What the 1500s can teach us about Digital Enlightenment
There has been a lot of press recently around the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in Germany. Parallel to that, we are seeing the omnipresent debates and discussions about the role of technology in our lives and the importance of educating more people in the field of computer science. You may now ask what the reformation of a religion 500 years ago has in common with the technology-driven world we live in today. I want to show how we can actually learn from the reformation movement and its critical examination of the religious status quo at the time in order to question our understanding, usage and often blind dependance on computer science and it's underlying frameworks and codes.
Quick note on my intentions here: This is not meant to be a pessimistic take on technology or the internet or computers, nor should it be understood as promoting any religious beliefs. I just want to use the historical context in order to encourage us to question and learn more about this incredible digital world we live in, so that more of us not only take part in it, but also have the ability to actually shape it!
Let's begin by looking at what happened back in the early 1500s. The reformation was initiated by Martin Luther, a monk and German Professor of Theology. The german newspaper Der Spiegel, called him "Der Erste Wutbürger" (translation: "The first Angry Citizen"). While we don't know whether he was constantly that furious to deserve such a title, he certainly was rebellious. Martin Luther rebelled against the status quo of the religious establishment. I am not an expert in the details of the Reformation, but there is one aspect that does stand out to me. During his time, Sunday masses of established (Roman Catholic) churches were held in latin and the Bible was only available in Latin, Greek and Hebrew at the time. This meant that the illiterate or those who "only" spoke and read common German had to trust the interpretation of the priest. The church at the time was the sole bearer of religious truth and interpretation.
Martin Luther questioned the role of the church as it saw itself to be the sole mediator between the holy scriptures and its followers. He wanted to give more "direct access" to his religion and began translating the Bible into spoken German. During the same time the printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg. The translation and dissemination of the Bible enabled an unthinkable amount of people to read the scripture themselves for the first time.
"Luther's New Testament was so much multiplied and spread by printers that even tailors and shoemakers, yea, even women and ignorant persons who had accepted this new Lutheran gospel, and could read a little German, studied it with the greatest avidity as the fountain of all truth. Some committed it to memory, and carried it about in their bosom. In a few months such people deemed themselves so learned that they were not ashamed to dispute about faith and the gospel not only with Catholic laymen, but even with priests and monks and doctors of divinity" (Schaff, 1882)
For the first time it meant that anyone who could read was able to directly engage with the scripture and challenge the religious interpretation of others. This also enabled the spread of religion and the dispersement of religious power. It was in many ways a media revolution that enabled people to actually look at the "back-end" (the Bible) of the religious framework they were being taught. It was a democratization of religious interpretations.
Now, if we look at technology today, we can see a similar situation to the time before the reformation - a time of rigid religious hierarchies that enabled only a few to truly shape the religious beliefs of the mass. Today, only a very small amount of people are actually able to understand, change and control the back-end of technology. These select few can read and write the code that shape our digital world. They are the only ones who are able to create the front-ends (programs, websites, social networks, etc.) we use, by having a monopoly over the back-end (the script, the source code). We depend on them and can only hope they listen and act on the feedback and ideas of the common folk - the user. There is even a global cyberwar going on today - and truly only a few can understand its dynamics. I would even go so far and question the ability of most world leaders to truly comprehend the underlying systems and potential repercussions of cyberwar and crime.
It is indeed a bittersweet world we live in. In one way, those who are able to code have given us an incredible new world. One that defines our everyday lives, connects us, eases communication, travel - I could go on and on. However, those same individuals also have the capability to tear down this world, hack into databases, distort information. This brings us to one of the largest challenges of our time: The majority of mankind are passive users of technology who essentially blindly trust the anonymous few who create the technology we use.
It is not unusual for a select few to be the first movers, the developers of complex ideas that shape societies. It's very common for small groups of experts to work on niche technologies and to be the source of great innovations. The reasons are obvious. The leaps of progress in the automotive sector for example were enabled by the select engineers that had the unique know-how, creativity and resources to pioneer the combustion engine. While many drive cars today, only very few understand how a combustion engine works. However, most (I hope!) need to at least have learned a few basics of the mechanics during driving school. Driving school empowered us to use vehicles in a safe way and maybe even replace a punctured tire. Martin Luther empowered fellow christians to read the scriptures themselves and create a direct relationship with whoever or whatever they believe in. Followers began to lead, create their own churches and shape their religion. Yes, the more we comprehend the underlying mechanics of a car, the better we are able to read and learn about our religions, the more we understand the DNA of technology today, the more active we can become in shaping our destiny.
The reformation was said to be the enlightenment of the church. What if we had an enlightenment of the digital world? What if the majority of people using computers actually learn about the basic mechanisms of computer science, just like we learn the basics of other sciences, languages and religions. Why is "digital literacy" often defined on the basis of how many people use or have access to technology - for example the internet? Why not look at the amount of people who actually have an understanding of how these platforms and systems actually work?
Yes, there are many perspectives and details that I probably left out. But I do believe that the simple notion to encourage more people to learn about the technology they use is critically important for a truly inclusive and democratic digital future. Martin Luther scrutinized the practices of the church and it's hierarchies at the time with the goal to lastly save his religion. He did so by pushing for more transparency and encouraging more followers to directly engage with the scripture. The code was the Bible, the church was only the front-end. I encourage us to use this as an example and also push for more transparency in our own digital world. Let's look behind the front-end and learn more about the code of our time - in doing so, we may end up saving this digital world of ours.