Lessons from Information Revolution 1.0

Whenever I teach in Erfurt at our planetary school of public policy, I live at the monastery where Martin Luther lived, before he started his career as a professor in Wittenberg. The Augustine monastery has been transformed into an upscale hostel and the rooms have been named after important church reformers. Last week, I stayed in the Thomas Müntzer room. The story of the two men who lived during the first information revolution (print) can teach us important lessons about our own time.

In 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on his personal blog, the church door in Wittenberg. The printing presses, the blogging platform of the time (there was no blogger, moveabletype, or wordpress) rapidly distributed his entry in Europe. The rather arcane and academic text started probably the biggest transformation of the European world of the last 500 years. Even though his ideas radically changed our world, Luther himself was not perceived as a radical by his contemporaries, however, Thomas Müntzer was. The theological differences between the two seem trivial from a 21st Century perspective,

Müntzer believed and taught of the “living word of God” (i.e., continued revelation and prophecy), the banning of infant baptism, and that the wine and bread of the Eucharist were only emblems of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice [wikipedia].

But politically, they were far apart. While Martin Luther played the game of politics conservative and sucessful, Thomas Müntzer did not. He was tortured, beheaded for his participation in the peasant revolutions of 1524/1525, and forgotten by mainstream history:

In studies of the Reformation, Müntzer has often been ignored. To Protestant historians, he was a short-lived radical. Müntzer was then adopted by socialists as a symbol of early class struggle due to his promotion of a new egalitarian society which would practice the sharing of goods. Müntzer’s movement and the peasants’ revolt formed an important topic in Friedrich Engels‘ book The Peasant War in Germany, a classic defense of historical materialism. Engels describes Müntzer as a revolutionary leader who chose to use biblical language—the language the peasants would best understand. He then became a symbolic hero for the East German state (German Democratic Republic, GDR) in the 20th century, appearing from 1975 on their five mark banknote. On the Frankenhausen battlefield, the GDR built a huge memorial containing the world’s largest painting by Werner Tuebke, with Müntzer as central figure.

More recent studies, however, have been more sensitive to the context of Müntzer’s life. He stands as a symbol of one of the many theological directions which could have been taken by the Reformation movement in its earliest stages [wikipedia].

In hindsight, it was not so much the doctrinal differences between the two men that mattered in the long run, it was the general idea of empowerment that worked itself as a algorithm through history. It took around 150 years until 1648 when the balance of power in Europe had been re-established and took almost 400 more years until democracy was mainstreamed on the European continent. Was that necessary? Do we need more Martin Luthers or Thomas Müntzers of network society? What are strategies to move the emancipatory spirit forward? How long will it take until a new balance of power is established? What type of society can we create? By when?

About Philipp

Philipp Müller works in the IT industry and is academic dean of the SMBS. Author of "Machiavelli.net". Proud father of three amazing children. The views expressed in this blog are his own.

12. July 2009 by Philipp
Categories: Blog | Tags: , , | 4 comments

Comments (4)

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    I think network society is not so much in need of outstanding protagonists but of a learning procees, during which people learn how to make use of the opportunities of the new media properly. The revolutionary element of Information Revolution 1.0 was not the invention of the letterpress alone but how the implications of this invention changed the information flow in society. Before the letterpress the diffusion of information was organized very hierarchically; those who were in power controlled which information and which opinion was the be spread and which not. However, with the invention of the letterpress a whole new mode of infoamtion flow was established: the free market prinicpally everybody could enter. But the development of the print culture had other implications as well: People had to learn how to write texts that can stand alone, that don't need anybody to interpret them for the reader. And people had to learn how to read texts that are not interpreted for them by anybody.
    Experiencing Information Revolution 2.0 we have to consider which new skills we have to learn in order to handle a the whole new modes of communcation in network socitey – just like people had to during the development of the print culture.

  3. @Florian: great point about read-write (social media) literacy! The question is how do we design massive social media literacy campaigns equivalent to the campaigns we had in the 19th century (think how long it took for people to realize that this was a public policy challenge).

    My point, however, was slightly different: what people think matters at the time of the revolution, does not matter in hindsight (doctrinal debates), however, the politics does have macro-historical impact.

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