Thursday, October 24, 2013

It's 1517 All Over Again

I have the Protestant Reformation on the brain--yes, that Reformation centuries ago that started with Martin Luther nailing his theses on the Wittenberg door in 1517.   I'm a Lutheran, after all, and Reformation Sunday is this Sunday.  But this year, I'm thinking about the Reformation and how it was made possible with the help of technology.  It's a fact that's often overlooked.

Maybe I'm thinking about that because I've been thinking so much about technology in the past few weeks, indeed years.  I wrote an e-mail to a librarian friend of mine who is the online librarian for what used to be our local community college before it expanded.  An online librarian!  That's a job that didn't exist 20 years ago. 

I signed off by writing "See you in cyberspace!"  And then I wondered if anyone uses the term "cyberspace" anymore.  As a sci-fi geek-lite kind of gal, in a long ago incarnation, I was often one of few people who understood that term, who could even begin to comprehend the ways that an Internet might change our lives.

Back then, I didn't think that whole industries would be wiped out.  With the optimism of the young, I assumed we'd just add new elements to our societies.  We'd work more efficiently, to be sure, but we'd work.  We wouldn't be giving over jobs to robots or lesser forms of mechanization.

You'd think an apocalypse gal like me might have considered these things.

I've been talking about online education with a variety of people.  Yesterday, when I described an online class to my friend who's not in education, but who is a bit of a computer geek himself, he said, with quite a lot of disbelief, "You mean, it's like a giant chatroom?"

I could hear him wanting to say, "That's so 1990's."  He'd be right.  I imagine that within 10 years, we'll be amazed at what is possible.

Or maybe we'll keep using old technology.  There's something to be said for maximizing old technology, which is familiar to more people.  I thought of this element all day yesterday, after hearing this NPR Marketplace interview with LeVar Burton.  He talked about his show Reading Rainbow and using an old technology, television, to fortify an even older technology, books. 

That brings me back to the Reformation.  Very few people understand how the invention of the printing press made the Protestant Reformation possible.  We have this vision of Martin Luther nailing a handmade document to the Wittenberg door.  We don't think of the mighty Reformation as being powered by the lowly pamphlet.  But it's a legitimate interpretation. 

The printing press is the main reason why the Catholic church couldn't contain Luther's dangerous ideas (a great book, by the way:  Alister McGrath's Christianity's Dangerous Idea).  Those darned pamphlets just kept popping up everywhere.  In a way, Luther was an early incarnation of a blogger:  someone who knows how to use technology to get his ideas more widely distributed.

If he had stopped there, the world might not have been transformed so completely.  But then Luther translated the Bible into German, which meant more people could read and interpret for themselves.  And then more people wanted to learn to read, so that they could read the Bible.  Those events have a direct link to the world we know today.

We see the same kinds of things happening today.  Cheaper technology means that more people can learn, not just in our country, but across the world.  And I predict that those of us who once had first world power will not recognize the world that's coming at us.

Yes, in my metaphor, I'm the Catholic priest, much as I'd like to be the upstart Martin Luther.  I'm the one who's seeing the old world sliding right out from under me. 

To paraphrase T. S. Eliot's Prufrock, "I am no early adapter, nor was meant to be."

It's 1517 all over again.  That idea both excites me and terrifies me.  The Protestant Reformation did not spark a time of peace and prosperity, after all.  Massive numbers of people died in the following centuries as people fought about these ideas.

We may not unleash literal war, although I don't discount that possibility.  Perhaps we will look back and say, "Ah, 2013, when we thought the decimation of the middle class was the worst we had to face."  

We have unleashed all sorts of forces that we can no longer control.  And indeed, maybe the idea that we were in control was a massive illusion.

Still, I feel hopeful.  For all the negative developments, I'd still rather live in a post-Reformation world than the world that gave birth to Martin Luther.  I'd still rather live in a world of technological possibilities than one where the computers were massive and expensive and only available to the very few.

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