Professor Henry Abramson

Truth Will Spring from the Earth: Gutenberg, the Internet, and the New Uncertainty Principle

“What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun?” So asks Friedrich Nietzsche’s “madman” in 1882. “Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder?” The last two thoughts, given Nietzsche’s impact on the Nazi movement in the following century, are especially ominous—but the epistemological ramifications of his thought are still unfolding in our own times, an unintended consequence of postmodernism and modern communication technology.

This paper will take a historical approach to the intersection of information delivery systems and the popular conception of “truth.” Three distinct periods will be considered: the invention of moveable type and the printing press in the 15th century, the rise of mass media in the late 19th century, and the advent of the Internet in the late 20th century. In each of these periods of disruptive technology, the factors that combined to create the popular conception of “the truth” were irredeemably altered, resulting in both remarkable scientific advancement and massive social destabilization.

We live in a similarly unsettled time in which our technological prowess has outpaced our social wisdom, presenting both threats and opportunities to human civilization, from the most basic self-conception to our otherwise highly evolved social norms. After surveying some 21st century examples of this phenomenon, a series of practical recommendations will be provided.