José María Pérez Fernández and Edward Wilson-Lee—
A few days ago, a subsecretary in the newly-installed Italian government led by Mario Draghi tweeted out to followers an inspiring message which showed the continuing relevance of the great poet Dante to our present day: “Chi si ferma è perduto, mille anni ogni minuto” (Whoever pauses is lost, and his each minute is a millennium). The sentiment not only summed up the feeling of many people that this age of vaccine drives and somnolent economies calls for urgent action, but also showed a continuing pride in the venerable monuments of Italian culture. There was, however, one problem: these were not the words of Dante Alighieri, but rather of the bowsprit of American capitalism and popular culture, Mickey Mouse, from a parodic comic-book version of Dante’s Divine Comedy for which the Disney mascot donned the characteristic red robe, matching bonnet and laurel crown of the medieval Italian poet.
In our days, there are many young—and not so young—people whose access to the traditional canon of “great authors” is mediated through popular culture and social media. Members of this group are often also symbols of national identity—Shakespeare in England, Petrarch in Italy, Whitman in the USA, Cervantes in Spain. While the popularity facilitated by mass media is in many ways a blessing, giving access to cultural treasures without the often intimidating paraphernalia with which they were once hedged about, the unmooring of culture from institutional guardians is not without pitfalls.
Larger audiences lead to an erosion (for better or worse) of central control. Authors in the early age of print knew this, and many of them, when they first saw their texts through press, fretted at the prospect of sharing their production well beyond their comfort zones—the restricted audiences of friends and acquaintances among whom their manuscripts generally circulated. Going into print amounted to venturing into terra ignota, exposing their texts at the perils of misinterpretation and their fate to the judgement of the multitude. Hence the profusion of prefaces, introductory epistles, and an increasingly complex paratextual and paralinguistic system in the graphic design of books whose main intention was to circumscribe the text and protect it from misinterpretation once it fell in the hands of the larger public.
The proliferation of knowledge and information made available by the internet, electronic databases, and digital libraries has grown in parallel with social media. Unlike the previous academic and educational institutions that controlled the distribution of this information, social media has dramatically de-centralized knowledge and information. And, just like early modern authors who fretted about going into print, authors now live in fear that a careless or unfortunate comment, or a quotation taken out of context, will be amplified within the global dome of social media, bringing ruin upon them in the flicker of a moment.
The challenge we face today is how to update institutions and media, so that they can both make knowledge and information available for global audiences with as few restrictions as possible, and at the same time, guarantee that this knowledge and information is reliable. Erasmus, if he were living at this hour, would doubtless be one of those devoting hours to tracking down online references, correcting quotes attributed to authoritative sources, and engaging in furious battles over Wikipedia pages, just as in his own time he felt compelled to weed inherited culture of the many stories and sayings attributed to saints and historic figures long after they were dead.
Hernando Colón—the illegitimate son of Columbus known for his universal library project—was among those who proposed a path towards global knowledge in the form of a tool for information that aspired to universal rule. He was not the first, nor would he be the last. The British author and activist H.G. Wells proposed the creation of what he called a world brain, a universal repository of knowledge that would use new electronic media and microfilm. So did Paul Otlet, who aspired to create a similar omni-comprehensive library and archive, the so-called Mundaneum. Every time a new medium boosts the possibilities for the material storage and distribution of information and knowledge, it is sooner or later associated to a utopian project of this sort. When the internet emerged a few decades ago, political and cultural activists dreamt of a global community of libertarian electronic navigators who would democratize knowledge and snatch it from the clutches of the centers of political and cultural power that had so far controlled them. This new city upon the hill, a global village made up of free interconnected citizens was finally within reach thanks to internet. Unfortunately, more often than not, such utopian dreams turn to dystopian nightmares—as we are seeing now through the proliferation of fake news and misinformation, a powerful tool now in the hands of rogue political operators and the regimes they establish.
New electronic media has certainly achieved more than increasing the speed at which information and knowledge circulate; it has also generated the perception of an acceleration of history, so that a minute now (as the Disney Dante has it) can bring about changes that previous periods contemplated as unfolding over many years. Like those who found in print and paper the material conditions for an uncontrolled acceleration of changes, our own days are generating the perception of the same lack of control and speeding up of changes at all levels—only now boosted exponentially thanks to the speed and power of the computer engines and algorithms used to generate and distribute information and knowledge. At least we can take comfort in the immortal words of Jorge Luis Borges that there is indeed nothing new under the sun.
José María Pérez Fernández is professor of English at the University of Granada. Edward Wilson-Lee is fellow and lecturer in English at Sidney Sussex College, at the University of Cambridge.