CHAPTER FOURTEEN: Good Carpenters
The rise of social media is seen by many as revolutionary, but the Minivan Centurion sees it as evolutionary. For him, it’s just another step along the path of man’s quest to increase the speed and breadth of the communication of his thoughts, beliefs, and ideas to other people.
There must be something elemental to the human heart that drives a man’s need to express himself. Otherwise, prehistoric man would not have spent so much time drawing on the walls of his cave and I wouldn’t be waking up before dawn every morning to write this book before starting my day job.
Since man began to reason, he has had something to say and a primordial need to say it to other people (the more the better). As a result, he has been constantly devising better ways to satisfy that need since he learned to speak. This has fueled an evolution of communication that started slowly but is now accelerating at breakneck speed.
At the start of this evolution, man had nothing but the spoken word which, while a wonderful thing, is very inefficient as a means of broadcasting one’s ideas. You can tell one man what you are thinking, or even as many men as will gather around you and can hear your voice, but you will always be limited by your listeners’ capacity to understand what you say and recall it accurately enough to repeat it to others.
It’s like the telephone game where you line up ten kids, whisper something into the first one’s ear and tell him to pass it down the line. By the time the message gets to the end it usually bears little resemblance to what the first kid heard. Particularly nice weather becomes tickle your ass with a feather. That might be fun at a children’s party, but it must have been frustrating for grown men who were trying to communicate about important matters.
Frustration being the true mother of invention, and humans being the ingenious creatures that we are, somebody eventually had the brilliant idea of writing his thoughts down on a clay tablet to ensure that they were accurately communicated. But that leap forward took a long time to develop. Humans had been talking to each other for almost 100,000 years before the first written language emerged 5,000 years ago.
And it would take another 3,000 years to jump from the clay tablet to paper. In between, men used things like scrolls of papyrus and animal skins, but nothing was as efficient a media as paper. When man finally figured out how to make paper, he had something durable that he could make quickly in large volumes.
But a warehouse full of paper won’t do you much good if you are limited to the speed of a man writing with a quill pen. It took a medieval monk fifteen months to produce a single copy of the Bible. That was a cumbersome process to scale, particularly when only about ten percent of the population could read and write. The labor market for scribes must have been tight and the cost of a single book astronomical.
Yet it still took 1,500 years to evolve from the advent of paper to the invention of moveable type printing with the Gutenberg Press in 1440. That makes sense if you consider how many technological advances were required to make it possible. Among a hundred other things, there was the metallurgy of the typeset, the development of ink (no small thing) and the adaptation of the screw press, which previously had only been used to process wine and olive oil. Bringing all those things together took vision, time and determination.
Once he had perfected it, Gutenberg was able to print 3,600 pages in a single day on only one of his presses—which is roughly three Bibles. Compare that to the fifteen months it took a monk to handwrite a single Bible before Gutenberg came along. There must have been a lot of scribes looking for work after 1441.
Because it could print in such volume so quickly, Gutenberg’s machine greatly reduced the cost of books and unleashed the power of new ideas upon the world. Literacy increased dramatically as the stranglehold that the medieval church and aristocracy held over the dissemination of information was broken.
But they didn’t give up that control easily. William Tyndale produced the first English-language Bible in the 1520s, but he had to do it from Germany because the English religious and political authorities (which were one in the same at the time) considered it to be heretical to read scripture in any language but Latin.
Though Tyndale was burned at the stake for his efforts, and many copies of his Bible were tossed into the flames after him, the lid had been blown off the communication gusher. Try as they might, the authorities would never be able to burn books as quickly as Gutenberg could print them.
After Gutenberg, the pace of the communication evolution began to noticeably accelerate. While it had taken 1,500 years to get from paper to the moveable-type press, man only needed 450 more years to put the typewriter into common commercial use by the 1880s. Armed with a typewriter, any man could be his own typesetter from the comfort of his home.
Of course, he was still a bit limited in the reproduction of what he could print at his kitchen table. With carbon paper he could make about five copies of what he typed. If he needed more than that, his best option was the mimeograph machine. If you grew up in the 1970s like I did, you probably remember that distinctive smell of methanol and isopropanol on the worksheets that your teacher passed out to the class. While the mimeograph was a lot more efficient than carbon paper, everything came out purple.
And then came Xerox, the original photocopier. Unlike the printing press or the mimeograph, photocopying employed no liquid chemicals and could produce an exact copy, words, and images alike. With his typewriter and access to a photocopier, a man of the 1980s could write a 200-page book and make 200 copies of it in only the time it would take transfer his ideas from his brain through the ends of his fingers into the typewriter keys.
Of course, the paper cost money (about a penny a page in today’s dollars), and the copying cost money (about a quarter-penny per page in today’s dollars) and mailing the finished product cost money (about four bucks), so the 1980s man still had some considerable expenses to bear in the dissemination of his ideas, even though Johannes Gutenberg would have been astounded by the speed and economy of the process.
Until the internet and all that. I say “all that” because I cannot conjure up a short phrase descriptive enough to encompass the impact that electronic data has had on the pace of the communication evolution.
In 1985, I wrote my last undergraduate term paper on a typewriter and handed it to my professor in paper form. Twelve years later I took my last test in law school in the computer room and emailed it to my professor. Today, I am writing this book on an iPad that is no bigger than a paperback and saving the result of my work in the cloud for peanuts.
On this same iPad I have access to every case decided by every court in the English-speaking world. On this little device, I can write a legal brief in my den (or sitting by the pool in Florida), file it with the court electronically and serve it on a hundred lawyers with one stroke of a key—at no cost other than the sweat of my brow.
Having been born in 1963, I feel the way about the communication evolution that a person sixty years my senior must have felt about the transportation evolution. Orville Wright only flew 120 feet in 1903, but three men would fly all the way to the moon in 1969. In just 66 years, less than the span of single lifetime, man went from flying 120 feet to 238,855 miles. That must have been an amazing evolution to watch if you were born in 1900. In my sixty years of life, we have gone from the mimeograph to the internet. That too has been amazing to watch.
Think then what it would be like for Orville Wright and Johannes Gutenberg if they found themselves sitting together on a Boeing 737 flying from Dayton, Ohio to Mainz, Germany. What would amaze them more, the fact they were strapped into an aluminum tube moving at 500 mph 40,000 feet above the ground, or that they could tweet their feelings about the experience over the internet to millions of people while they were doing it?
Hard to say.
It’s also hard to say what Orville and Johannes would have thought about the significant number of people who today are opposed to the speed at which both people and their ideas can travel. They might be astounded, or they might think that nothing much changes under the sun. There have always been people afraid of innovation.
And those fearful people are really disturbed by what we can do now. Because of the communication evolution, this book I’m writing is not something for which I need a publisher or printer. I can produce it as an eBook myself and sell it over the internet if I want. Or I can just post it as a series of blogs on a website I made myself and disseminate it through social media for free, just for the purpose of expressing myself. If my ideas have value, people may read them and republish them as well, for free. If they aren’t, they won’t go anywhere.
Imagine William Tyndale dropping in from the Sixteenth Century and asking do you mean that I could have written my English-language Bible from a location far from the reach and predations of Thomas More, and then published it throughout the world without fear of the stake?
Yes sir, exactly that. But that doesn’t mean there are not those today who wouldn’t try to burn you at the metaphorical stake for doing so. Radical notions that challenge the existing power structure are just as confrontational today as they were when Tyndale had the temerity to provide the Bible in English directly to the great mass of people who did not happen to speak Latin.
And just as they blamed the Gutenberg Press for the (relatively) rapid dissemination of those confrontational ideas then, they blame the internet and social media for making it possible for men to disseminate radical notions today. The don’t like the ideas, so they blame the tools by which they are spread and castigate the men who do it.
But it’s only a bad carpenter who blames his tools. The good carpenter recognizes that it is the man and not his hammer that is responsible for the result of his work. Banning the hammer because you don’t like what a man can build with it avails one of nothing. Social media is no more a genie that can be re-stuffed into the bottle than the Gutenberg Press or the Xerox machine were when they emerged during the long march of the communication evolution. Man’s desire to express himself as broadly and quickly as possible is simply too strong for that. It is a primordial drive emanating from the Creator.
The Minivan Centurion acknowledges that essential truth. He understands that the remedy for confrontational ideas is not to censor the speaker or disable his tool kit, but to be heard in opposition. He is a man who crafts his ideas carefully and disseminates them on the most efficient media available. He is a good carpenter who never blames his tools.
He also welcomes the ideas of others even if (especially if) they confront his viewpoint. Because he is a man of strong beliefs loosely held, he knows that he just might be wrong, and that by silencing the opposition he consigns himself to a prison of his own ignorance. He is a Collision Learner who relies on the juxtaposition of opposing viewpoints to help him overcome his biases, gain wisdom and be an asset.
That is why I put Andists on my juries and strike the Orists. To obtain a just result, I need jurors who recognize their own biases and don’t insist on being right as a precondition to doing right. I need men willing to be confronted by opposing viewpoints without shooting the messenger. I need good carpenters.
We live in a time where bad carpenters are trying to use governmental and corporate authority to choke off the free flow of opposing viewpoints. Just as the Roman Empire threw Christians to the lions to keep word of the resurrection from spreading, and King George shipped vast armies to colonial America to stifle the radical notion that all men are created equal, the current mob of metaphorical book burners are driven by fear and the fatal misperception that they can control the communication evolution.
But they can’t, because it is subject to a higher power—the one who places radical notions in men’s heads so that we will act upon them for the betterment of His creation. The communication evolution proceeds under His direction and no man, no matter how powerful, can hold it back. There will always be a new hammer available for a man who is unafraid to swing it and be Mister Vice for a season.
The Minivan Centurion is that man. He is a good carpenter.