: Enlight­en­ment Philoso­pher Denis Diderot Explains the Psy­chol­o­gy of Con­sumerism & Our Waste­ful Spend­ing

Social Media in the Age of Enlight­en­ment and Rev­o­lu­tion

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The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge: Part 1

Edi­tor’s Note: This month, MIT Open Learning’s Peter B. Kauf­man has pub­lished The New Enlight­en­ment and the Fight to Free Knowl­edge, a book that takes a his­tor­i­cal look at the pow­er­ful forces that have pur­pose­ly crip­pled our efforts to share knowl­edge wide­ly and freely. His new work also maps out what we can do about it. In the com­ing days, Peter will be mak­ing his book avail­able through Open Cul­ture by pub­lish­ing three short essays along with links to cor­re­spond­ing sec­tions of his book. Today, you can find his short essay “The Mon­ster­verse” below, and mean­while read/download the first chap­ter of his book here. You can pur­chase the entire book online.

The Mon­ster­verse – what exact­ly is it?  Like Sauron and his min­ions from Mor­dor in The Lord of the Rings, like Sheev Pal­pa­tine and the armies of the Galac­tic empire from Star Wars, like Lord Volde­mort and his hench­men the Death Eaters in Har­ry Pot­ter, it’s the col­lec­tive force of evil, one that strives to shut down human progress, free­dom, jus­tice, the spread of knowl­edge –the dis­sem­i­na­tion of (let us just say it) open cul­ture.  It’s the sub­ject of the first chap­ter of my book, The New Enlight­en­ment and the Fight to Free Knowl­edge – and its incar­na­tions have been with us for thou­sands of years.

In 1536, which is when the book begins, it found its embod­i­ment in Jacobus Lato­mus, who over­saw the tri­al and exe­cu­tion – by stran­gling and burn­ing at the stake – of a trans­la­tor and a priest named William Tyn­dale.  Lato­mus, who him­self was over­seen by Thomas More, who him­self was over­seen by Hen­ry VIII (with Pope Clement VII in a sup­port­ing role), chore­o­graphed Tyndale’s for­mal degra­da­tion, such that a cou­ple dozen apos­tolic inquisi­tors and the­olo­gians, uni­ver­si­ty rec­tors and fac­ul­ty, lawyers and privy coun­cilors – “heresy-hunters,” as his biog­ra­ph­er calls them – led him out of his prison cell in pub­lic and in his priest­ly rai­ment to a high plat­form out­doors where oils of anoint­ment were scraped sym­bol­i­cal­ly from his hands, the bread and wine of the Eucharist sit­u­at­ed next to him and then just as quick­ly removed, and then his vest­ments “cer­e­mo­ni­al­ly stripped away,” so that he would find him­self, and all would see him as, no longer a priest.  Death came next.  This schol­ar and poly­math to whom, it is now known, we owe as much as we owe William Shake­speare for our lan­guage, this lone man sought and slain by church and king and holy Roman emper­or – his ini­tial stran­gling did not go well, so that when he was sub­se­quent­ly lit on fire, and the flames first lapped at his feet and up his legs, lashed tight to the stake, he came to, and, while burn­ing alive in front of the crowd of reli­gious lead­ers and so-called jus­tices (some sev­en­teen tri­al com­mis­sion­ers) who had so sum­mar­i­ly sent Tyn­dale to his death and gath­ered to watch it, live, he cried out, less to the crowd, it would seem, than to Anoth­er: “Lord! Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes!”

What did Tyn­dale do?  He believed that the struc­ture of com­mu­ni­ca­tion dur­ing his time was bro­ken and unfair, and with a core, unwa­ver­ing focus, he sought to make it so that the main body of knowl­edge in his day could be accessed and then shared again by every man alive. He engaged in an unpar­al­leled act of cod­ing (not for noth­ing do we speak of com­put­er pro­gram­ming “lan­guages”), work­ing through the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Ara­ma­ic of the Bible’s Old, then New, Tes­ta­ments to bring all of its good books – from Gen­e­sis 1 to Rev­e­la­tion 22—into Eng­lish for every­day read­ers. He is report­ed to have said, in response to a ques­tion from a priest who had chal­lenged his work, a priest who read the Bible only in Latin: “I will cause a boy that dri­veth the plough shall know more of the Scrip­ture than thou dost.” And he worked with the dis­tri­b­u­tion tech­nolo­gies of his time – the YouTubes, web­sites, and Twit­ters back then – by con­nect­ing per­son­al­ly with book design­ers, paper sup­pli­ers, print­ers, boat cap­tains, and horse­men across six­teenth-cen­tu­ry Europe to bring the knowl­edge and the book that con­tained it into the hands of the peo­ple.

It wasn’t easy. In Tyndale’s time, popes and kings had decreed, out of con­cern for keep­ing their pow­er, that the Bible could exist and be read and dis­trib­uted “only in the assem­bly of Latin trans­la­tions” that had been com­plet­ed by the monk Saint Jerome in approx­i­mate­ly 400 CE. The penal­ties for chal­leng­ing the law were among the most severe imag­in­able, for such vio­la­tions rep­re­sent­ed a panoply of civ­il trans­gres­sions and an entire com­plex­i­ty of here­sies. In tak­ing on the church and the king – in his effort sim­ply and sole­ly to trans­late and then dis­trib­ute the Bible in Eng­lish – Tyn­dale con­front­ed “the great­est power[s] in the West­ern world.” As he “was trans­lat­ing and print­ing his New Tes­ta­ment in Worms,” his lead­ing biog­ra­ph­er reminds us, “a young man in Nor­wich was burned alive for the crime of own­ing a piece of paper on which was writ­ten the Lord’s Prayer in Eng­lish.” The Bible had been inac­ces­si­ble in Latin for a thou­sand years, this biog­ra­ph­er writes, and “to trans­late it for the peo­ple became heresy, pun­ish­able by a soli­tary lin­ger­ing death as a heretic; or, as had hap­pened to the Cathars in south­ern France, or the Hus­sites in Bohemia and Lol­lards in Eng­land, offi­cial and bloody attempts to exter­mi­nate the species.”

Yuck­adoo, the Mon­ster­verse, but very much still with us.  The stran­gle­holds are real.  And Tyndale’s suc­ces­sors in the fight to free knowl­edge include many free­dom fight­ers and rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies – going up against the forces that seek to con­strain our growth as a soci­ety.  Were Tyn­dale alive today, he would won­der about the state of copy­right law and its over­reach; the per­va­sive estate of sur­veil­lance cap­i­tal­ism; the sweep­ing pow­ers of gov­ern­ment to see and inter­fere in our com­mu­ni­ca­tion.  And he would won­der why the seem­ing­ly pro­gres­sive forces on the side of free­dom today – uni­ver­si­ties, muse­ums, libraries, archives – don’t fight more against infor­ma­tion oppres­sion.  Tyn­dale would rec­og­nize that the health pan­dem­ic, the eco­nom­ic cri­sis, the polit­i­cal vio­lence we face today, are all the result of an infor­ma­tion dis­or­der, one that relies on squelch­ing knowl­edge and pro­mot­ing the dark­est forms of igno­rance for its suc­cess.  How we come to grips with that chal­lenge is the num­ber-one ques­tion for our time.  Dis­cov­er­ing new paths to defeat­ing it – over­com­ing the Dark Lords, destroy­ing the Hor­crux­es, final­ly har­ness­ing the Force – is the sub­ject of the next two arti­cles, and of the rest of the book.

Peter B. Kauf­man works at MIT Open Learn­ing and is the author of The New Enlight­en­ment and the Fight to Free Knowl­edge.  This is the first of three arti­cles.

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