Masters of the Word: Book Review

Masters of the World: How Media Shaped History from the Alphabet to the Internet (2013), William Bernstein. Bernstein identified four communication technologies: language, writing, printing with movable type, and electronic encoding of information. Writing started with civilization some 10,000 years ago and has advanced ever since. I’m particularly interested in certain parts of this story, especially the development of the alphabet and printing. Egyptian hieroglyphs would evolve into hieratic for mundane affairs, resulting in a proto-Semitic script evolving into Phoenician, Hebrew, and Arabic. Greeks added vowels and Latin gave us our modern alphabet. Literacy should improve the lives of individuals. Later, media development affected the degree of democracy versus autocracy in specific countries, important to Median Voter Guy. Bernstein’s thesis is new communication technologies initially help the state and elites to the detriment of the ordinary population. More people would have direct access over time, allowing the movement toward liberal democracies. Human nature hasn’t changed, technology has (for good and bad).


Chapter 1: Origins. “Writing, the first technology to make the spoken word permanent, changed the human condition” (Denise Schmandt-Besserat) (23). Accountants invented writing (beginning with tokens), from direct inventory to abstract numbers and concepts. Communications include: writing, math notation, visual (like painting), maps, and clocks: “numerical, visual, spatial, and temporal information” (24). Abstraction increased over time. Accounting systems started for transferring food from producers to the state and bureaucrats. Sealed envelopes from 5,000 years ago Sumerian cities suggested legal documents. This evolved into cuneiform writing on clay tablets. Egypt had stone and papyrus rather than clay and developed writing processes.


William Warburton (18th century) suggested a pictograph theory from “Mexican painting” (Aztec reports from Spanish), to hieroglyphic, and “Chinese” abstract symbols. The Rosetta Stone with three languages shows Greek, hieroglyphic, and demotic (cursive form of hieroglyphics for everyday use). Mesopotamia had clay, not stone, using mud brick for building. It was not until the 1920s-30s that archeologists understood early civilizations at Ur, Uruk, and other Sumerian sites, including cuneiform writings. Cuneiform texts were found for Babylonian, Elamite, and Persian and the movement toward an alphabet. Papyrus tests date from 4,000 years ago. The number of symbols used fell from 2,000 plus to 100-150, meaning scribes could learn their profession quicker and more people could become literate.


Chapter 2: The ABCs of Democracy. Flinders Petrie found the earliest alphabet in the Sinai in 1905 dated about 1400 BC, which he called the “proto-Semitic alphabet,” probably from Egyptian hieratic or hieroglyphic. Likely invented from Sinai or Canaanites who had worked in Egypt (or the Egyptians invented it to communicate with workers). Egypt also provided papyrus. The Hebrew alphabet is Aramaic, a culture that died while the language and alphabet lived on. Aramaeans were traders which explains how their alphabet traveled. They were conquered by the Assyrians as was the northern kingdom of Israel. Phoenicians improved the alphabet and spread it further. Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet, added vowels and the result was Greek and Latin. Punctuation and spacing came later.


Greece would evolve from aristocratic control to increased democracy with the voice of ordinary citizens, culminating with Solon and Pericles. Ostracism (including Hyperbolus) and expulsion were part of the process (plus execution, at least for Socrates). Alexander ended it.


Chapter 3: Twelve Tablets, Seven Hills, and a Few Early Christians. “Written procedures assist in control from above” (93). Roman citizens (mainly landowners) were patricians (think Optimus) or plebians, but the most literate were the legion (soldiers, needing orders to follow, plus supplies), Christians, and slaves (especially Greek slaves). Most of the Roman historians were in fact Greek. The Roman Empire was too big to govern effectively. Rule by terror has its limits. Writing helped control. Coptic came from Greek and demotic characters which increased literacy in Egypt, including Christians.


Chapter 4: Before Gutenberg. The codex as a bound page book was started in the 5th century by the monk Cassiodorus. It could be written on both sides, use either papyrus or parchment, and stacked easily on shelves. Monasteries soon had scriptoria (writing rooms) as the Church had a near monopoly on literacy. Key events before Gutenberg included word separation in scripts, European universities, paper manufacturing, steel punches, and advances in mining and metallurgy.


Paper was invented by the Chinese using hemp or other plant fiber, pounded into a pulp and strained, which resulted in cellulose dried into sheets of paper. Europeans used rags for cellulose. Muslims brought paper to Europe (through Venice or Genoa). Muslim Spain manufactured paper. When Spain drove out the Muslims, they got the paper technology. They used hydraulic presses and waterpower. The cost of paper dropped. John Wycliffe translated the Bible into vernacular English during the 14th century.


Chapter 5: Punch and Counterpunch. Johannes Gutenberg from a family of goldsmiths trained in metalworking when real advances were being made. He produced mirrors. The idea of portable type into a writing medium was ancient, but movable type was key. Printing requires a substantial investment including thousands of pieces of type. He perfected a process with the right alloys and tools for casting. The pages must fit perfectly. Gutenberg adapted available techniques for the punch, counterpunch, and mould for type blocks. He was the first to use them for printing pages. The printing press came from winepresses and fabric-printing presses. Printing required two men: fit the paper sheet onto the press, the second to ink the type. Without patent protection, secrecy was essential. He initially made small printed works like calendars and indulgencies.


Gutenberg printed his 180 Bibles on vellum, making them almost as expensive as hand-written copies. It took a couple of years. He borrowed the money from financier Johann Fust who immediately after printed demanded repayment. Gutenberg defaulted and Fust got the equipment. These Bibles are now treasured. Printing presses appeared in Germany, Venice, and continued to expand across Europe. The highly developed Muslim world was uninterested, in part based on problems with Arabic. Scribes now found themselves unemployed. Type became more readable with simpler letters which also were produced more economically.


The University of Wittenberg was founded, and printing presses established. Martin Luther ended up here and his Reformation was tied to printing. He started writing in vernacular German. The printing presses printed millions of indulgences, which enraged Luther. The legend was Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle’s church on October 31, 1517. He in fact wrote any number of theses for debates on multiple topics. In any case, printing spread Luther’s 95 theses and the Reformation was soon on. Luther was excommunicated and his works burned (better the books rather than the guy, which happened to any number of critics pegged as heretics). The Church did not understand the power of the printed word. Luther and others used short, cheap “flying writings,” then placards and handbills. Because most were still illiterate, these were read aloud.


The oldest Old Testament was the 2nd-3rd century Septuagint written in Greek. The oldest Old Testament in Hebrew was 9th-10th century. The most famous later fragments came from the Deas Sea Scrolls. As Luther translated the Bible into German, William Tyndale translated it into English. The sayings “seek and ye shall find, no man can serve two masters, ask and it shall be given to you, forbidden fruit, a broken heart, a drop in the bucket, a fly in the ointment, my brother’s keeper, old as the hills, white as snow, and a leopard cannot change its spots” came from Tyndale. The King James Bible used most of Tyndale’s translation. It was said that without Tyndale, there would be no Shakespeare.

The major costs of printing after the capital expenditures were paper and labor.


Chapter 6: The Captive Press. “To the extent that newspapers wield power, it resides primarily in the prerogative of choosing what to print” (195). Premodern newspapers struggled to find news, usually from merchants and travelers. Advertising, initially from local governments and political parties, was a key subsidy. (It did not make them objective.) “In the 19th century, cheap wood-pulp paper and steam-driven high-speed presses, along with burgeoning literacy, made newspapers accessible, for the first time, to the average citizen” (196).


The first newspaper may have been the Gazette in Paris in 1631. It served the powerful, beginning with Cardinal Richelieu. Official announcements were made here, including propaganda. Disorder abroad reporting also was encouraged. England under the Stuarts was equally controlling. Royal control dropped (but did not end) after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which increased the power of Parliament. Daniel Defoe, Richard Steele, and Joseph Addison operated independent periodicals. A stamp tax on newspapers reduced newspaper sales. Prosecution for seditious libel was another tactic for censorship. The Boston postmaster started the Boston News-Letter in 1704, the Boston Gazette in 1719 using printer James Franklin; his brother Benjamin ran off to Philadelphia. Parody proved effective against the powerful—and difficult to prosecute.


“The government never learned that in publishing, there is no bad publicity” (209). The idea of a free press with a prosperous and literate population became increasingly accepted. Public education helped, as did lower costs of printing. The Industrial Revolution brought efficiency and lower cost to printing after James Watt’s steam engine. The Times of London had a large circulation of 5,000 by the early 1800s. Initially, steam engines were mounted on standard screw presses, Roller presses with continuous printing of a thousand sheets an hour allowed large print runs and therefore circulation. Papermakers supplied large rolls of newsprint using wood pulp. Newspaper prices dropped almost 90% from the 1860s to 1900. Steam was replaced by electricity. This required capital-intensive newspapers and printers. The telegraph was introduced in the 1840s, which increased the availability of current information. The first transatlantic cable was laid in 1858. The telegraph was government-controlled in Europe, usually in post offices. In the US it became a monopoly under Western Union, around railroad lines.


The one penny press started in New York in 1833. Scandal was a big seller and misleading ads like patent medicines a major revenue source. In 1846 three papers formed the Associated Press, initially to report on the Mexican-American War. Major publishers were James Gordon with the New York Herald, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, and William Randolph Hearst’s Examiner and New York Journal. Hearst developed “stunt journalism,” directing his reporters to such things as mental asylums. The result was called “yellow journalism.” It’s likely their extreme coverage of Cuba led to the Spanish-American War, including Hearst’s “Remember the Maine.”


Walter Lippmann pointed out three stages of newspapers: 1) direct government control (newspapers as agents of the state), 2) party and commercial control (with substantial political control), and 3) mass market with the penny press and yellow journalism. The advantage of yellow journalism was it was independent (freedom from political control). The fourth state was professional journalism, roughly after World War I.


“The objective impartiality of modern journalism had another source, namely, the drive for subscription and advertising revenue; a large, general audience newspaper could hardly afford to offend half of its subscribers, and advertisers certainly did not want to alienate half of their potential customers by backing a partisan publication. … a grand bargain between all the different players” (232).


Then there was Hitler who “divided the public into three classes: the vast majority of the credulous who believe everything they read; a substantial minority of the cynical, who believe nothing; and a tiny minority of the intellectually rigorous, who critically weigh information and form their own opinions” (233). Given the depression, Nazis were able to acquire newspapers before the gained political power. Rule of law vanished after they took power.


Chapter 7: With a Machete in One Hand and a Radio in the Other. Radio and then TV reached more people, with little feedback from them. Commercial radio started about 1920, as did more despotic governments who could use radio to spread propaganda.


Michael Faraday experimented with magnetic fields. James Clark Maxwell theorized that radio waves and light were the same thing at different frequencies, using Maxwell equations. Heinrich Hertz transmitted and received radio waves and determined the velocity of radio waves. Radio frequencies run from 3,000 cycles per second to 30 billion. The basic patent for tuning the transmission and reception of radio signals filed in 1897. Guglielmo Marconi focused on transmitting radio waves over long distances, creating Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph using Morse code. This technology was used for shipping telegraphy (famously, for the Titanic). It took vacuum tubes after World War I for sounds to be used on radio, including voices. Edward Armstrong invented FM broadcasting.


David Sarnoff became the big name in radio. He started as a telegraph operator. Sarnoff saw the commercial potential of cheap radios in all homes. Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was created as a merger of GE subsidiary and Marconi after World War I to eliminate government control. Several giant corporations formed National Broadcasting Company (NBC). The first broadcasting station in Pittsburgh started in 1920. The Federal Communication Commission was part of the New Deal. A key component was separating newspaper from radio broadcasting ownership. Franklin Roosevelt became a master of radio communication, a major factor in his presidential success. A key point was slowing down his talk well below normal conversation speed (from about 300 to 150 words a minute).



Orson Wells 1938 radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds” showed the manipulative potential of radio. It proved to be effective in totalitarian states. An early proponent was Paul Joseph Goebbels, who became chief propagandist for the Nazi Party and Reich Minister when Hitler took power in 1933. He was antisemitic and favored the Holocaust. He earned a PhD from Heidelberg University in 1921. Hitler blamed Jews for the German defeat in World War I and the hate grew worse. German “Aryans” became the super race in Nazi propaganda, expected to dominate the world.

The importance of radio decreased after World War II as access to telephones, fax, and printing increased and TV became more widely available.


Chapter 8: The Comrades Who Couldn’t Broadcast Straight. All forms of media were controlled by the state in the Soviet Union and satellite states. A key event was the mishandling of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 and the poor response in part because of how they controlled information. The Soviet Union fell by the end of the decade. Central economic planning did not work—at a fixed level of output and price. As Hayek pointed out, there was no “price signal,” basically Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” Ditto on labor markets where truck drivers were paid more than doctors and engineers. These high skill jobs often went to women. Gorbachev experienced the “dilemma of the reforming despot.” How can absolute power be retained without a revolt of rising expectations?


After the printing press came lithography (1795) and the copying press. The mimeograph machine made copies possible (more than carbon paper). Typewriters started about 1873 by Remington.


Chapter 9: The Argus. The internet led to blogging: “commentators whose newly acquired access to mass communication technology allowed them to bypass the traditional channels of power and influence” (350).

Chester Carlson helped invent what became the Xerox machine to copy on plain paper. Microfilm was perfected by Kodak about 1935. Copying was important for the dissemination of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg. (If the Internet had been available, he could have avoided copying and then having to rely on the New York Times.)


The Defense Department became interested in the idea of linking computer networks which was funded by Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), with the concept called ARPANET. A packet switching technology was developed. Email was an early success. Tim Berners-Lee at CERN developed a “Web browser,” a software program using hypertext to retrieve files from distant systems. The Hypertext language became HTML using URL for addresses and a HTTP transfer protocol, with servers as the information repositories. Mosaic became the first easily installed browser in 1993, then Netscape in 1994. Before the 21st century it was relatively easy to download information, but difficult to unload.

Evan Williams invented a tool called Blogger. He sold it to Google. Now the ocean of data flowed both ways. Williams went on the cofound Twitter. “Twitter had become the modern Argus—all-seeing, all-knowing, unblinking, and ever-present” (363). Virtually anything could be “published,” but the Web could be self-correcting.


Google started as a doctoral dissertation by Larry Page, becoming the most effective search engine. His major contribution was PageRank, to compute a page’s importance. “The Web did not render the old mainstream media obsolete, … but it did force the newspapers and networks to realize that they could not completely control what gets reported” (366). Al Jazeera uses the internet and social media around the Arab world.


Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs:” physiological, safety, belonging, esteem, self- actualization. Liberal democracy is near the top, suggesting the link between democracy and prosperity. The US is unusual because it is high up on the Maslow pyramid but socially and religiously conservative. Sweden is high on both liberal democracy and prosperity. Many African states are at the low end of both. Spain and Italy are in the middle.