A New Freedom of the Press: How Does Publishing Underwrite Revolutions?

This is a guest post from Thomas Doane.

The Arab Spring continues, and this month we celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible’s publication. 

The question I’d like to briefly reflect on here is: What do the Reformation and the Arab Spring have in common?
The answer that I’d like to advance is that—among other things— what these two historical epiphenomena have in common is that they were both catalyzed by evolutionary leaps between publishing platforms. 

The fortunes of the parties involved in the conflict in the Arab world sway this way and that. Plucking more or less randomly from meta descriptions below the Google News results this morning we read that “NATO is considering intensifying bombings in Libya… Israel is very nervous about how Palestinians are spinning the Arab Spring…The ICC seeks to prosecute Gaddafi…  Syria denies mass grave allegations…” Etc. etc.  Another headline from the Gulf News this morning, May 18th, 2011: “Social Media played a role in facilitating the Arab Spring.” The first line of this article reads: Whether social media led to the Arab Spring or facilitated it, it played a major role in mobilizing Arab streets as they rose against their ruling regimes, said panelists at an Arab Media Forum session on the role of social media.
This has been a mantra since January, when—after Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia in December—a cascading domino effect of uprisings started to roll across North Africa and into the Middle East. In a now classic article in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell wrote, “The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter, and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns.” Obviously, there is a difference between correlation and causation, and much digital ink has been spilled to assign social media’s role in the Arab Spring to one category or another.
Meanwhile, this month Harper’s cover story is the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. While nothing about the KJV seems subversive to most of us today (quite the opposite for most of us), historically it can be seen as one of the literary climaxes of a sequence of revolutions that rocked the geopolitical make-up of the Western world in the 16th and 17th centuries—namely, ‘The Reformation.’ 
About 90 years before the KJV first ‘hit the stands in bookstalls’ all over England, becoming ‘the bestseller of all time’ over the next 400 years, a man named Martin Luther sat down and translated the Bible out of Latin and into German. While this sounds rather innocuous from our 21st century point of view, it could be argued that this act—amplified and disseminated across Europe by means of the recently invented printing press—ignited the 16th century’s version of a World War, completely and permanently transforming the global geopolitical landscape for all succeeding centuries.
What changed is that the ‘information’ contained in scripture—the actual words written in the Bible—became widely accessible to the public for the first time ever. There was a massive explosion of literacy. But a streamlining of the publication and dissemination of the printing press was a pre-condition for creating this kind of change. As the European masses (rather than just the priesthood) got hold of this information for the first time, they developed counter-narratives that diverged from the Church’s reading. The King James evolved out of one of these counter-narratives. 
Arguably, the epic shift from print to digital, and from AP journalism to crowd sourced social media communication is the biggest evolutionary leap between publishing platforms that we’ve seen since the invention of the printing press. And while the Arab Spring may not have been caused by social media, I think most people would argue that the social media revolution was a necessary pre-condition to launching the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle-East at the level of well-documented, contagious efficiency that we’ve seen this spring. And it was almost certainly a pre-condition to keeping the body count as low as it has been. 
So I propose a toast to two strange bedfellows: Johannes Gutenberg & Mark Zuckerberg.
Hail old fellows, well met!

And to each, thanks for the merry old  messaging platform they did invent!