Zucker for history: What I learnt about Facebook 600 years ago

Something for the Weekend, Sir? Sudden infant wails finally brightened the delivery room late that night, a relief to everyone, not least the mother. After a quick wipe-down and weigh, the baby was swaddled and handed back to the parents to be comforted.

I leant across the bed towards the crying baby, put on my best Yorkshire accent and whispered into her ear: “Huh, you don’t know you’re born.”

Well, that was the plan, anyway, but I chickened out at the last minute. A hospital delivery room after an 18-hour labour no longer felt like the best place to be putting on comedy accents and making ironic jokes about generation-gap clichés. Besides, I reasoned that if the joke fell flat, the midwife might start heckling.

It is the duty of every grown-up to assert their insecurity by inflicting “you-don’t-know-you’re-born”-isms on the next generation. I heard these all too often during my formative years from teachers, supervisors and supposed co-workers. “You’ll learn” is a popular variant. Clearly, younger people need to be put in their place since they keep swanning around deliberately not being old.

This explains the relentless non-news items in the media about how incompetent young people are. You know the kind of thing: 48 per cent of Millennials have never posted a letter in a letterbox, 78 per cent have never handwritten an essay, 84 per cent can’t sign their own name, 107 per cent are unable to explain to journalists how percentages work, and so on.

This has always been so and probably always will. When I was a child, news stories said that we were dulling our brains by watching television after school, when we really ought to have been sitting quietly with the TV switched off, contemplating the wisdom of our elders, reading The Bible and so on.

Ex-head of BBC News James Harding began to stray into “you-don’t-know-you’re-born”-isms during his Hugh Cudlipp Lecture on Wednesday night at the British Library. Everything from quality journalism to democracy itself was being killed off, he insisted, by wealthy young upstarts in Silicon Valley and their newfangled computery whizzigogs.

Well, yes and no. Yes, there are questions to answer in our increasingly dystopian tech-driven society concerning issues such as rampant tax avoidance, the deliberate proliferation of disinformation and self-radicalising social media bubbles.

But no, James, this is not something new. Rich people have always dodged their taxes, politicians have always lied to their electorate, and people have always actively sought confirmation of their existing opinions, for example by reading the same newspaper every day.

Newspaper? Luxury!

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Heck, my parents used to buy the Daily Express religiously for decades right up until they decided it wasn’t mad enough and switched to the Daily Mail instead. I think I’ll take my chances on Twitter, thank you very much.

The belief that bad shit is a new phenomenon created by an impatient younger generation that has unreasonable expectations is just another “you-don’t-know-you’re-born”-ism. There are few things as infuriating than some old bastard who benefited from a lifetime of well-funded healthcare, humane working hours, affordable housing and a generous pension telling a hipster who has access to none of these things that he has an overblown sense of entitlement.

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. So if you take a closer look, history can also reveal how bad shit in the past turned out.

Renaissance scholar Chris Kutarna, for example, draws a parallel between unfettered social media and the rapid development of print media after Gutenberg popularised the mechanics of movable type in the 15th Century. The initial result of the sudden explosion in widely available and affordable printed material was utter chaos, perpetuating blatant errors as much as enlightened truth. “It fanned religious extremism and bigotry as well as deepened linguistic and national divides,” notes Kutarna in Age of Discovery.

The printing press also gave power to the individual. OK, not every individual of course, but you no longer needed your own personal monastery in order to publish a book. Indeed it was a lack of such expensive Catholic affectation that drew Martin Luther to nip down to his local print shop and hand over his theses on a figurative USB stick. His extremist views subsequently caused widespread offence and insistence that he make a public apology to those affected by his words.

Ring any bells?

The printing press provided a means of expression previously denied the everyman and helped disseminate information and new ideas. Yes, it gave rise to religious wars. It also gave rise to the Scientific Revolution. It’s a medium, not the message. So if you are looking for someone to blame over Facebook’s questionable data sharing policy, you should consider Gutenberg as well as Zuckerberg.

I even have it on good advice that Gutenberg channelled his profits through Saxony, which sounds well dodgy since Google Maps insists it’s not even a country.

Anyway, since we’re taking a little stroll down history lane, you may be amused to learn that celebrated black French author Alexandre Dumas predicted in 1844’s The Count of Monte Cristo how integrated communications systems could be hacked.

For the TL;DR crowd out there (Hey guys! How’s it going? No, don’t tell me, I couldn’t be arsed to listen), the book was written in the years before the rollout of the electric telegraph system, when the optical telegraph was still running – that’s the one that relied on semaphore, telescopes and lots of repeater towers. As you’ve probably guessed, the Count simply bribes a semaphore operator to insert some fake news into the live stream to discredit one of the men who had him unjustly imprisoned before he had an opportunity to take a ride in his Mercedes.

Now here’s the clever bit. To make the false information properly believable, he also persuades a shady civil servant to drop some hints on the matter with the wife of his intended victim. The cumulative effect of the official telegraph (which no one trusts) plus throwaway gossip (which everyone believes) is utterly convincing.

Ring any bells? It’s a classic two-factor authenticated hack.

So while the young can learn a trick or two from the old, the old still has a lot to learn from the dead. Things were not done better in the past. They were done the same as they are now, except they were brown and made more use of chisels.

That’s not enough excuse to be punishing the young for complaining about the crap we’ve dropped them in and for enjoying a few modern luxuries.

Speaking of which, it’s beer time. See you next week. ®

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Alistair Dabbs

Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He reckons we can learn a lot about the value of standardisation in technology from looking at history. The problem is that while standards enhance reliability and long-term development, they represent a standing target for serial disruptors. And serial disruptors do tend to be short-termist wankers, don’t they?

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