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Chapter 4. The New Network

Video lies at the heart of the modern Enlightenment, now a new Republic of Images.

Published onFeb 23, 2021
Chapter 4. The New Network

Indeed, when we look at the original Enlightenment, it is the printers and their books and their pamphlets and broadsides, and the ideas they brought forth in them, that formed the networks—communication networks, social networks—of the time.1 Modern historians—and it is spellbinding to consider how historians will look back at us, a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years from now—speak explicitly about our “networks of enlightenment” and “republics of letters” across Europe, Asia, and the rest of the world, and the forces of state and corporate censorship arrayed against them. The data on the European readers of early modernity, book- and print buyers, printers, and distributors—is now only beginning to emerge as a field of proper study. Who had access to printing licenses then? Access to the means of production? Who had a hand in the distribution of publications, and thus the diffusion of ideas? Some have begun to map out the “six degrees of Francis Bacon” connecting all the freethinkers across the said “republic.”2 And where did the money come from? As to the contributors to the great Enlightenment encyclopedia project, ultimately the writers—which is to say the writers only, not including here printing-shop workers, people who milled the trees and made the paper, horsemen with their wagonloads of literature and boat captains who brought packages of books through the oceans, seas, rivers, canals—would number about three hundred.3 Their overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly elite composition has suggested to some modern historians that these networks had a stake in propping up the existing statist order, and vice versa—a system that, based on the rich, landed, European noble, would come crashing down doubly hard in a new and revolutionary age of democratic politics that would follow.4 And the philosophers behind them perhaps were no different.

Despite the leveling tendency inherent in their faith in reason, they aimed to take over the commanding heights of culture and to enlighten from above. This strategy led them to concentrate on the conquest of salons and academies, journals and theaters, Masonic lodges and key cafes, where they could win the rich and powerful to their cause and even gain access, by back doors and boudoirs, to the throne.5

The battleground of ideas of the original Enlightenment—perhaps, the “Enwhitenment”—was the battleground of text, of words, of print—paper and ink being the weapons of choice. Today we need to study a new kind of network—really the network of networks, of television networks, of online communities, of social networks. The battleground of and for the twenty-first century is the battleground of another kind of rectangle: not the book, the journal, the pamphlet, or the newspaper, but the rectangle of the screen. Indeed, today, when we interrogate our moment and attempt to understand its true potential, the first aspect to remark upon is that transformational power today will rely, first and foremost, on video culture. Look at YouTube, for one example. Five billion videos watched each day. Two billion active monthly users. Thirty million active daily users. Five hundred million views per day on mobile platforms. Fifty million users have created content they have shared. In an average minute in 2019, we uploaded to our network some three hundred hours’ worth of video—five hours of video per second. It still skews male, this audience, but it’s global—80 percent of users are outside of the United States, and this platform, a vast archive of video, open to anyone, anytime, anywhere, operates in eighty-eight countries and in seventy-eight languages. And that’s just YouTube.6

Screen culture more generally is linking many of us to one another in a broader network. Wikipedia provides usage statistics about itself that (not incidentally, as we’ll see) are much more transparent than YouTube’s. English Wikipedia has 35.8 million users (those who have registered a user name), 141,000 of whom are classed as active users (those who have edited the encyclopedia in the past thirty days); under the eye of 1,184 administrators, some 572 new articles go up each day. Edits—the favorite measure of this collective publishing operation—concatenate today at 1.8 per second.7 Wikipedia’s editors are now spread out around the world and multilingual, but also are still overwhelmingly male, and probably white.8 All of Wikipedia’s edits can be seen (and heard!) live on Hatnote, a website developed by two free-culture activists that is replete with celestas and clavichords, violins, and more, all to help us hear and visualize the encyclopedia’s text being written and edited, in real time.9

Hatnote. Listen to Wikipedia, at: http://listen.hatnote.com/.

The world of knowledge is in many ways morphing toward a screen world—and it may be that this, more than any other single thing, is facilitating what we can now call our “new Enlightenment.”10 Picture an airplane flight across an ocean at night: As the sky darkens, dinner is served, and then the most noticeable thing about the plane is that almost everyone is sitting lit by the video screens in front of them. One or two out of every ten people may be reading—whether on a tablet or from a printed book—but the rest are watching. In many ways we are all the passengers on this plane, relying no longer on speech or the printed page but on the screen and its moving images for much of the information we receive about our world.11 Video is the key to that 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—which, yes, sometimes overreaches—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. Sometime during the early life of this book, 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.12 Video.

Video!

Video!

It’s 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.13

Video. Its primacy has deep roots as well. In contrast to what we might believe, which is to say, that society and its rules are based upon what seems to be the primacy of print, our lives as humans have featured a visual and sound culture—with pictures and sounds, as opposed to written words and texts—for much longer than they have a textual one. For most of our time on the planet we have been an aural people, an oral culture. We began that way. “Homo sapiens,” as the teacher, priest, and scholar Walter J. Ong has written, “has been in existence for between 30,000 and 50,000 years. The earliest script dates from only 6,000 years ago.” For most of the years in between, it was sound and picture that we used to communicate. And as Ong reminds us, “Written texts all have to be related somehow, directly or indirectly, to the world of sound, the natural habitat of language, to yield their meanings. ‘Reading’ a text means converting it to sound, aloud or in the imagination. . . . Writing can never dispense with orality.”14 Likewise, MIT linguistics professor emeritus Shigeru Miyagawa and his colleagues have suggested that the cave paintings of early modern man were situated where they were—deep within the caves—not for protection from enemies or as the best place for a fire but because the auditory properties of these spots would facilitate the proper echoes and volume necessary for performance storytelling about the animals drawn on the wall. Sound and picture in the Pleistocene—the movie.15

In many ways we are now returning to this world of a sound-and-picture audience, after a detour among the letters. And who controls our access to these screens? Google once declared, during its march to digitize them all, that we in the world had published 129,864,880 books—identifying, in essence, the world’s print archive that had at one time or another been manufactured as codices.16 What is the equivalent tally for what’s in the world’s moving image and sound libraries? In 2010, UNESCO estimated world audiovisual holdings at a lofty 200 million hours. The sources for that number always seemed somewhat unclear, and by now of course the total is completely out of date.17 Although there have been some attempts at surveys, no one really knows.18 And who controls our access to the libraries of content developed and produced and archived over the last hundred-plus years? Who controls—or tries to control—our search across these screens and servers for the moving pictures and sounds we are looking for? Some answers, in our new Republic of Images, are all too familiar already.



Far from the caves of Lascaux, from the renderings on stone of animals in flight, we are all witness now to sustained, systematic attacks against fact—against traditional sources of knowledge, evidence, and truth. There is a strong sense that we are in what one set of scholars calls an “epistemic crisis.”19 Our media and information ecosystem—television, radio, the Internet—is now flooded, often purposefully, with falsehoods, bad information, and errors.20 The RAND Corporation has given a name to this phenomenon, one marked by “increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data; a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; the increasing relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact; [and] declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information”; they call it “truth decay.”21 And the crisis presents open dangers. “The violation and despoiling of truth,” writes one expert—alongside cynicism, weariness, and fear—can “make people susceptible to the lies and false promises of leaders bent on unconditional power.” And as Hannah Arendt reminded us, when she explored the depravity of the twentieth-century Monsterverse, the “ideal subject of totalitarian rule . . . is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., standards of thought) no longer exist.”22

The current moment is marked also by a general assault on expertise—including most especially the kind of leadership proofs that universities exist to generate, espouse, disseminate, and preserve. The denial of science, the denial of basic evidence, has been called “depraved” and even criminal, given how it affects the climate and the world economy and society.23 Massive, sustained, and systematic efforts are under way now at all levels of society to discredit experts and professionals, and especially the media and institutions of higher education.24

At the same time, consolidation of and control over the publishing of facts and data that come from the knowledge industry—universities, libraries, museums, archives—is tightening into oligopolies.25 As historian, philanthropist, and open access advocate Peter Baldwin tells us, more than half of “all natural science and medical research is now published by the largest five academic publishing houses: Reed-Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, Taylor & Francis, and, depending on the metric, either the American Chemical Society or Sage Publishing. The social sciences are even worse off. In 1973, one in ten articles were published by the big five, now it is more than half. 71% of all psychology papers are published by them.”26 When publishing houses in the knowledge business can clear $270 million in profit in a single year—as Wiley did in 2017—do we think universities and scholars and libraries and audiences are being fundamentally well served?27 The situation is akin to the movie business, where the so-called “Big Six” studios—20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Universal Pictures, and Walt Disney Studios—collectively command approximately 80 to 85 percent of U.S. and Canadian box office revenue.28 Or akin to the music business, where there is an equally powerful force gathered, recently around six music companies, then (after some consolidation) five, then four, now—Warner Music Group, Universal Music Group, Sony Corporation—three.29 The trade book publishing economy has its Big Five as well: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Holtzbrinck. In each of these knowledge industries, as the core group shrinks from six to five, and from five to fewer, you wind up heading toward the models of knowledge industries in other countries, like those in the previous chapter, that imposed totalitarian models of thought control—and whose regimes were defeated in part by the purposeful spread of, and never-slaking thirst for, information worldwide.30

Where we could have a robust alternative to these tightening grips on the throat of our discourse, we just don’t. Public and nonprofit media’s role in our domestic media and communications landscape is not what it could be or should be—or what it was; as we explore further on, it has changed mightily since receiving its original mandate, as has the media ecosystem in which it operates.31 Today, public broadcasting is really but an ember of its former blaze—its original intent almost burnt out; its reformist hopes flickering; its content, occasional glow notwithstanding, all but irrelevant in a communications landscape where the public pays more attention to everything else. Financial challenges are affecting the viability of publishing companies and the ability of many to report as they once did, and also to edit and fact-check—commercial news organizations and information providers are now part of the tottering precariat.32 We rely on ad-supported, far-from-value-neutral search engines for most information classification and retrieval. The public today is “increasingly reliant on search engines for getting information, instead of libraries, librarians, teachers, researchers, and other knowledge keepers and resources”—and the consequences of depending on “algorithms (such as those that power search and recommendation engines) may include deeper social inequality.”33 These search engines—and the main and most powerful sources of our news, information, sound, and moving images now—are commercially owned and driven. “Is it a problem,” one author asks, “that our mental representation of the world is the product of a for-profit entertainment industry?” His immediate answer: yes.34

There is, at bottom, a fresh culture of division and violence and disrespect in our modern discourse—in the media, and online in particular. Although the Trump administration has not, per se, been a singular focus of this work, the stink was remarkably strong at the head. Many commentators would agree that, as one distinguished journalist has put it, “no modern president has adopted and weaponized such malevolent rhetoric as a lingua franca.”35

Weaponized malevolence: violence is in the air; the same bloodlusts we saw centuries ago, in Tyndale’s time, and maybe even in the cave. And it isn’t so much that they have returned as that they never went away.


We are only beginning now to step up. Catalyzing alternatives is, in large part, the urgent purpose of this book. As this current crisis is exacerbated, the need for collective action becomes more and more evident to all who consider themselves stakeholders, however modestly, in the Enlightenment project of liberty, equality, fraternity—and peace. Some progressive government officials and public initiatives are addressing the problem and uniting in recognition of the dangers.36 Media professionals are uniting and calling for change, with additional proposals for new models and new movements.124 Technology gurus—MIT’s Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the Internet (if there is one such person) among them—are uniting as well.125 But sweeping new visions for action, and collective action at that, will need to be summoned by universities and across the horizon of all knowledge institutions—museums, libraries, public broadcasters, archives—involving any and every organization with a mission or mandate to educate.

The good news is that the impact extension and brand extension opportunities online for us as educators and publishers now are almost limitless. And the public—in the United States and worldwide—is often broadly and deeply invested in the ways our media is published and regulated, and in the impact of current, poorly fashioned controls over that media upon society.126 Coming at us orthogonally, perhaps, is yet another pressure: Sci-Hub, Library Genesis (Libgen), and ResearchGate—global pirate hubs—are providing access to knowledge in new ways, via curating risk takers who operate outside currently legal and normative bounds. As scholars have dared to report, “as of March 2017, Sci-Hub’s database contains 68.9% of the 81.6 million scholarly articles registered with Crossref and 85.1% of articles published in toll access journals.” In other words, most recently published scholarly research is now available online for free.127

The numbers do not lie. There are billions of Internet users—18 billion Wikipedia page views per month; 2.32 billion people active on Facebook—and we are networked.128 What is our duty in this age—the digital age, the age of Facebook, Trump, post-truth, and truth decay—to share knowledge with the world? Preparing answers for these questions, engaging in meaningful discussion and debate, seeing the world we’ve inherited through fresh eyes—in such ways can we understand best how we ourselves are positioned for this new Enlightenment. Struggle will be necessary. No outcome is assured or predestined.

The future is something we each can affect. I am not a religious man, not yet anyway, but almost any fool can see how powerful a force the Bible has been (and not the Bible alone, but the Koran and various holy scriptures and texts) throughout the world. Any fool with eyes to see can appreciate the power of grand cathedrals or great art. Of hearing great music. Of reading literature from Milton and Dostoevsky to Faulkner and Morrison and beyond.

Yet “we must remember,” as Bible historians tell us, “when we hold a modern English Bible in our hands that the English Bible was made in blood.”129

It may be, as a man once said, that all property is theft, and maybe all knowledge is spread in blood. Blood—and fire.

And from fire, light.

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