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Writing On The Wall

Tom Standage

The Roman elite were well educated and highly literate, transport links were fast and reliable, and the ready availability of scribes and messengers (often slaves) made copying and delivering messages quick and affordable. The distinction between letter writing and conversation was blurred by dictating letters to scribes and by having letters read aloud to you while eating etc.

Messages travelling a short distance often inscribed in wax tablets mounted in light wooden frame folded over like a book. Recipient could scratch a reply into the same tablet, then all smoothed over again for reuse when read.

Nearest thing to a newspaper that Romans had was a gazette called the acta. It was a record of the proclamations of the Forum, published daily. But unusual in that only one copy published - others would copy it and distribute to their friends - all produced by hand. In his letters Cicero assumes that his friends in far-off lands will have access to them. But, infuriatingly for historians, not a single copy of an acta has survived.

The Christian Paul was the most influential letter writer of antiquity, overshadowing even Cicero. In its early years the Christian Church consisted of rival movements who disagreed over the meaning of Christ's teachings. Paul used letters to make sure his views prevailed, making sure it was open to all, not just Jews. His letters are still read out in Christian churches all over the world today.

Universities that sprang up from C12 onwards needed books to support studies. Before printing, had to have hand copies. To speed up duplication, books split into smaller sections, with each being copied and then passed on to others who would add it to their bits of the book, gradually assembling full copies much quicker than if just one full copy being made at a time - the forerunner of today's peer-to-peer network.

With the introduction of printing press, distribution of ideas became a commercial decision. Someone like Martin Luther would write a short pamphlet (anything between 4 and 32 pages) and give hand written copies to printers. Demand determined how many they would print.If it were popular enough, it would be taken to neighboring towns, where those printers would assess whether to print copies.

In the first decade of the Reformation, around 6 million pamphlets, perhaps a third of them by Luther, were printed. It wasn't one-sided - the Catholic defenders called Luther "a leper with a brain of brass and a nose of iron." The problem for the Church was that didn't want Luther's ideas to go unchallenged, but if they responded it would imply that theological ideas were up for debate, and that the public had a right to evaluate competing viewpoints and decide for themselves.

Similar to the problem companies have today - do you ignore criticisms or complaints, or do you respond and give them publicity and legitimacy?

Govts tried to make everyone get a licence for every publication, but printers simply labelled everything con licentia whether had a licence or not, or else listed it as being printed elsewhere.

John Milton wrote pamphlet arguing for legal divorce (after his wife, 17 years his younger, and whom he'd married on a whim, left him after just a few weeks). When he was accused of being a dangerous radical in favour of polygamy, he was refused a licence to publish. He responded with Areopagitica, an attack on censorship. He argued that Truth will out, but he also argued that it was silly to believe that anyone could be a censor without personal bias affecting decisions. And he pointed out that suppression attempts ineffectual, citing the example of the banned royalist newspaper being printed and sold in London every week.

Britain finally gave up licencing in 1695, almost accidentally, when parliament ran out of time when trying to renew the act, and it expired. People could print what they liked, though they still could be prosecuted for treason or defamation.

First London coffee shop 1652 was an instant success, so naturally the inn keepers got together to kick the owner out (he was Armenian servant of an English merchant). But by the end of C17 there were 550 in London alone. They often specialized, so if you wanted to know what scientists were talking about, you just had to visit the Grecian coffeehouse. This radically sped up the distribution of ideas, because all the relevant information was accessible in one place.

And they became places to do business. Jonathan's was close to the Royal Exchange, so traders kept tables there to trade stocks and information. Lloyd's coffeehouse was popular with sea captains and merchants, and the underwriters who insured their ships. In 1771 some of them established the Society of Lloyds, which survives today as the world's leading insurance market.

When the telegraph brought rapid access to information from far away, writers fretted that the speed would increase peoples' "nervousness", it would change the way peoples' brains work because they would no longer value reflection, instead skimming the news shallowly, pursuing novelty and sensations.

Television the ultimate in passive enjoyment. Only sleeping takes less effort.

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