A brief history of disruptive information technology

The story of Prometheusis one of the great fables from antiquity, and it still carries wisdom afterthousands of years.

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

At its core, Prometheus’ story is one of democratization: Hetook a powerful tool out of the hands of a central authority, the gods, andgave it to the people. The inherent wisdom is that the story accuratelypredicts two things will happen whenever a powerful tool becomes democratized:The central authority is unwilling to concede the tool in question to thepeople, and early adopters confirm the central authority’s belief that peopleshould not have democratic access to such a powerful tool. History supportsthis model.

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

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

Below are three examples of how a technological innovationwrenched some kind of information from a central authority and made itavailable to everyone. As the story of Prometheus foretold, the centralauthority fought back, and some of the first people who handled that technologymanaged to burn themselves.

The Printing Press:Literacy Democratized, Church Threatened

The printing press was introduced to Western society in 1453when Johannes Gutenberg came up with a superior method of printing with movabletype. All of a sudden, a single machine could produce books and manuscripts at1,000 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 theCatholic church’s monopoly over Biblical interpretations in the West, assuddenly the bible was available to other people, not only the clergy – andbegan to be translated into modern languages. With common people able tointerpret religious texts for themselves, many no longer felt they had to puttheir trust in their local clergy’s interpretation of the Bible, and theProtestant Reformation was born.

And there were some wild interpretations of the Bible makingthe 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 theensuing centuries.

The Internet: GlobalCommunication Democratized, States and Governments Threatened

The internet has now penetrated afull third of humanity, allowing us to share ideas in real time withothers around the world. Do I really need to give examples of how thistechnology has gotten people in trouble?

It is hard to get a historical perspective on the internetbecause we are still living through its disruptive phase, strange as that maysound. The Great Firewall of China and the mayor of Peoria, Illinois, can both currentlyattest to this disruption. Suffice it to say there are still many institutionswith entrenched positions that benefit from censorship and informationscarcity.