Propaganda 103: The Word Changes, The Word Remains The Same

Reproduction of a Gutenberg press.

Reproduction of a Gutenberg press.


“I have been a believer in the magic of language since, at a very early age, I discovered that some words got me into trouble and others got me out” – Katherine Dunn

“Until it is kindled by a spirit as flamingly alive as the one which gave it birth a book is dead to us. Words divested of their magic are but dead hieroglyphs.” – H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

We return to the word; our most basic element of communication. The written word is naturally an extension of the spoken word. At the beginning of civilization, all propaganda was the spoken word. The primary limiting effect on the spread of ideas was the size of audience within hearing range of the speaker. Then came the image, the structure and written word. They had greater value in spreading ideas because of their inherently static nature. With the invention of paper and other portable means of propagating words and images, ideas were no longer tied directly to the speaker. The content was static, but the medium of exchange mobile. The primary limiting effect was the ability to reproduce these works manually by scribes and artisans combined with literacy in the ancient world being a comparative rarity.

Socrates; “I drank what?”

Socrates; “I drank what?”

Since nearly the dawn of civilization, words have been used to shape civilization in the form of both laws and political polemics. The Code of Hammurabi is one of the best studied and oldest ancient writings in existence dating to back to almost 1800 BCE. Named for the sixth king of Babylon, it contains the oldest existent legal code. Laws, their shaping influence on society undeniable as it is, are ultimately rooted in philosophy and its cousin the political polemic. Going back to the ancient Greeks – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are just as well known for their political writings as their pure philosophy and metaphysics (the ancestor of science and the scientific method). Socrates was in fact put to death for essentially political reasons. His constant challenge to the authorities of the Athenian state eventually caused them to gather against him and put him on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens and his “impiety” in not believing in the state sponsored gods of the time. Found guilty, he was poisoned to death. Plato was not only known for his political works like The Republic – wherein he discusses the nature of justice, the just state and the just man – but he was (along with but to a lesser degree Isocrates and the Sophists) also arguably one of the first rhetoricians in recorded Western history in that he systematically analysed and understood the mechanics of rhetoric. Aristotle’s famous treatise on ethics, the Nicomachean Ethics, is a direct lead-in to his treatise Politics. In fact, Aristotle considered the study of ethics essential to the study of politics. These writers used a method still employed by teachers today and the format was retained in their writings even if the interactive component was lost: the Socratic method – a dialectical form of inquiry, essentially debate, between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. In the East, comparable writers like Confucius, perhaps better known as the father of Confucianism, was equally important to the Eastern tradition of politics and political writing. But what did these men all have in common? They were limited in audience to those they could reach by speaking to them directly or by the tedious production, slow distribution and high cost of making copies of their written works. Add to this the general high level of illiteracy in the ancient world and it becomes apparent that their knowledge was known only by a relatively small circle of people. Even Thomas Hobbes, one of the founders of modern political philosophy/political science suffered under these constraints limiting the spread of information by the written word.

However, all of that was about to change.

Johannes Gutenberg

Johannes Gutenberg

Around 1440 CE, a German goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg took the idea of an existing machine tool – the screw press – and added his own idea – moveable type – and the printing press was born. Block printing was not a new idea. It had been around for centuries, but using multiple blocks on a rack to create reusable type was a new way to use an old technology. The printing press was one of those rare inventions that literally changed the world and almost overnight. It did so in several ways. Most importantly for the discussion of propaganda, the printing press heralded the age of mass media – a phenomena still impacting the world today, perhaps more now than ever, and integral to the modern dissemination of propaganda. Some of the other societal impacts of Gutenberg’s invention are certainly important as well. A ready supply of cheap books and other printed materials led to a boost in general literacy, the democratization of knowledge as what was once the province of the privileged became open to the masses, and in a fundamental way the foundation for a knowledge-based economy – an emergent phenomena our world is dealing with at this very moment. Unlike the writers of antiquity and even the relatively recently deceased Hobbes, political writers after Gutenberg no longer faced such constraints and in fact enjoyed the ancillary benefits of the rise of mass printing. Another interesting but less relevant side-effect of the printing press was the rise of European native vernacular languages for teaching, information dissemination and record keeping and the consequent death of Latin (and to a lesser degree, Greek) as the lingua franca of the educated class.

Machiavelli – who advocated using propaganda as a means to power and control – and Sir Thomas More – in many ways the antithesis of Machiavelli in advancing the new wealth of cheap information to spread factual knowledge and the philosophy of doing good as intrinsically valuable to society as well as spiritually beneficial – both enjoyed mass printing and distributions of their works during their lifetimes.  The Federalist Papers, and indeed many pamphlets, flyers and treatises including copies of the Declaration of Independence and later the Constitution, were mass produced and distributed during the period leading up to and immediately following the American Revolution. More modern political polemicists such as George Orwell enjoyed not only mass distributions of his more technical essays like “Politics and the English Language”, but enjoyed literary success with his distinctly polemic novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four.  Adolph Hitler’s and the Nazi Party’s rise to power was made possible by the publication and distribution of Mein Kampf.  The rise of the former Soviet Union depended upon the mass distributions of the works of Karl Marx, and revolutionary leaders like Vladimir Lenin and Trotsky. Today, modern politicians and political theorists are practically guaranteed to have an accompanying book by the dictates of their public relations and image management by the advertising and mass media industries even if the books have to be ghost written.

Detail from Trajan’s Column Roman soldiers crossing the Danube.

Detail from Trajan’s Column
Roman soldiers crossing the Danube.

As important as these ideas can be, for good or ill, their propagation to the masses was changed forever by the invention of the printing press. Concurrently with the spread of the printing press came a new industry so associated with the machine itself, it adopted the same basic name: the press. This is not to say before the printing press there were no means of getting the news. Indeed, stretching back in antiquity, the Egyptians regularly carved information we would consider news on obelisks and other public monuments. As far back as 200 CE, the Chinese distributed hand painted announcements and news on silk to be distributed amongst government officials called tipao – literally “reports from the official residences”. In 59 BCE the Romans at the order of Julius Caesar published Acta Diurna or “Daily Acts” that were carved in stone or metal and placed in public places. This even carried over into their monuments as Trajan’s Column (completed 113 CE)  is a very good example of both news and state propaganda as the relief carved upon the column depicts Trajan’s successful military campaigns against the Dacians.

newspapersNewspapers were the primary distribution channel of current events information in the West since the 16th Century CE with the German publication of Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien in 1605 but did not truly take off until the 17th Century when the full effects of the spread of the printing press technology came in to bloom. Before this, pamphlets and publicly posted flyers in Europe often carried news of the day. They did not meet the criteria for being true newspapers though as they lacked public distribution, periodicity, currency in information and their often specialized topics lacked range or universality. This became common place as technology spread. Quick printing and turnaround time on sales meant that those of political or financial power to quash publications that portrayed them in a negative light had less opportunity to do so as well as quick profits to printers as their now timely publications would be sold out before political forces could marshal against them. It was not only words those in the burgeoning press industry were printing, but images as well. Wood-cuts and engravings were the standard of the day until the advent of modern photojournalism when on March 4, 1880, The Daily Graphic – a New York newspaper – published the first halftone reproduction of a news photograph that most of us are familiar with today. Today’s four-color CMYK process is still basically the same technological process as black and white halftone image printing, but with the process simply repeated for each of the four colors (cyan, magenta, yellow and black (which is called “key” by printers)). The information and ideas in both text and images could be applied to the masses with industrial efficiency. This efficiency gained a huge boost with the invention of steam powered presses by German printer Friedrich Koenig and engineer Andreas Friedrich Bauer. Where manual Gutenberg presses could produce 240 pages per hour, a Koenig-Bauer steam powered press could produce 2,400 pages per hour, a ten-fold increase in capacity. Newspapers blossomed and dominated the news well into the 20th Century.

radioThe dominance of newspapers in mass dissemination of information (which is critical to spreading propaganda as well) faced a new challenger in the radio. Invented in the late 19th Century CE ostensibly by Guglielmo Marconi (the invention of radio is a wild and contentious story in itself involving such well-known names as Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla), the radio didn’t take off until the dual technologies of distributed electricity and vacuum tubes came in to their own in the 1930′s. From the 1930′s well in to the 1950′s and early 1960′s, radio was a prime delivery vector for information and entertainment directly into the homes of consumers. It was in some ways a step backward for propaganda as it relied upon the spoken word alone, but that did not impact its effectiveness or deter its use. Hitler, an renowned and skilled public speaker, heavily relied up radio broadcasts of his speeches to spread the Nazi Party doctrine as far as possible. FDR was quite famous for his regular “Fireside Chats” delivered to the American people via radio between 1933 and 1934. The entertainment programs you would hear were just as likely to be sponsored by U.S. War Bonds as they were to be sponsored by Chevrolet or Ovaltine and very often the content of the these programs was quite pointed in their consumer directed message be it “support the American war effort” or “buy this product”.

tvStepping into a new realm of information dissemination and further putting a dent in the press’ near monopoly on news and information came television. The basic scientific principles behind television were known in the late 19th Century and much like radio, its development in to a full blown invention was dependent upon both the spread of the electrical power grids and other complementary technologies.  Building upon the works of Paul Gottlieb Nipkow, John Logie Baird, Kálmán Tihanyi, and others, Philo Farnsworth is credited with inventing the first integrated pickup/broadcast/receiver television system in 1927. He first demonstrated the system to the press on September 1, 1928. Soon after, television began its long march into dominance over both radio and print media for both information dissemination and entertainment.

But still, the medium was largely static like print and radio before it despite the addition of moving pictures to sound.

The nature of information dissemination was about to change again, oddly coming full circle.

wwwThe World Wide Web and the Internet is an information sharing innovation easily on par with and possibly surpassing Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. It all started with ARPAnet – the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network. What started as a simple messaging and bulletin board system based on a robust modular nodal packet sharing network for use by scientists and academics and funded by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) became something very different. Much like Gutenberg took the screw press and added functionality to it by his innovation, so did physicist Tim Berners-Lee take ARPAnet and make it into something entirely more functional and user friendly all at the same time with his creation of HTML – HyperText Markup Language.  In 1980, Berners-Lee was working as a contractor at CERN. He developed the first simple prototype hypertext system in the form of ENQUIRE which used by CERN researchers to share documents. After leaving CERN, Berners-Lee went to work for Image Computer Systems, Ltd, in Bournemouth, England. At ICS, the primary project he worked on was a real-time remote procedure call. This project gave him experience in computer networking so that when he returned to CERN as a fellow in 1984, the pieces of knowledge he needed to make the next step and turn the Internet in to the World Wide Web. In 1989, Berners-Lee saw an opportunity to join hypertext with the Internet.  That year, with the assistance of CERN data systems engineer Robert Cailliau, Berners-Lee built the first web server from a NEXTcube workstation (a computer I really wanted as a kid). Much like Gutenberg, the invention of the World Wide Web was the right person coming along at the right time and seeing existing technologies that could be combined in a complementary fashion. As Berners-Lee himself said, “I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the Transmission Control Protocol and domain name system ideas and—ta-da!—the World Wide Web.”

Words had become accessible almost instantly in real time and in a user friendly fashion. The creation of new technologies like Java, Perl and Python (cross-platform languages) as well as streaming video and audio and IRC (Internet Relay Chat) protocols soon added richness and depth to what was possible from the “Web experience”. The World Wide Web had the utility of information depth previously seen only in print combined with the benefit of both static and moving images and interactivity between both speaker and audience. It was in many ways the return of the Socratic method. A monolog had again become dialog. Words, images and the information they convey have become something more than static ideas discussed among a small circle of friends or academia. Knowledge has again been democratized. But the medium has drawbacks. Because it is not static but editable in real time by speakers, unless data is captured into storage, it can disappear as readily as it appeared for public consumption. Even more troubling is the ownership of the majority of the network backbone by private companies.  Because the Web traffic is carried by privately owned and largely unregulated – specifically concerning content and the freedom of speech – corporations are now seeking to censor in the Internet, something that would effectively chill if not outright kill the return of the Socratic method and critical thinking applied to the news and information of our times. This is a governmental or corporatist propagandist’s dream – to suppress dissent not by withstanding the critical scrutiny of the marketplace of ideas that this interactive medium invites but at the push of a button. We see it already in repressive countries like Saudi Arabia and China that block access to certain sites and types of traffic based on the political ideology of their political and/or religious leadership. We see that here with the DOJ seizing domains at an alarming and ever increasing rate. I’m not talking editorial control of individual outlets on the Web. I’m talking the ability to eliminate certain channels of communication at a systemic level for political purposes. There are potential consequences to a non-fixed digital medium and not all of them are good, especially when the means of digital distribution lay largely in the hands of private enterprise, but it is hard to argue that the return of the Socratic method to public discourse and the further democratization of knowledge is a bad thing for society. Information is the basis of knowledge and knowledge is power.

This concludes the segments of this series covering mediums of communication.  Next, we’ll examine specific tactics of propaganda, the rhetoric and psychology behind persuasion. Some of these tactics may be new to you, others you may be familiar with, all you should be aware of and guard against with vigilance and skepticism. Remember: ultimately the only person who can change your mind is you . . . unless you let someone else do it for you.

Note: This column was originally published at Res Ispa Loquitur ( on July 9, 2012.  It has been re-edited for presentation here.

About Gene Howington

I write and do other stuff.
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3 Responses to Propaganda 103: The Word Changes, The Word Remains The Same

  1. Will Rogers says:

    It’s all in the formation.

  2. “The good reader makes the good book; in every book he finds passages which seem to be confidences or asides hidden from all else and unmistakably meant for his ear; the profit of books is according to the sensibility of the reader; the profoundest thought or passion sleeps as in a mine, until discovered by an equal mind and heart.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

  3. “Remember: ultimately the only person who can change your mind is you . . . unless you let someone else do it for you.”

    Gene, along a similar vein. A traveler stopped into my local watering hole, (from Australia no less!!) This statement he made has stuck with me. “You know, you think and think and think for yourself, then sometimes ya just give up and let other people think for you”.
    I have tried since an early age to be an independent thinker, and in my own way been somewhat successful at this, and I have some fantastical failures to prove it! :).

    I believe his statement is true for all of us, seldom perhaps for some, and definitely often for others. The saddest extrapolation of his statement to me, would be those that don’t think at all for themselves and allow their natural unique brains be spoon fed pap of “others” ….. thus willingly becoming pap heads. (notice I did not put an ist after pap) That would be so 16th century.
    I choose ism(s), Papismals is a better name for those that are always right, because whatever authority they choose to revere as sacred, tells them they are.

    The most dangerous people in the world are those that lie, cheat, and steal to prove how right they are. The saddest people in the world are their minions that unquestionably willingly follow, because they want to be right too.
    I have no other explanation for the popularity of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, etc etc.

    PS. You did say we could ramble :o)

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