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The parent revolution

Willa Cather was speaking of the life of homesteaders when she wrote in O Pioneers! "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before" But surely one of the fiercely repeated stories is the fear of new technology and of its impact as we are seeing, yet again in the "news" coverage of the Heaven's Gate story.

From Victor Hugo's Dom Claude Frollo fearing that the printing press will destroy the church, to Ned Ludd breaking frames for automatic weaving machines, to legislatures increasing the penalty of a crime that has existed for millennia if the Internet was involved in some way, the advent of advanced (for the time) technology seems to kick off some sort of irrationality in some people. This type of irrationality is painfully clear in the news stories and commentary that has resulted from the Heaven's Gate members "discarding their containers."

This is a group that had been in existence for more than 20 years and did almost all of its recruitment the old-fashioned way, using printed flyers. Yet the fact that they made money by creating Internet web pages has been part of almost all of the stories I've seen. Why should they be referred to as the "UFO and Internet cult" rather than the " UFO and Xerox machine cult"? It is because the Net is currently an easy target, it is seen as somewhere between vaguely sinister and the personification of evil. Interestingly enough, these characterizations can be by the same people who are working hard to bring the Net into every classroom. But consistency is no more of a common trait in demagogues than is logical thinking

In one of the many parts of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame not talking about cathedrals and gypsies, Victor Hugo says "The invention of printing was the greatest event in history. It was the parent revolution; it was the fundamental change in mankind's mode of expression, . . . When put into print, thought is more imperishable than ever; it is volatile, intangible, indestructible; it mingles with the air." The power of transcribed thought was then seen as a much of a danger to the way that things should be as was the industrial revolution years later. All too often people have tried to suppress this power by banning or burning books. In the long, and usually even short run, this is futile - burning a book does not destroy the thoughts within. Note that this power can reflect both the good and the evil in the heart of the writer.

It is too early to know if the Internet is another "parent revolution". The powers that be of the 15th century feared the printing press because "A book is so quickly made, costs so little, and can go so far!" The Internet clearly does an even better job at decimating ideas. Ideas can be made quicker, for less cost and distributed faster and further than can any printed work. This has already made the Net more suspect than was printing in its day. We will see more fear and its attendant calls for the "control" of the Internet as we progress on this new revolution.

disclaimer: Harvard, with its own Gutenberg Bible and a few million other books, has shown little fear in this area, but the above mutterings are my own.