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
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
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
Stephen Muratore is Videomaker‘s Editor in Chief.