Short history of the digital communication trap

Originally posted on commonworks

The invention of internet has been compared with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, turning the world upside down. But this comparison doesn’t take account of the context. The social economic context is an issue of main importance and influence. Internet’s unholy marriage to Capitalism in the nineties was a decisive turning point and it still shapes the internet today. Companies like Google, Facebook and Apple are bigger then some small states. The rate and degree of monopolization in this area is exceptional. Those who expected that internet would become a forum for democracy underestimated the resilience of the capitalist system. Today social bots mislead millions of people, political propaganda uses micro targeting to win elections. When leaving communication to machines we might completely loose all empathy, though empathy is one of the most important capacities that made humanity.

Un-inventing the printing press

Printing co-evolved on different places at different times. Woodblock printing originated in China 220 yrs before Christ. The world’s first movable type printing press technology was also developed in China by the Han Chinese printer Bi Sheng between the years 1041 and 1048. Though it didn’t become common as block printing did.

One wonders why the Chinese movable type printing press was not spread in China while it did in Europe. An explanation often offered is the large number of Chinese characters. But this is only half of the story. In the middle ages and before, the art of writing was practised by a class of clerks not being eager to render their knowledge and privileges. In fact also in Europe written language was mainly done in abbeys by monks [1] copying texts. But, the inventor of the printing press Johannes Gutenberg was not a monk, he was a craftsman. Having worked as a professional goldsmith, Gutenberg made skilful use of his knowledge of metals.

Guild signs of city of Ghent, Belgium

Guild signs of craftsmen in city of Ghent, Belgium

His invention of the printing press in 1450 was in fact not a real invention, it was based on existing techniques, he only used better equipment. Moreover the fast spreading of Gutenberg’s printing press is owed to the given social economic situation when he constructed his first press. Two social phenomena coincided: the presence of institutions, namely the guilds, able to innovate existing printing techniques and the presence of merchant guilds having interest in printed material, taking care of the needed funding.

After Gutenbergs’ invention printing spread rapidly from Germany by emigrating German printers, but also by foreign apprentices returning home. A printing press was built in Venice in 1469, and by 1500 the city had 417 printers. In 1470 Johann Heynlin set up a printing press in Paris. In 1473 Kasper Straube published the Almanach cracoviense ad annum 1474 in Kraków. Dirk Martens set up a printing press in Aalst (Flanders) in 1473. He printed a book about the two lovers of Enea Piccolomini who became Pope Pius II.

In 1476 a printing press was set up in England by William Caxton. Belarusian Francysk Skaryna printed the first book in Slavic language on August 6, 1517. The Italian Juan Pablos set up an imported press in Mexico City in 1539. The first printing press in Southeast Asia was set up in the Philippines by the Spanish in 1593. The Rev. Jose Glover intended to bring the first printing press to England’s American colonies in 1638, but died on the voyage, so his widow, Elizabeth Harris Glover, established the printing house, which was run by Stephen Day and became The Cambridge Press.

In Europe craftsmen and merchants were organised in guilds. The development of merchant guilds and craft guilds was at his very top around the time Gutenberg started to print books. Craftsmen, being members of a guild were free men, able to travel when and where they wanted. Thanks to the widespread influence of the guilds in the cities the printing press had a quick launch and did spread very fast because craftsmen had plenty of contacts with merchants, that had piled up enough capital to order books.

“In the Low Countries, particularly Flanders, guilds reached the apex of their political power in the decades after 1300, or, to be more precise, in 1302, when they were the main organizational units of the famous Battle of the Spurs, when the Flemish citizenry – with a glorious role granted to the weavers’ guild – defeated the French nobility.” (Tine De Moor, 2008)

Much of the innovations before the Industrial Revolution were fostered by the craft guilds that formed the backbone of industrial production before the rise of the steam engine. (Avner Greif, 2006; Maarten Prak, 2006).

Like the commons, guilds sought to solve problems with population growth, resource scarcity and market deployment. Essential features of this movement were collective action, institutionalisation and self-governance. Guilds had nothing to do with exploiting and sustaining common lands but with ensuring a sustainable income, though they were organised along the same lines. Both for guilds as for commons, collective action was beneficial for all participants since it offered risk avoidance and sharing, it had advantages of scale and it reduced transaction costs (Tine De Moor, 2008, p. 207-210).

Collective action, institutionalisation and self-governance can also be found in the cooperatives that sought protection against capitalistic exploitation in the 19th and 20th century and in actual collaborative initiatives that arise where the welfare state fails. While the motors and conditions for collective action today may differ, the reasons why they emerge and the dynamics of their survival can be translated as the perception of a win-win situation, a sustained choice for collective instead of individual action and sustainable group dynamics.

After the first wave of expansion of the printing press, repression hit the road. Christophe Plantin (about 1520 – 1589), a bookbinder fled from Paris to Antwerp. In Paris at least one printer had been burned at the stake for heresy. In Antwerp he bound books, became a citizen, and by 1555 began to print books. But in 1562 he was suspected of heresy and he had to escape again, back  to France now for two years.

Antwerp was already an established centre of printing woodcuts, engravings and books. Plantin took on an assistant, Jan Moretus, who became Plantin’s business manager. For over two hundred years the Plantin press had a monopoly, granted by the papacy, for the printing of liturgical formularies, including in Spain (World Digital Library, 2014). That way the catholic church contributed to the establishment of a large capitalist company through a local monopoly. One line of the later development of printing was controlled by the Catholic church, but there were also plenty of other lines.

The process of publishing gently started to escape the control of the ruling catholic elites and several periods of people’s rebellion followed by people’s suppression succeeded one another. This period is known as Reformation and Counter Reformation. It took still more than 300 years before freedom of press was finally but temporarily attained in 1789 in France. It didn’t last five years. The French revolution was followed by the introduction of the guillotine to decapitate fellow revolutionaries from June 1793 to the end of July 1794. The death toll ranged in the tens of thousands. Revolutions are not made by the technology but by people using technology. Still today freedom of the press is an issue worldwide, 69 journalists were killed in 2014 and 221 were jailedHumans are capable of great achievements when cooperating but also of monstrous crimes against humanity when competing for power. The war of all against all, “bellum omni contra omnes”, can be exhausting and detrimental.

Though cooperation is an economic necessity. Cooperative banks have proven to be most resilient during the financial and economic crisis and the resulting recession when investor-owned banks had to be bailed out by governments (Birchall and Hammond Kettilson, 2009)

Not a given technology shapes society, it’s the use made of that technology by people and the way they are organised that is determining our lives. The technology-centric view claiming the invention of the printing press and internet to be a revolution is a hollow phrase. It has only meaning in a figurative speech.

Political economy of internet

In the early nineties, the internet was announced as a revolution having a bright future. There was going to be a worldwide two-way flow, or multi-flow, a democratization of communication unthinkable before then. Corporations could no longer fool consumers; governments could no longer operate in secrecy; students from the poorest and most remote areas would have access to educational resources once restricted to the elite. In short, people would have unprecedented tools and power.

For the first time in human history, there would not only be information equality and uninhibited instant communication access between all people everywhere, but there would also be access to a treasure trove of uncensored knowledge that only years earlier would have been unthinkable, even for the world’s most powerful ruler or richest billionaire. Inequality and exploitation were soon to be dealt their mightiest blow. But the internet has failed to deliver on much of the promise that was once seen as implicit in its technology. The reason is simple:

“technologies do not ride roughshod over history, regardless of their immense powers. They are developed in a social, political, and economic context. And this has strongly conditioned the course and shape of the communication revolution.” (John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, 2011).

Sascha Meinrath, a leading policy expert, quoted by Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, estimated that the US federal investment for the development of Internet was at least ten times greater than the cost of the Manhattan Project, allowing for inflation. As to Mariana Mazzucato radical innovation almost always comes from the government. Take the iPhone, the symbol of technological progress in our time. Absolutely every piece of technology that makes the iPhone a smartphone instead of a stupid phone (internet, gps, touch screen, battery, hard drive, voice recognition system) was developed by researchers on the payroll of the government (Mariana Mazucato, 2011).

The picture is clear so far, innovation is funded by governments and afterwards exploited by Capital. Tax payers fund the risky long-term research, while the venture capitalist do not take a risk for longer than a year. They only jump on the train when the station is in sight. It is a variation on the theme of the “to big to fail ” banks. The main theme is: “Those who take the risks are not the ones who bear the risks”.

But it doesn’t end there. As to a crowd-funded research done by the investigative journalist Nafeez Ahmed the collusion between the US government and Google is ubiquitous. It started by funding the research of Sergey Brin one of the founders of Google, when he was only a student at Harvard and it goes on today with Google’s supporting software development for the NSA. The vehicle of this collusion is the ‘Highlands Forum’:

“In 1999, the CIA created its own venture capital investment firm, In-Q-Tel, to fund promising start-ups that might create technologies useful for intelligence agencies. But the inspiration for In-Q-Tel came earlier, when the Pentagon set up its own private sector outfit. Known as the ‘Highlands Forum,’ this private network has operated as a bridge between the Pentagon and powerful American elites outside the military since the mid-1990s. Despite changes in civilian administrations, the network around the Highlands Forum has become increasingly successful in dominating US defense policy.” (Nafeez Ahmed, 2015)

What people do not realise is that internet is controlled by state US capitalism. This is a complete different picture of what happened when the printing press was invented by Gutenberg.

A slide from Richard O’Neill’s presentation at Harvard University in 200. Richard O’Neill started as a US Navy cryptologist and is an insider of the forum.

A slide from Richard O’Neill’s presentation at Harvard University in 2001. Richard O’Neill started as a US Navy cryptologist and is an insider of the forum.

Another issue is that some of the companies like Google, Facebook and Apple are bigger then some small states. The rate and degree of monopolization in this area is exceptional. These companies have grown much bigger and faster than their predecessors. It took a lot longer for oligopolies to emerge in the auto-mobile or aircraft industries. Google only started in 1996. The reason can be found in the network-effect. The more people are on Facebook, the more valuable it becomes, and it doesn’t really make sense to have five competing social networks with twenty million people on each; you want all of them on one platform.

It’s the same for search engines: the more people are using Google, the better it becomes, because every search is in some sense a tinkering and improvement in the service. So Google’s expansion into other domains has been very fast. Right now they do robots, self-driving cars, health. Google and Facebook are even trying to bring connectivity to Africa and Asia. For them it’s important to get everyone in the developing countries online, because that’s the next few billion eyeballs to be converted into advertising money.

The social economic context is an issue of main importance and influence. Internet’s unholy marriage to Capitalism in the nineties was a dicisive  turning point and it still shapes the internet today.

A Digital Library or a Garbage Collector?

Computer scientists Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau proposed in 1990 to use hypertext “to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes”. Their HTTP-protocol originally was meant to improve communication within the European Organization for Nuclear Research known as CERN. But soon it replaced the text only Gopher-protocol used before.

The origin of information stored in Gopher was obvious and unequivocal, but it had no support for multimedia. On the Web the origin of information is much less obvious but it allows spectacular images and videos. Soon the Web did not only escape the academic milieu where it was created, it became a huge dumpster collecting porn, advertising, propaganda with little room left for scientific information.

References and sources lack most of the time online. Though there are plenty of links in texts, it is seldom clear if they are meant as a reference or as promo, they can link to anything, where you find more links to anything. Clicking a link may also mean that you participate in the marketing business of an advertiser. Pay per click is an internet advertising model used to direct traffic to websites, in which advertisers pay the publisher when the ad is clicked. As to the Wikipedia the “click-through rate” is a way of measuring the success of an online advertising campaign for a particular website. While in printed press adds were separated from the content, online promo and content are interwoven.

Web content is no longer evaluated by editors, nor academic staff. Often the publisher remains anonymous and hidden. Most of the time the publisher is not accountable and illegal content forbidden in one country is easily migrated to another country (Ejvind Hansen, 2012).

The hidden persuaders are more than ever invisible

Internet as an information resource is a myth to boost reliability. As to Google’s PageRank algorithm the truth depends on the number of links a page has to it. But this is a self-reinforcing mechanism subject to power-law. Power law is a property of a network characterised of few very dominant nodes and a queue of many “minor” nodes regardless of the network scale (Réka, Hawoong, & Barabási, 1999; Mathew Hindman, 2009). Wikipedia, for example, has around 80,000 active contributors against a monthly user base (based on Wikimedia Report Card January 2015) of around 450 million, meaning that the ratio of highly active to passive is a lot less than 1%.


Those who expected that internet would become a forum for democracy underestimated the resilience of the capitalist system. Governments very quickly began deploying tools, techniques and strategies in the new media space that were much smarter than media activists had anticipated—not only stepping up surveillance, but creating their own propaganda by hiring bloggers, manipulating online conversations, carrying out denial-of-service attacks on websites. The cyber-industrial complex is all around.

Meanwhile internet users are more isolated than ever before (Sherry Turkle). Since publishing on the web is drown in an avalanche of publications a guerilla war in order to attract attention was launched in the mid nineties. The fifteen minutes of fame have become 15 seconds. This relentless fight lurks after every corner of the web annoying everyone.

SPAM is invading our mailboxes. Kaspersky Lab exposed on February 16, 2015 a massive bank attack due phishing bank employees. A $1bn hack heist. The consequences of ‘anonymity’ are poorly understood. Most internet users are not aware about the fact that ‘click farms‘ andsocialbotsare used for deception.

A ‘socialbot’ is a software program that simulates human behaviour in automated interactions on social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Look at a site like ‘Best Social Bots‘ where they are for sale. They promise 1000 FB friends for 30$. To increase FB shares costs 23 $.

Automated Propaganda

As to MIT Technology Review (May 30, 2014) most ‘socialbots’ are created for a specific purpose, such as marketing, political campaigning or public relations. Researchers from the Federal University of Ouro Preto in Brazil created a ‘socialbot’ they called Carina Santos for a journalistic Twitter account. By the time the researchers revealed that the popular account was a ‘socialbot’, the faux journalist outranked Oprah Winfrey on Twitalyzer, an influence-rating website. Eagle Gamma revealed:

“A team of computer researchers at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of British Columbia has found that hordes of social bots could not only spell disaster for large online destinations like Facebook and Twitter but also threaten the very fabric of the Web and even have implications for our broader economy and society.”

The capacity of ‘socialbots’ to wield influence could enable them to sway voters, mount political attacks or overwhelm dissent to sustain any autocratic regime. ‘Socialbots’ can also be a serious security risk. In 2011, for example, a ‘socialbot’ network stole gigabytes of user data from Facebook. Though the ‘socialbots’ are not completely automatic:

“Researcher Ildar Muslukhov notes that the UBC team had to solve many CAPTCHAs, those alphanumeric visual tests of humanness. Optical character recognition products failed frequently, getting the bot accounts blocked, so the researchers turned to human-powered services. “You can buy 1,000 CAPTCHAs for $1. It’s people who are working in very poor countries, and they’re making $1 a day.” CAPTCHA companies coordinate the human responders and automate the service.”

These ‘socialbots’ are programmed and hired by real people wanting to manipulate other people. These practices undermine people’s trust in one another. They will create suspiciousness and fear. They are the consequence of the economical dynamic of a system based on deception, greed and exploitation. They are the product of human design, they are not the result of biologic evolution. Biologic evolution resulted in a unique human feature, bodily speech engendering empathy.

When leaving communication to machines we might completely loose all empathy, though I think empathy is one of the most important capacities that made humanity.

References and used sources

Bellamy Foster, John and Robert W. McChesney (2011), “The Internet’s Unholy Marriage to Capitalism”, Montly Review, 2011, Volume 62, Issue 10 (March) retrieved at on 10/02/2015

Birchall, J. and Hammond Kettilson, L., (2009), Resilience of the cooperative business model in times of crises. S.l.: International Labour Organization, retrieved at on 10/022015

De Moor, Tine (2008), “The Silent Revolution: A New Perspective on the Emergence of Commons, Guilds, and Other Forms of Corporate Collective Action in Western Europe”, IRSH 53 (2008), Supplement, pp. 179–212 retrieved at on 10/02/2015

Covello, Stephen (2010), “A Review of Digital Literacy Assessment Instruments”, Syracuse University, School of Education/IDD & E, IDE-712 Front-End Analysis Research, retrieved at on 25/02/2015

Goerner, Sally J, Bernard Lietaer, Robert E. Ulanowicz (2009), “Quantifying economic sustainability: Implications for free-enterprise theory, policy and practice”, Ecological Economics 69 (2009) 76–81, retrieved at on 19/09/2014

Greif, Avner, (2006), “Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons From Medieval Trade”, Cambridge University Press, 2006

Grice, Paul (1975), “Logic and conversation”, reprinted from Syntax and semantics 3: Speech arts, Cole et al., p. 41-58, retrieved at on 20/02/2015

Hansen, Ejvind, 2012, Freedom of Expression in Distributed Networks, in tripleC 10(2): 741-751, 2012, retrieved at on 19/09/2014

Hargittai, Eszter, Fullerton, Lindsay, Menchen-Trevino, Ericka, en Yates Thomas, Kristin (2010), “Trust Online: Young Adults” Evaluation of Web Content‘, NorthwesternUniversity, retrieved at on 25/02/2015

Hindman, Matthew (2009), “The Myth of Digital Democracy”, Princeton University Press

Levinson, S. C. (2006). On the human “interaction engine”. In N. J. Enfield, & S. C. Levinson (Eds.), Roots of human sociality: Culture, cognition and interaction (pp. 39-69). Oxford: Berg, retrieved at on 24/02/2014

Mazzucato, Mariana (2011). The Entrepreneurial State. London: Demos, retrieved at on 27/02/2015

Nafeez, Ahmed (2015) “How the CIA made Google”, Medium, Jan 22, 2015, , retrieved at on 20/02/2015

Sperber, Dan and Gloria Origgi (2000), ‘Evolution, Communication And The Proper Function Of Language’, in Peter Carruthers and Andrew Chamberlain (eds.) Evolution and the Human Mind: Language, Modularity and Social Cognition. Cambridge University Press, 140-169, retrieved at on 25/02/2015

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Ulanowicz, R.E., Goerner, S.J., Lieater, B., Gomez, R., (2009) “Quantifying sustainability: resilience, efficiency and the return of information theory”, Ecological Complexity 6 (1), 27–36 March, retrieved at on 01/02/2015

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1Another reason for the slow spreading of books in the European Middle-Ages is the isolation of the monks in their monasteries. In the 13th century, Paris was the first city to have a large commercial trade of manuscripts, with manuscript-book producers being commissioned to make specific books for specific people. Paris had a large enough population of wealthy literate persons to support the livelihood of people producing manuscripts. This medieval era marks the shift in manuscript production from monks in monasteries to booksellers and scribes making a living from their work in the cities


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