Lessons from the Guttenberg Press

An acknowledged game changer in the history of mankind including the telegraph, Menlo Park, Singer machine, transistors and penicillin is the Guttenberg press. In this age which chastens us  to do less paperwork and save the trees, printed texts were once exclusive and a product of relentless toil.

In a typical Catholic Church till the mid-1400s, monasteries labour for years to ink the Bible on rolls of papyrus, locked in the library and only read aloud to the faithful during services. Owning the Bible seemed impossible, limiting the intercourse of knowledge between the Church leadership and its congregants. Such lack of quick access to canticles of Bible was the burden of Martin Luther in 1517 especially in the sale of indulgences, which was already being abused by the appointees of the Pope. In those days, if you committed a sin, you can seek temporal punishment by buying indulgences.

According to Wikipedia:  Professional “pardoners” (quaestores) – who were sent to collect alms for a specific project – practiced the unrestricted sale of indulgences. Many of these quaestores exceeded official Church doctrine, whether in avarice or ignorant zeal, and promised rewards like salvation from eternal damnation in return for money.With the permission of the Church, indulgences also became a way for Catholic rulers to fund expensive projects, such as Crusades and cathedrals, by keeping a significant portion of the money raised from indulgences in their lands. There was a tendency to forge documents declaring that indulgences had been granted. Indulgences grew to extraordinary magnitude, in terms of longevity and breadth of forgiveness.

The abuse of indulgences irritated Martin Luther – a German Priest – and he wanted to end this practice. However, how do you raise a mass movement of people to support  your idea when the means to distribute literature or even references to the Bible were limited? To disrupt Papal order on sale of indulgences, he needed induction of a large class who were ready to send a deafening toll across the Vatican.

Jan Hus, the Czech Priest who sought to end indulgences as it were, was burnt at stake in 1415 after unwilling to recant his conviction to the Catholic Church. Such was the fate Martin Luther could suffer with his disruptive attempt to question the sale of indulgences and raise a storm in the church.

Bathing in the Zeitgiest, a young man Johannes Gutenberg was already building moveable printing press that churns out printed document and gradually makes them ubiquitous. All Martin Luther needed to do was to print his 95 theses (the statement of his conviction) using Guttenberg Press,  and tack them on the doorpost of Wittenberg chapel. He could have been burnt at stake, suffering the fate of a rebel in the past.

In few months that Martin Luther raised his objection to the Church practices, his documents was flying around Europe and the disruption was near. The information was distributed. The effect will be revolutionary.

The power of fast-paced distributed flow of information is one that quickens my mind especially  the non-linearity of its outcome. Knowledge has never been at its cheapest and  the Internet enabling it can be counted as our own Guttenberg press of our moment. This distributive medium is the large channel that churns out information and serves as leveler irrespective of time and space. To democratize information via digital tools presents an opportunity that can lead to better outcomes in the society that we operate.

One of the greatest danger democracy is information inequity. People deserve to know more being co-participants but elected rulers ride on their ignorance or play the ethnic card to create fiefdoms. This leads to a scenario of where elected leaders are not seen as custodians of vested powers but as rulers. Such approach makes them think public projects are privileges not their account of stewardship. It makes them cringe once you demand accountability. Completing the feedback loop of budget and public projects is key to my organization (BudgIT) that has worked to improve budget access in Nigeria.

People share photos, videos, writing via the Internet and at BudgIT I also believe we can make budget tracking the basis for social interaction. At BudgIT, we have decided to test that through our application in works called Tracka.  The whole essence is to deepen the conversation about public data and we have Internet as the superhighway already begging for us to effectively use it. Using mobile phones and web, we believe we can aggregate interests and trickle down the narrative to those still not connected to the online space. This is our Guttenberg press  moment, we don’t need a Martin Luther to steer us. We need a tireless minority who are connected and believe they can peer into data and begin conversations for a better society.


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