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William J. Bernstein’s A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, an Economist and Financial Times Best Book of the Year, placed him firmly among the top flight of historians like Jared Diamond and Bill Bryson, capable of distilling major trends and reams of information into insightful, globe-spanning popular narrative. Bernstein explains how new communication techno William J. Bernstein’s A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, an Economist and Financial Times Best Book of the Year, placed him firmly among the top flight of historians like Jared Diamond and Bill Bryson, capable of distilling major trends and reams of information into insightful, globe-spanning popular narrative. Bernstein explains how new communication technologies and in particular our access to them, impacted human society. Writing was born thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia. Spreading to Sumer, and then Egypt, this revolutionary tool allowed rulers to extend their control far and wide, giving rise to the world’s first empires. When Phoenician traders took their alphabet to Greece, literacy’s first boom led to the birth of drama and democracy. In Rome, it helped spell the downfall of the Republic. Later, medieval scriptoria and vernacular bibles gave rise to religious dissent, and with the combination of cheaper paper and Gutenberg’s printing press, the fuse of Reformation was lit. The Industrial Revolution brought the telegraph and the steam driven printing press, allowing information to move faster than ever before and to reach an even larger audience. But along with radio and television, these new technologies were more easily exploited by the powerful, as seen in Germany, the Soviet Union, even Rwanda, where radio incited genocide. With the rise of carbon duplicates (Russian samizdat), photocopying (the Pentagon Papers), the internet, social media and cell phones (the recent Arab Spring) more people have access to communications, making the world more connected than ever before. In Masters of the Word, Bernstein masterfully guides the reader through the vast history of communications, illustrating each step with colorful stories and anecdotes. This is a captivating, enlightening book, one that will change the way you look at technology, history, and power.


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William J. Bernstein’s A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, an Economist and Financial Times Best Book of the Year, placed him firmly among the top flight of historians like Jared Diamond and Bill Bryson, capable of distilling major trends and reams of information into insightful, globe-spanning popular narrative. Bernstein explains how new communication techno William J. Bernstein’s A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, an Economist and Financial Times Best Book of the Year, placed him firmly among the top flight of historians like Jared Diamond and Bill Bryson, capable of distilling major trends and reams of information into insightful, globe-spanning popular narrative. Bernstein explains how new communication technologies and in particular our access to them, impacted human society. Writing was born thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia. Spreading to Sumer, and then Egypt, this revolutionary tool allowed rulers to extend their control far and wide, giving rise to the world’s first empires. When Phoenician traders took their alphabet to Greece, literacy’s first boom led to the birth of drama and democracy. In Rome, it helped spell the downfall of the Republic. Later, medieval scriptoria and vernacular bibles gave rise to religious dissent, and with the combination of cheaper paper and Gutenberg’s printing press, the fuse of Reformation was lit. The Industrial Revolution brought the telegraph and the steam driven printing press, allowing information to move faster than ever before and to reach an even larger audience. But along with radio and television, these new technologies were more easily exploited by the powerful, as seen in Germany, the Soviet Union, even Rwanda, where radio incited genocide. With the rise of carbon duplicates (Russian samizdat), photocopying (the Pentagon Papers), the internet, social media and cell phones (the recent Arab Spring) more people have access to communications, making the world more connected than ever before. In Masters of the Word, Bernstein masterfully guides the reader through the vast history of communications, illustrating each step with colorful stories and anecdotes. This is a captivating, enlightening book, one that will change the way you look at technology, history, and power.

30 review for Masters of the Word: How Media Shaped History from the Alphabet to the Internet

  1. 4 out of 5

    Sandra Ross

    This book does an excellent job of showing how the development of language (alphabets, words, reading, and writing) and advances that made wider accessibility to literacy available have paralleled the course of major events in human history. I have two major complaints with this book. This first is that Bernstein, at times throughout the book, comes off as an egotistical ultra-literate who is far and away above and beyond all the rest of us little people (the very thing he ostensibly says is an i This book does an excellent job of showing how the development of language (alphabets, words, reading, and writing) and advances that made wider accessibility to literacy available have paralleled the course of major events in human history. I have two major complaints with this book. This first is that Bernstein, at times throughout the book, comes off as an egotistical ultra-literate who is far and away above and beyond all the rest of us little people (the very thing he ostensibly says is an issue in the thesis of this book). You can literally hear him talking down to you as a reader. The second is that Berstein subtly interjects - at least in the beginning - his subjective opinions (which I disagree with) into what he expressly states is an objective history. I also completely disagree with his premise in the forward in which he states that humanity is more literate now than ever before and that has kept the dystopian society that George Orwell portrayed in 1984 from ever developing. The reality is that we are, more than ever, in the grips of dystopia that Orwell presaged and the world is in a second iteration of the Middle Ages, where literacy was almost non-existent and power and control was centralized in a very small and elite group of people at the top of a very elaborate hierarchy. But I still recommend reading the book as a big-picture history. A lot of this I knew in bits and pieces from my reading over the years, but this book pulled it all together in a chronological and historical context.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Fahed Al Kerdi

    No book has influence me like this book. I will never forget any word I have read in this book. Any review would be a spoiler, because it is very informative book from cover to cover. Highly recommend for those who are interested in the history of human history in the fields of language, writing, and media.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Aaron

    Masters of the Word focuses more on the technology of media (such as the printing press and Internet) than on the content. While it contained some interesting facts about publishing, it could have been much more interesting if it focused more on propaganda and the effects of media.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Juliana

    This is more of a survey than an exhaustive history of the print and media. Alphabets, scrolls, Gutenberg, telegraph keep the book rolling until of course a final chapter which explores the advent of the Internet. I found the chapter on the use of copiers in the downfall of the Soviet Union to be especially interesting as that was new to me. This book was published in 2013--so in some ways feels like ancient history.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Todd Stockslager

    Review title: The Power of paper Books on the history of an idea often result in an ungrounded set of generalizations with little practical relevance. Not so with Bernstein's history of the idea of media--language, literacy, publishing, and the modern replication technologies of photocopying, voice and video broadcasting and recording, and the Internet. The intertwined threads if archeology, technology, language, culture, politics, and history make for varied content and writing styles that keep Review title: The Power of paper Books on the history of an idea often result in an ungrounded set of generalizations with little practical relevance. Not so with Bernstein's history of the idea of media--language, literacy, publishing, and the modern replication technologies of photocopying, voice and video broadcasting and recording, and the Internet. The intertwined threads if archeology, technology, language, culture, politics, and history make for varied content and writing styles that keep the reader's focus and attention throughout. Bernstein starts with the invention and improvement of language, specifically written language and alphabets. While it is a twist to think of letters as technology, Bernstein shows how the introduction of vowels to the alphabet and word spacing to documents dramatically increased literacy by simplifying reading comprehension. For each technological advance he writes about Bernstein will show how the advance moved the previous state of the art towards greater accessibility and democratization of its use; in the case of vowels and word spacing, reading was no longer the priviledged and silent deciphering of texts by a literal and literate priesthood for a powerful patron, religion, or government, but could be read out loud to be heard by hundreds and copied to be distributed to be read and heard by hundreds more. The genius of the author here is to bring together seemingly mundane and isolated advances and show how they changed the world. Similarly, when he gets to Gutenberg's printing press revolution, which most readers including me think they understand, Bernstein shows how in fact the revolution was the result not so much of the idea of the mechanical press, but in the metallurgical advances which enabled the creation of precise and reusable type--and the availability of affordable, high quality, plant-based paper! As a mirror maker familiar with the characteristics of various metals, Gutenberg was uniquely qualified to address the first, and, though his famous Bibles were printed on expensive calfskin vellum, utilize the second. Here is also a good time to introduce two additional principles which Bernstein has discovered applies to each of the technology advances he describes: 1. The new technology is at first very expensive and not available to a critical mass of people. The printing press was an expensive piece of machinery that took a cadre of workers with new skills to maintain and feed. Thus, at the beginning, only those with deep pockets (governments, the Church, wealthy patrons or deep-pocketed investors) owned and operated presses and could control their output. 2. Those who benefitted from the status quo of the previous technology don't understand how the new technology has altered the landscape (although Victor Hugo did, in a fantastic bit quoted here by Bernstein which I referenced in my review of Notre Dame). At the time of Gutenberg the Church had a monopoly on access to printed copies of the Bible because of the cost of literacy, vellum, and scribal knowledge needed to make new copies; it is no coincidence that the first books off Gutenberg's press were Bibles. But what the church didn't understand, as the technology matured, the number of presses and printers spread, and the price per page and per copy decreased, was that they no longer had a monopoly on the written Word. Luther's Protestant revolution would arrive on printed pages from mechanical presses. Telegraph, radio, and television are the next technologies Bernstein examines that enabled the scalability of words and ideas that come from one person to reach hundreds (oral communication), thousands (written communication), and hundreds of thousands (printed communication), to now reach millions. As Bernstein writes, these were obviously expensive technologies that governments quickly saw needed to be both funded and controlled (through ownership or licensing), and were uniquely one-way communications. His account of how those resistance fighters under totalitarian regimes in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia turned them into two way technologies through personal courage, cultural and technical intelligence, and bungling by collectivist thinking governments, is one of the centerpieces of his argument as he brings it up to the 20th century. He also talks briefly about the easily overlooked invention of the affordable photocopy machine. The present, of course is the Internet and social media, which fit Bernstein's model well. They were initially expensive technologies that governments first failed to understand and then tried to control as costs came down and access became ubiquitous. He concludes with some balanced consideration of which tendency--democratization or control--will win out in the Internet era. The contest is still in progress four years after his writing (which includes the first Arab Spring Uprising and the Rwanda genocide), but Bernstein provides some analysis and predictions based on economic and cultural metrics which proves usable today. The slow and fitful migration of China toward economic capitalism and democratic openness was an open question for Bernstein, and remains so today. The multiple disciplines which I listed at the outset that feed into this history keep it fresh and fun to read. If you enjoy archeology and classic language discussions, if you like discussions about arcane technology like paper and typeface making, if you want narrative history about the Reformation (including Wycliffe and the Waldensians, not just Luther), if you enjoy modern history about invention and patent progress, it is all here. Bernstein carries his argument forward with recaps and summaries so if you glaze over on a section of less interest to you he'll catch you up at the end of the chapter and beginning of the next. And of course it is footnoted and includes a bibliography for those who want to dig deeper.

  6. 5 out of 5

    D.

    I suspect most academics and others used to exceptional historiographical practices will find the book insufficiently rigorous and tending toward unjustified generalizations. And such criticisms would be more or less fair. However, as an *introductory* account of the important role that "media" has and continues to play in human life and co-existence, it's not too bad. I can see it being quite useful in a variety of undergraduate settings. DS I suspect most academics and others used to exceptional historiographical practices will find the book insufficiently rigorous and tending toward unjustified generalizations. And such criticisms would be more or less fair. However, as an *introductory* account of the important role that "media" has and continues to play in human life and co-existence, it's not too bad. I can see it being quite useful in a variety of undergraduate settings. DS

  7. 4 out of 5

    Sherwood Smith

    A solid introductory history of communication and media. I was especially interested in the early chapters about the development of writing. I'd hoped for more about linguistics, but that wasn't where the book was going, so I can't complain. The chapters on communication under the Soviets were another plus. A solid introductory history of communication and media. I was especially interested in the early chapters about the development of writing. I'd hoped for more about linguistics, but that wasn't where the book was going, so I can't complain. The chapters on communication under the Soviets were another plus.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Edward Sullivan

    A broad but quite selective historical survey of communication and information technologies from alphabets to 21st century digital social media. Bernstein approaches the subject from some interesting, unusual angles in an accessible, engaging narrative.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Anurag

    Splendid, incisive and instructive. He superbly extracts the right events to show impact of media technologies on people and state.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Dmitry Kuriakov

    (The English review is placed beneath Russian one) Ценность книги в том, что автор выбрал одну узкую тему – зарождение и развитие средств коммуникации – с тем, чтобы показать, как это важнейшее событие изменило мир и почему всё, что мы имеем сейчас, мы обязаны тем важным историческим событиям, о которых рассказывает автор. Действительно, если бы не зародился самый первый текст (именно текст, а не иероглифы, которые есть по сути своей - картинки), то человек бы никогда не достиг бы вершин XXI ве (The English review is placed beneath Russian one) Ценность книги в том, что автор выбрал одну узкую тему – зарождение и развитие средств коммуникации – с тем, чтобы показать, как это важнейшее событие изменило мир и почему всё, что мы имеем сейчас, мы обязаны тем важным историческим событиям, о которых рассказывает автор. Действительно, если бы не зародился самый первый текст (именно текст, а не иероглифы, которые есть по сути своей - картинки), то человек бы никогда не достиг бы вершин XXI века. Без умения мыслить абстрактно, он бы не только не мог создать искусство в самом широком смысле (живопись, дизайн, архитектура), но и не смог бы создать алфавит. Не было бы никакого греческого, латинского и прочих языков. С появления иероглифов, клинописи и далее, первого алфавита (точнее их разных вариаций), начинает своё повествование автор. Книга построена так, что мы видим главное и важнейшее событие цивилизации как то первый алфавит, писцы, станок Гутенберга и так далее. И как одновременно это меняло жизнь людей. Т.е. как появление текста, к примеру, письменные приказы римских легионеров, повлияли на Рим и его противников. Автор как бы кидает камень в лесное озеро, где камень – важное вышеназванное событие, а круги на воде, это те громадные и масштабные изменения которые произошли в связи с этим. Так, умение писать и читать, могло быть одной из причин того, что Рим смог завоевать столько народов, ведь Риму было проще вести войну, имея возможность отправлять письменные приказы. Как пишет автор, эффект «числа Данбара» согласно которому человек может успешно коммуницировать, поддерживать связь только со 150 людьми, не больше. А это значит, что письменность расширила возможности коммуникации, расширила возможности контроля, сломав рамки числа 150. Или возьмём появление печатного станка. Если раньше только церковь имела монопольное положение и на информацию и на образование, то появление печатного станка положило этому конец. Как мы теперь понимаем, не только монополию церкви на информацию (в тех случаях, это был конец монополии на Библию, т.к. теперь любой мог купить и прочитать её, т.е. не было нужды в таком посреднике и интерпретаторе как церковь), но и запустило движение в сторону усиления светской власти, власти королей и одновременно ослабления института церкви. И далее, в логике этого событие, появление самого Лютера. Мог бы появиться Лютер (а его аналоги были и до него, и их было довольно много) и успешно реализовать то, что он сделал? И вместе с автором книги мы отвечаем: нет, без Гутенберга появление и успех Лютера был бы невозможен, как невозможен был Рим с его громадной территорией, как невозможен был XX век с его трансатлантической коммуникацией и теми техническими новинками, что он принёс. Именно так построена книга и именно так она читается. В этом её ценность. Нам показывают как «слово» создало цивилизацию. Книга рассматривает, условно говоря, десять самых важных событий. Происхождение письма, т.е. мы, отправимся вместе с автором на территорию нынешнего Ближнего Востока, попутно узнаем, что там происходило в те времена. Далее мы столкнёмся, разумеется, с Древней Грецией и Римом и как образование (т.е. умение писать и читать) послужили на благо демократии и римских завоеваний. Далее автор коротко расскажет о периоде средних веков, с его писцами и ручным переписыванием (в связи с этим вспоминается довольно интересная книга из той же серии «Ренессанс. У истоков современности»). Следующая глава логично вытекает из предыдущей, т.к. это, во-первых, Гутенберг и то, как церковь вела войну с его наследием, как возникла первая волна цензуры и костров из книг. Данному вопросу автор посвящает больше всего времени, т.е. три главы. Далее мы получим появление и развитие телеграфа и радио, т.е. это Германия 30-х и Советский Союз с его борьбой с диссидентами. Заключительной темой является, разумеется, появление Интернета и вопрос, может ли Twitter и Facebook, да и интернет в целом, изменить жить людей и даже систему государства, как это произошло с тем же печатным станком. Т.е. в данном случаи, может ли это повлиять на распространение демократии или нет? В целом, книга очень интересна, читается легко (в отличие от той же «Библия и меч») и я думаю, понравится всем, кто увлечён историей как таковой. The value of the book is that the author has chosen one narrow theme - the birth and development of communication - to show how this major event has changed the world and why we owe everything we have now to the important historical events the author tells us about. Indeed, if the very first text (the text, not the hieroglyphics, which are basically pictures) had not been generated, people would never have reached the peaks of the 21st century. Without the ability to think abstractly, a human being would not only be unable to create art in the broadest sense (painting, design, architecture), but would also be unable to create an alphabet. There would be no Greek, Latin or other languages. With the appearance of hieroglyphs, cuneiform writing and the first alphabet (or rather their different variations), the author begins his narrative. The book is structured in such a way that we see the most important events of civilization as the first alphabet, scribes, Gutenberg's machine tool and so on. And how these events changed people's lives. That is, how the appearance of the text, for example, the written orders of Roman legionaries, influenced Rome and its opponents. The author as if throws a stone into a forest lake, where the stone is an important event, and the circles on the water are those large-scale changes in the world that occurred in connection with this. Thus, the ability to write and read, could be one of the reasons why Rome was able to conquer so many nations, because it was easier for Rome to wage war, having the opportunity to send written orders. As the author writes, the effect of "Dunbar number" according to which a person can successfully communicate, maintain contact with only 150 people, no more. This means that writing has expanded the possibilities of communication, expanded the possibilities of control, breaking the limits of number 150. Or we could take the invention of a printing press. Whereas in the past only the church had a monopoly on both information and education, the advent of the printing press put an end to this. As we now understand it, not only did the church monopoly on information (in those cases, it was the end of the monopoly on the Bible, because now anyone could buy and read it, i.e. there was no need for such an intermediary and interpreter as the church), but it also launched a movement to strengthen the secular power and power of kings and at the same time weaken the institution of the church. And then, in the logic of this event, the appearance of Luther himself. Could Luther have appeared (and his analogues had been before him) and successfully implemented what he had done? And together with the author of the book we answer: no, without Gutenberg, the appearance and success of Luther would have been impossible, how impossible was Rome with its vast territory, how impossible was the 20th century with its transatlantic communication and the technical innovations that it brought. This is how the book is constructed. This is its value. We are shown how the "word" created civilization. The book considers, conditionally speaking, the ten most important events. The origin of the letter, i.e. we will go together with the author to the territory of the present Middle East, along the way we will learn what was happening there at that time. Next, of course, we will encounter Ancient Greece and Rome and how education (i.e. writing and reading) served for the benefit of democracy and Roman conquests. Next, the author will briefly talk about the Middle Ages period, with his scribes and handwritten copy (in this regard, we recall a rather interesting book "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern"). The next chapter logically follows from the previous one, because, first of all, it is Gutenberg and the way the church waged war with his heritage, how the first wave of censorship and bonfires from books appeared. The author devotes most of his time to this question, i.e. three chapters. Further, the emergence and development of telegraph and radio, i.e. Germany in the 30s and the Soviet Union with its fight against dissidents. The final topic is, of course, the emergence of the Internet and the question of whether Twitter and Facebook, and the Internet as a whole, can change people's lives and even the state system, as it happened with the printing press. That is, in this case, can it affect the spread of democracy or not? In general, the book is very interesting, easy to read (unlike Bible and Sword by Barbara W. Tuchman) and I think everyone who is interested in history as such will like it.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Danielle

    Wow, what an incredible book. I usually don't read history books that aren't about the ancient Romans or Greeks, so I was really hoping this book would be worthwhile - and it was. I was so captivated by it! Bernstein writes well, and his ideas flow beautifully from one chapter to the next. This is a really amazing book, engulfing thousands of years of history, but tying it all up in an extremely easy-to-understand and well-written way. I absolutely loved reading this book. Side note: The only rea Wow, what an incredible book. I usually don't read history books that aren't about the ancient Romans or Greeks, so I was really hoping this book would be worthwhile - and it was. I was so captivated by it! Bernstein writes well, and his ideas flow beautifully from one chapter to the next. This is a really amazing book, engulfing thousands of years of history, but tying it all up in an extremely easy-to-understand and well-written way. I absolutely loved reading this book. Side note: The only reason I didn't give this book 5 stars is because there are some things that it helps to have background knowledge on (in that the book doesn't fully explain it, and it could be confusing). I was lucky enough to have learned about some of the events and concepts already, so I filled in all the missing pieces. Apart from that, this was definitely one of my favourite history books by far. I can't recommend it enough!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Robert Laing

    I had personally never heard of William Tyndale until I read this book. (For those like me who didn't know, Tyndale was to English what Luther was to German. No Tyndale, no Shakespeare). I had also never heard of John Wycliffe and numerous other historically vital figures without whom we would still be in the dark ages. I found both Bernstein's Splendid Exchange and Master of the Word extremely enlightening, introducing me to history everybody should know, but I for one never knew before encount I had personally never heard of William Tyndale until I read this book. (For those like me who didn't know, Tyndale was to English what Luther was to German. No Tyndale, no Shakespeare). I had also never heard of John Wycliffe and numerous other historically vital figures without whom we would still be in the dark ages. I found both Bernstein's Splendid Exchange and Master of the Word extremely enlightening, introducing me to history everybody should know, but I for one never knew before encountering his wonderful books. From the reviews, I gather history geeks are a bit dismissive of Bernstein's books. But for "more techno-geek than historian" readers like myself, I find him brilliant and I cannot recommend him highly enough.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Sonstepaul

    The title is distractingly bland, but the subtitle is more to the point. This is a masterwork that will: -teach you of the history of the written word -teach you the history of communication -teach you the power of our writing’s influence -convince you that written communication and an informed populace is good -convince you that the world may be getting better -convince you that religion isn’t good for a society -convince you that social media ain’t all bad -show you that words topple despots Read this The title is distractingly bland, but the subtitle is more to the point. This is a masterwork that will: -teach you of the history of the written word -teach you the history of communication -teach you the power of our writing’s influence -convince you that written communication and an informed populace is good -convince you that the world may be getting better -convince you that religion isn’t good for a society -convince you that social media ain’t all bad -show you that words topple despots Read this book.

  14. 4 out of 5

    David Hairston

    A must read for those in politics Another Masterpiece by Bernstein. Outlines what happens during periods of technology change. While he never uses the term; this is a history of fame news and WHY it happens.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Norman Weatherly

    Masters of the Word is an enticing but ponderous read. It at times captivated me while at other times it was a labour to read. I still managed to gain some wonderful knowledge about the history of the alphabet, our Greco/Roman/Latin alphabet that is.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Mark Steed

    Masters of the Word - How Media Shaped History from the Alphabet to the Internet. In Masters of the Word William Bernstein takes the reader on a journey through human history exploring the relationship between innovations in media and the shifts in political power. His thesis is that the ruling classes have exercised influence over the masses through control of access to the media, and that the democratisation of the media is a key factor in giving the masses a greater say in how they are ruled. Masters of the Word - How Media Shaped History from the Alphabet to the Internet. In Masters of the Word William Bernstein takes the reader on a journey through human history exploring the relationship between innovations in media and the shifts in political power. His thesis is that the ruling classes have exercised influence over the masses through control of access to the media, and that the democratisation of the media is a key factor in giving the masses a greater say in how they are ruled. In the ancient world through to the late Middle Ages, literacy gave power and the educated elite jealously guarded the influence that it brought. The very ability to be able to record transactions paved the way to a legal system that could resolve disputes peacefully - a legal system that ensured that power remained with the literate few. Most importantly, literacy allowed rulers to exert influence over greater distances. Hence the invention of writing and later the alphabet enabled the Summerians to establish the first empire and the relatively high levels of literacy in the Roman Army to rule from Britain to the Middle East. The importance of a literate educated elite in Christianity and Islam ensured the influence of religion. Indeed the Church of Rome retained its power through operating in Latin rather than the vernacular - thus establishing an international language for itself whilst putting up a barrier between it and most of the population. Bernstein is creative in the way in which he takes episodes from history to illustrate the part that new media have played in changing the relationship between rulers and the ruled. Printing Press. Gutenberg's printing press combined with greater vernacular literacy allowed Luther to challenge the power of Rome, where others (Huss and Wycliffe) has failed. The rise of Fleet Street in Britain and the one-penny presses increasingly held rulers to account, whereas in Germany, Nazi party control of many of the German newspapers helped them to power. Radio. Roosevelt's command and skill on the Radio enabled him to win three terms as President; in the hands of Goebbels it was the political weapon that brought together a nation behind Hitler; and in Rwanda, it was the means of orchestrating a genocide. The radio in the form of "the Voices" (the BBC, Radio Liberty, Voice of America and Deutsche Welle) also played an instrumental role in bringing together opposition groups behind the Iron Curtain. Copiers. One of the strongest parts of the book is where Bernstein documents the lengths to which dissidents in Soviet bloc countries, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, used to disseminate their ideas: 'samizdat' (using typing and carbon copying) and 'magnitizat' (using tape recordings). Despite control of the mass media by the Soviet authorities and with the help of "The Voices" these dissidents galvanised opposition that eventually led to the end of communism. Internet. Bernstein documents the way in which the Internet has brought about a significant shift in power, so that rulers in Western democracies are accountable more than ever before to the ruled (Wikileaks, MPs expenses scandal etc.). The Internet (in the form of Twitter and Facebook) has also played (and continues to play) a significant part in bringing about democratic change in Tunisia and Egypt (Arab Spring). Bernstein is reticent about concluding that the Internet age will bring about world-wide democratic change, arguing (after Lopez Rodo) that, although a contributory factor, it is less significant than increases in prosperity. There is an interesting technical strand to this book where Bernstein seems to enjoy engaging with the science behind each technological development. He explores in detail the Summerian development of alphabet, the particular typesetting issues that Gutenberg overcame, how radio signals work and were exploited by Hertz and Marconi, and the development of photocopiers. Masters of the Word is one of those really interesting history books that explores a theme through the Ages, thus giving the reader a novel and interesting perspective on otherwise familiar ground by making new connections. This is seen most clearly as Bernstein traces comparisons between reactions from traditionalists to the introduction of new media, whether that be the scribe Filippo de Strata predicting that the octavos of Ovid cranked out by the "brothel of the printing presses" would make young women wanton, or the criticism of the Internet and amateur bloggers by professional journalists: "The criticisms you are hearing are the age-old howls of communications elite facing the imminent loss of status and income." (p.323) One note of caution, if archaeology and the history of language are not your thing then the first section of the book might be a bit dry - do persevere (or skip to the next chapter) - it is worth it. The book, like the media it is discussing, gains momentum as it heads through history. Overall, a very enjoyable summer read.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Al Bità

    This is a fascinating account of literacy and its impact on history. It covers mostly Western history, from the invention of writing up to and including the Internet. As such, it is necessarily broad-stroke in its approach, as is appropriate when dealing with a particular historical strand one wants to look at longitudinally. A critical appreciation of this approach needs to understand that this is not meant to be an alternative history, but instead one which is useful to ‘fill in gaps’ within o This is a fascinating account of literacy and its impact on history. It covers mostly Western history, from the invention of writing up to and including the Internet. As such, it is necessarily broad-stroke in its approach, as is appropriate when dealing with a particular historical strand one wants to look at longitudinally. A critical appreciation of this approach needs to understand that this is not meant to be an alternative history, but instead one which is useful to ‘fill in gaps’ within other historical contexts. Bernstein begins with the invention of writing in Mesopotamia (cuneiform, and apparently used primarily for accounting purposes), then follows the development of Western alphabets (initially essentially consonantal (most Middle-Eastern literatures were such), through the Greek invention of including vowels, then the use of spacing, and finally, punctuation for clarity) reaching its culmination in the hand-written codexes of the Middle Ages. Methods of recording and transmission are looked at (clay, drawing on buildings, carving into rock, writing on papyrus, then parchment and vellum, and eventually on paper) and the various technologies that were involved. With the invention of the Gutenberg press in the 15th century CE, the emphasis moves onto the increasing dominance of specific mechanical technologies (e.g. presses, copying techniques, photostats, facsimiles, digital technologies) as well as radio and television (the latter two more significant in the efficient dissemination of ideas through the spoken word and visuals rather than contributing to literature and literacy as such). Concurrent with these technologies is the impact made as a result of the availability of this information to increasingly more and more people. This gradually reduced the reliance on the authority of ‘specialist’ persons (usually priests, scribes, and other literate persons (and it is worth remembering that for most of Western history, the vast majority of people were illiterate)) which was (correctly) perceived as being inimical to their authority. The effect on those people in power because of their superior literary authority was to make them attempt to obliterate alternatives which undermined their authority. When they failed obliteration, the emphasis changed to modulating and controlling general access, and to perpetuate ignorance and illiteracy as much as possible, an achievement generally effective until the end of the 20th-century CE. The Internet, however, finally seems to have broken the strongholds of secrecy and specialist knowledge: whistleblowers have managed to side-step certain restraints and contribute to the education of much wider audiences faster and more effectively than anything prior. I find it particularly amusing (if that’s the right word) to see the desperate attempts the current American administration is taking to counter many disturbing revelations regarding both internal and foreign policies (e.g. Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, Wikileaks and the even more recent (not revealed before publication of this book) ‘eavesdropping’ by national security forces on each and every individual in the country) — to the extent, it seems, that it is even prepared to undermine certain basic and inalienable rights that are supposed to be the core and pride of the democracy America claims it is trying to promote elsewhere. By the same token, however, the Internet also allows for the extensive dissemination of other points of view which (in my opinion) are not so salutary or salubrious: regeneration of previously (and still) discredited myths; superstitions; pseudo-scientific stances; religious fanatics of every description; subversive cultures; etc. As far as I am concerned, the jury is still out as to what all this might mean for the future of mankind. It should be noted that Bernstein does not argue that universal literacy necessarily e ffects specific events in history: he is saying instead that it does a ffect the shape of that history, and that that shape will depend ultimately on those who can manage to retain their hold as Masters of the Word. Anyone who is interested in thinking on these things will find that this book is an excellent place to start.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Peter Goodman

    “Masters of the Word: how media shaped history from the alphabet to the internet,” by William J. Bernstein (Grove, 2013). Bernstein’s basic argument is that democracy requires widespread literacy and widespread economic wealth. He starts with detailed descriptions of the origins of writing in Mesopotamia---because there was a lot of clay, and a lot of heat, which allowed creation first of little pellets used to denote amounts of grain, then the clay tablets, then the development of types of writ “Masters of the Word: how media shaped history from the alphabet to the internet,” by William J. Bernstein (Grove, 2013). Bernstein’s basic argument is that democracy requires widespread literacy and widespread economic wealth. He starts with detailed descriptions of the origins of writing in Mesopotamia---because there was a lot of clay, and a lot of heat, which allowed creation first of little pellets used to denote amounts of grain, then the clay tablets, then the development of types of writing, and the use of plants---papyrus—to write on. But the writing, which was not alphabetic, was so complicated only a small elite could use it. It was only when simple alphabets, cheap paper and good inks appeared that literacy began to be easier to spread. At first he doesn’t deal with Asia, but eventually says that writing does not appear to have developed in China until long after it had spread through the Mideast and into Europe. Climate and types of plants were a factor. He argues that Athens developed democracy because Athenian citizens had to be literate to participate in governing the city, and had to have a basic level of material wealth. Sparta, in contrast, was not democratic, and had low levels of literacy. He says that the Roman republic died partly because it just became too big for the means of communication, and because the only large literate population was the army, where legionaries were required to be literate, but supported their generals. On through Gutenberg—who did not invent movable type, nor the press, but a way to create strong metal type that could be cast and reused. And he lost control of his invention almost immediately to a sly investor. But even then literacy grew very slowly. He does say that Protestantism depended on literacy and printing—the Catholic church tried desperately to quash the printers and destroy their pamphlets, but once writing spread beyond one or two towns, it could not be stopped. Then through the development of the telegraph, and radio---which he says was truly world-transforming. But control of radio made totalitarianism possible: the Nazis controlled the German radio waves, but the Soviets allowed too many short-wave radios to be built, which were used to receive the Voices---the Voice of America, BBC, which were accurate and balanced. He sees the internet as restoring the multiple voices that were being stifled by concentration of ownership of TV and radio. He argues that the internet is not making people more stupid, but will probably make genocide less likely. I wish he had spent some time with the Jews: Judaism demands a high degree of literacy, but it does not seem to permit democracy. He doesn’t deal with that in the era before Christ. Still, a very interesting book. http://efficientfrontier.com/ef/0adho...

  19. 5 out of 5

    Kathleen (itpdx)

    An interesting look at the history of western civilization through the lens of communication. Bernstein's premise is that the more people who have control of communication, the more likely their government will be a democracy. And when the means of communication is concentrated, it can be controlled by a despotic government. At the end, he throws in that a democratic revolution won't likely be successful unless the population is fairly prosperous. If the population is insecure as to food and she An interesting look at the history of western civilization through the lens of communication. Bernstein's premise is that the more people who have control of communication, the more likely their government will be a democracy. And when the means of communication is concentrated, it can be controlled by a despotic government. At the end, he throws in that a democratic revolution won't likely be successful unless the population is fairly prosperous. If the population is insecure as to food and shelter democratic reform is less likely to succeed even if the means of communication is broadly based. It was very interesting reading Masters of the Word after Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber which looks at much the same history through the focus of debt and currency. Now I am interested in testing Bernstein's theory in some other settings like South Africa, Chile, the Phillipines, etc. Who had control of the media? How did media play a role in "regime change"? etc.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Aziz Alkattan

    Language and communication are what drive the human race forward. I loved this idea, so I was very excited to read this book. This book, however, jumps from topic to topic, sometimes going through tedious and unnecessary details. Although the premise is to point out the connection between the state of literacy and communication technology with the historical events, the author spends most of the book discussing the historical events and briefly pointing out the the connection to technology. I fo Language and communication are what drive the human race forward. I loved this idea, so I was very excited to read this book. This book, however, jumps from topic to topic, sometimes going through tedious and unnecessary details. Although the premise is to point out the connection between the state of literacy and communication technology with the historical events, the author spends most of the book discussing the historical events and briefly pointing out the the connection to technology. I found myself breezing through many of the chapters, especially half way through the book where themes started to become repetitive. Although I feel like a gained a lot from the book, it could have been conveyed in a long article rather than a 400+ page book. The only chapters I actually enjoyed were the introduction and the last chapter that dealt with modern technology such as the Internet and it's connection to current events, like the Arab Spring I won't really recommend this book to anyone except those of you who like to read obscure world history.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Dana

    The last chapter makes me doubt the validity of other chapters in the book. How can someone, in the year 2013, claim that the Internet brought more democracy? I wonder if today, after all the stuff with ISIS and its recruitment over social networks, the author doesn't secretly bang his head against the wall. And how come Mr. Bernstein noticed that tabloid sort of news has eroded the interestingness of that kind of news and yet didn't notice that when EVERYONE can publish his or her thoughts, it The last chapter makes me doubt the validity of other chapters in the book. How can someone, in the year 2013, claim that the Internet brought more democracy? I wonder if today, after all the stuff with ISIS and its recruitment over social networks, the author doesn't secretly bang his head against the wall. And how come Mr. Bernstein noticed that tabloid sort of news has eroded the interestingness of that kind of news and yet didn't notice that when EVERYONE can publish his or her thoughts, it devalues those thoughts and just makes for a lot of circulating crap? Nevermind. At least I learned some stuff I didn't know, such as that there used to be no spaces between words.

  22. 5 out of 5

    David

    A good look at how words can shape our lives. When writing was created it transformed the world and cemented human beings place as dominant species on Earth. Communication is vital. Human politics, power structures and social nature were transformed by books and writing. Now social media has accelerated change again. Where will it end? Big questions. Also consider looking at Melvyn Braggs "The Book of Books" about King James Bible influence on reading, writing, social change etc. Both books good A good look at how words can shape our lives. When writing was created it transformed the world and cemented human beings place as dominant species on Earth. Communication is vital. Human politics, power structures and social nature were transformed by books and writing. Now social media has accelerated change again. Where will it end? Big questions. Also consider looking at Melvyn Braggs "The Book of Books" about King James Bible influence on reading, writing, social change etc. Both books good.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Allen Murphey

    Sargon of Akkad, Martin Luther, F. D. R., Joseph Goebbels — they all took maximum advantage of newly-developed ways to distribute words (writing, print, and radio, respectively) to spread their messages. Bernstein thoroughly investigates the influences that changes in media have had on the message and on society. Easy to read, well-researched, and entertaining. The chapters on the invention and development of writing are fascinating. Well worth your time.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    Great history of writing, printing, and other forms of mass communication from thousands of years ago until now. Extensively researched and well written. I liked another book of his ("A Splendid Exchange") very much also. Great history of writing, printing, and other forms of mass communication from thousands of years ago until now. Extensively researched and well written. I liked another book of his ("A Splendid Exchange") very much also.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Cindy

    Very good book about how media technologies have changed our world - for the better or for the worse. He starts with the first alphabets and continues through to the Internet. It's very thought provoking about how these different technologies have been used in our history. Fantastic book... Very good book about how media technologies have changed our world - for the better or for the worse. He starts with the first alphabets and continues through to the Internet. It's very thought provoking about how these different technologies have been used in our history. Fantastic book...

  26. 4 out of 5

    Richard

    Some nice summary of history, but unfortuantely inaccurate in the parts I already know well (e.g. history of blogging) so makes me suspect it's wrong elsewhere too. Some nice summary of history, but unfortuantely inaccurate in the parts I already know well (e.g. history of blogging) so makes me suspect it's wrong elsewhere too.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jeff Vankooten

    Hard to read journey through words (written and digital) and their impact on our lives and culture.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Sara Abdullateif

    can i get this book ?

  29. 5 out of 5

    Ksenia_Fox

  30. 5 out of 5

    Sana Rauf

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