In Praise of Ephemeral Astrological Literature

The Economist recently printed an interesting article comparing today’s social media and the Arab Spring to the success of the Lutheran Reformation (Note, there is an interesting symmetry in their article: social media seems to be one the winning side in both cases, or at least the laudable side. In both cases revolutionaries opposing repressive regimes exploit the power of social media. Did these social networks not function for Catholics? Could repressive regimes not also use social media?). That article prompted me to think about this analogy and how it might relate to the history of science. These are my initial thoughts, reposted from the PACHS blog:

Thony over at the The Renaissance Mathematicus beat me to the post in his recent “Reformation, revolutions and social media.” I had been thinking about The Economist’s article on “How Luther went viral.”

Thony rightly points out that The Economist article doesn’t offer anything terribly new, as his quotations from Eisenstein and Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin on the Reformation (surely taking his cue from The Economist article) demonstrate. He thinks the Reformation would have occurred anyway—I would add to his John Wycliffe example Jan Hus and the Bohemian reformers, reflecting my own central European interests. He also wonders aloud about how valid the parallels are between the advent of print and new media technologies today.

To be fair to The Economist, I think the article tries to see today’s social media as analogous not just to print but to the networks of circulation that spread Reformation and Counter-Reformation ideas:

Now the internet offers a new perspective on this long-running debate [the role of print in the Reformation], namely that the important factor was not the printing press itself (which had been around since the 1450s), but the wider system of media sharing along social networks—what is called “social media” today. Luther, like the Arab revolutionaries, grasped the dynamics of this new media environment very quickly, and saw how it could spread his message.

The underlying question seems, however, still to be: Is the internet analogous to print? …

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