A brief history of disruptive information technology

The story of Prometheus is one of the great fables from antiquity, and it still carries wisdom after thousands of years.

For anyone unfamiliar, Prometheus was a mythical Titan in Ancient Greece who made man from clay and, despite stern warnings from the other gods, gave man fire. His punishment for giving man fire was to be bound eternally to a rock, and each day an eagle would come eat his liver from his body which would regenerate again overnight so that he could endure the same punishment the next day.

At its core, Prometheus’ story is one of democratization: He took a powerful tool out of the hands of a central authority, the gods, and gave it to the people. The inherent wisdom is that the story accurately predicts two things will happen whenever a powerful tool becomes democratized: The central authority is unwilling to concede the tool in question to the people, and early adopters confirm the central authority’s belief that people should not have democratic access to such a powerful tool. History supports this model.

We as humans don’t have a Titan to hand us tools from on high to move our civilizations forward, so we have to rely on disruptive innovations to get us there. And the things these innovations tend to disrupt are the gods on high, or at least some entrenched status quo.

Information has long been one of the most powerful, and most coveted, tools. A monopoly over information allows a central authority to wield a great deal of power.

Below are three examples of how a technological innovation wrenched some kind of information from a central authority and made it available to everyone. As the story of Prometheus foretold, the central authority fought back, and some of the first people who handled that technology managed to burn themselves.

The Printing Press: Literacy Democratized, Church Threatened

The printing press was introduced to Western society in 1453 when Johannes Gutenberg came up with a superior method of printing with movable type. All of a sudden, a single machine could produce books and manuscripts at 1,000 times the speed of a scribe.

This made books considerably cheaper to buy, and within a generation, literacy began to spread. The democratization of book-learning threatened the Catholic church’s monopoly over Biblical interpretations in the West, as suddenly the bible was available to other people, not only the clergy – and began to be translated into modern languages. With common people able to interpret religious texts for themselves, many no longer felt they had to put their trust in their local clergy’s interpretation of the Bible, and the Protestant Reformation was born.

And there were some wild interpretations of the Bible making the rounds by the mid-16th Century. Eventually, war ensued, and ripples from the Protestant Reformation can still be felt today.

Despite the can of worms popular access to books opened up, Europeans became increasingly literate people, and science and scholarship flourished in the ensuing centuries.

The Internet: Global Communication Democratized, States and Governments Threatened

The internet has now penetrated a full third of humanity, allowing us to share ideas in real time with others around the world. Do I really need to give examples of how this technology has gotten people in trouble?

It is hard to get a historical perspective on the internet because we are still living through its disruptive phase, strange as that may sound. The Great Firewall of China and the mayor of Peoria, Illinois, can both currently attest to this disruption. Suffice it to say there are still many institutions with entrenched positions that benefit from censorship and information scarcity.