Fake news, late medieval style

Many pages, blogs and articles are being written about social media and the proliferation of fake news, conspiracy theories, and general misinformation. It seems that this is nothing new.

Demonstration of Gutenberg Press by Peter Small. Photo:vlasta2 – Flickr: PrintMus 038, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16412858

When printing became common – between about 1450 and 1500, i.e. over a short period, similar to the time it has taken the Internet to revolutionize the way information is disseminated – almost two centuries of confusion, fake news and conspiracy theories followed. Elizabeth Eisenstein, in her fascinating book ‘The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe’, (1983/2009) makes this clear.

For instance, in a passage discussing how printing allowed scientific and technological techniques and knowledge to be more widely disseminated, she writes:

“…when “technology went to press” so too did a vast backlog of occult practices and formulas, and few readers were able to discriminate between the two. For at least a century and a half confusion persisted. Publications dealing with unseen natural forces wandered all over the map and into the spirit world as well. What later came to be described as a “natural history of nonsense” was greatly enriched. The same publicity system that enabled instrument makers to advertise their wares and contribute to public knowledge also encouraged an output of more sensational claims. Discoveries of philosphers’ stones, the key to all knowledge, the cures to all ills were proclaimed by self-taught and self-professed miracle workers who often proved more adept at press agentry than at any of the older arts.” (pp157-158)

This is probably the best book on communication technologies, and on their social impact, I have read. It gives ample food for thought about the current confusion surrounding information, disinformation, communication, connectedness, fake news, social isolation, concern over lost skills, addiction to new technologies …. all with a good 500 years of hindsight!

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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