From the birth of the United States, democracy has walked hand in hand with literacy and a free press. Between 1640 and 1700, 89 to 90 percent of the men living in Boston and Connecticut could read. They held possibly the highest literacy rate in the world at the time. (In England, their country of origin, literacy hovered around 40 percent.) Literacy in American women also sailed beyond female literacy in other nations, reaching 62 percent between 1681 and 1697.

Early Americans devoured books. One Boston bookseller imported 3,421 books in the three years following 1682. Note that only 75,000 people lived in the northern colonies at the time. To serve the number living there now, a modern book dealer would have to order 10 million books over three years. To match Thomas Paine’s success with his 1776 work Common Sense, an author of a new title today would have to sell eight million copies in two months.

The result of this early American reading frenzy? Jacob Duche wrote in 1772, “The poorest labourer upon the shore of the Delaware thinks himself entitled to deliver his sentiment in matters of religion or politics with as much freedom as the gentleman or scholar.”

The American passion for reading soon gave birth to a passion for home publishing. Harvard University setup the first American printing press in 1638. Other presses followed in Boston and Philadelphia. The British Crown turned a blind eye, remarkable because it outlawed presses in Liverpool and Birmingham.

Why did Americans grow their own presses? Certainly they wanted to print their own books, but even more they wanted their own newspapers, magazines and pamphlets. These helped them keep abreast of events and opinion–crucial for their growing self-rule. Their uncensored press challenged the official authority and fed democracy. Once these presses started rolling, Americans began to read so many pamphlets and newspapers that one commentator quipped they would soon have no time for books. In 1835, DeToqueville wrote, “In America, parties do not write books to combat each other’s opinions, but pamphlets, which are circulated for a day with incredible rapidity and then expire.” From early on, Americans developed the habits of keeping informed, debating issues and thinking for themselves. They formed the habits of democracy.

Look at our portrait from the middle of last century: a free press, arguing diverse political opinions from a common moral foundation; the people of the world’s most literate country joining in the fray. Special credit goes to Neil Postman whose book, Amusing Ourselves to Death paints this portrait so vividly.

It’s been said that the only man enjoying freedom of the press is the one who owns one. If only a few could afford printing presses, far fewer could afford radio and TV stations. To make matters worse, until recently we could fit only so many stations on the airwaves. With the rise of radio and TV, we came to hear fewer voices, and they started sounding alike. DeToqueville described an American government amazingly non-centralized by today’s standard. The great centralization of our government took place during the great centralization of our media. Mere coincidence?

Today, common hands lay hold of the “presses.” Personal computers and photocopiers helped distribute the truths that finally toppled the Soviet regime. What might they do to the regime of America’s entrenched media and government establishment? Publishing doesn’t even require paper today. Anyone with a computer and modem can publish. Anyone using a camcorder can “produce” TV.

Who can say whether Americans will use these tools to re-establish independent reporting and an authentic political discourse? None of them guarantee democracy; they’re just a set of tools we can use to practice democracy. Whether or not we use them is up to us.

We see hopeful signs, however. The nation already has turned from the established sources of news and opinion to new networks and talk radio. Might we take the next step, and turn computer on-line services and cable TV systems into real fora for electronic democracy?

If we do, we might feel again the independence of those early Americans. If we don’t–well, with new technical powers about to bless the electronic media, how much independent thought, lively debate or democracy might we expect?

Stephen Muratore is Videomaker‘s Editor in Chief.

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