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The digital Dark Ages : a retro-speculative history of possible futures

By Philip W. Graham and Gregory N. Hearn


The Dark Ages are generally held to be a time of technological and intellectual stagnation in western development. But that is not necessarily the case. Indeed, from a certain perspective, nothing could be further from the truth. In this paper we draw historical comparisons, focusing especially on the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, between the technological and intellectual ruptures in Europe during the Dark Ages, and those of our current period. Our analysis is framed in part by Harold Innis’s2 notion of "knowledge monopolies". We give an overview of how these were affected by new media, new power struggles, and new intellectual debates that emerged in thirteenth and fourteenth century Europe. The historical salience of our focus may seem elusive. Our world has changed so much, and history seems to be an increasingly far-from-favoured method for understanding our own period and its future potentials. Yet our seemingly distant historical focus provides some surprising insights into the social dynamics that are at work today: the fracturing of established knowledge and power bases; the democratisation of certain "sacred" forms of communication and knowledge, and, conversely, the "sacrosanct" appropriation of certain vernacular forms; challenges and innovations in social and scientific method and thought; the emergence of social world-shattering media practices; struggles over control of vast networks of media and knowledge monopolies; and the enclosure of public discursive and social spaces for singular, manipulative purposes. The period between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries in Europe prefigured what we now call the Enlightenment, perhaps moreso than any other period before or after; it shaped what the Enlightenment was to become. We claim no knowledge of the future here. But in the "post-everything" society, where history is as much up for sale as it is for argument, we argue that our historical perspective provides a useful analogy for grasping the wider trends in the political economy of media, and for recognising clear and actual threats to the future of the public sphere in supposedly democratic societies

Topics: 200100 COMMUNICATION AND MEDIA STUDIES, Dark Ages, Harold Innis, knowledge monopolies
Publisher: Hampton Press
Year: 2010
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