Internet addiction is becoming a major problem in this country. Some spend more than eight hours a day online. This is dangerous, because when people spend so much time reading online publications and debating issues on newsgroups, their minds expand, making them smarter and more able to think freely.
And free thinking is what got us in the mess we are in today. Free thinking started more than 500 years ago when one man created a machine just as horrific as the Internet. His name was Gutenberg, and his invention was the printing press.
Before the advent of such an abomination, literature was for kings, scholars and priests. It was a more civil time when the people were ignorant and the aristocracy knew all. One could rule ignorant masses very effectively.
People rarely heard anything about the world outside their immediate surroundings. To them, facts weren’t found in books, but on the street and from the mouths of neighbors. Wisdom came from the clergy. The church told people what to think, and the people couldn’t really say otherwise because they were unable to look it up.
This blissful time in human history did not last, however.
Gutenberg’s invention allowed literacy to be spread to the masses. The effects were not immediately felt, but Gutenberg had set a dangerous course for human history.
Because of literacy, commoners no longer had to rely on religious officials for biblical guidance. They could read the Bible, the first book printed on Gutenberg’s machine, for themselves. They no longer had to rely on higher officials to dictate laws. People could read laws for themselves — in their own languages — that lead some to discover how unjustly they had been treated.
It was the beginning of a dark time in human history. The people read more books, and soon their heads were filled with facts and wisdom.
How ironic that a device originally seen as ideal for propaganda would be used to open people’s minds, forever dooming aristocracies everywhere. People became quickly addicted to literature. They wanted more to read, and thanks to the printing press, they could get it. Literature became a real mass media, and it created a more educated society.
Eventually, the population had read so much it was revolting. The American colonies revolted against England; the French revolted against their rulers; and other societies started taking the law from its rightful keepers all over the world. More and more, the disillusionment created by excess reading threw the world into an age where authority could do nothing without the consent of the people.
Without their overlords to stop them, the people were free to engage in as much free thinking as they pleased. They were able to handle it OK for a while, but it eventually got the best of them when some took reading too far.
Case in point: A Spaniard in the mid-19th century had read so many knights-in-shining armor books that he lost all concept of reality. He began to think he was one of those knights and dressed himself to resemble one. He then spent his time charging windmills, which he mistook for monsters.
His name was Don Quixote. He was a fictional character, but Miguel De Cervantes created him based on real people who had read so much they no longer were able to function normally in society. Because of books, some had a perfect excuse to escape from reality. They didn’t need to go out with real people when they could seclude themselves to a room for days and spend their time with fictional characters in alternate realities.
Without rulers to curb education, people were becoming smarter every year. More people could read, and more people went to school. In the 18th and 19th centuries, inventors created more than in any previous age of humanity. Out of this growth of learning came the Industrial Revolution and such modern atrocities as the automobiles, televisions, radios and, worst of all, larger, faster and more efficient printing presses, created to feed the hellfire of excess knowledge.
The printing press enhanced our ability to document history. Yet, despite our ability to record history better, we fail to learn from it, and do nothing to curb literacy, even though it has proved nothing but trouble in the past.
In fact, just the opposite has happened. The United States government actually includes education as a part of its budget. It is as if it is asking for another revolution, because the government continues to find new ways to make itself obsolete.
Today, the education problem has spread to epidemic proportions. We should all look to states like North Dakota, which devalue education by paying their teachers some of the lowest salaries in the country. That is a model for success an educational-intensive state like Minnesota should follow.
In the mid-1970s, the U.S. Department of Defense, in an attempt to create an indestructible network of information, inadvertently created what we know today as the Internet.
Like the printing press, the Internet made available to the people information that only the elite used to have. In keeping with the tradition that Gutenberg started, we’ve once again opened the flood gates of public information.
“History bears witness to the cataclysmic effect on society of inventions of new media for the transmission of information among persons,” according to historian Elizabeth Eisenstein, author of “The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.”
Authority will continue to lose power, and the world will fall further into the hands of the masses. Then, people will be freer to indulge themselves in fantasy worlds.
Like Don Quixote, we will lose all distinction between reality and fantasy, the price we pay for not leaving such decisions to a higher power.
So, if you love authority and hierarchical power systems, don’t just burn books — burn the Internet. Hit it with rocks and sticks if you have to. It must be stopped.
Chris Druckenmiller’s column appears every Tuesday in the Daily.