Monthly Archives: June 2003

the printing press didn’t cause a translation revolution

Many people believe that the Church suppressed the translation

of the Bible into modern languages during the Middle Ages, but the invention

of the printing press gave people an unblockable means of access to Scripture.

This story is often cited to show that institutions are dangerous because they

try to control knowledge, but technological innovation enhances freedom.


am no expert on this subject, but I would suggest some grounds for caution: —The

Bible was legally translated into certain modern languages, from Slavonic to Old

English, starting before the year 1,000. (See this page;

and I saw a beautiful medieval French Bible at this

exhibition.) —To be sure, there were edicts

against translation in the 16th century and later, and the Catholic Church

developed a reputation for obscurantism in modern times because the Mass was only

said in Latin until 1962. However, the Church became reactionary after the Council

of Trent (1545-63); this attitude should not be read back onto the Middle Ages.

—The Wykliffe Bible was banned and burned, but not because it was written

in English; rather it was considered distorted by a specific heresy. —It

was very hard to translate into the vernacular until the late middle ages, because

modern languages were only gradually developing and gaining enough vocabulary

to render the Bible. There was no such thing as "Italian" or "German"

in 1250; instead there were hundreds of local dialects, each spoken in a small

area, and most lacking rich vocabularies. —No medieval Western European Christians

knew Greek or Hebrew, so they would have had to translate from the Latin translation

by St. Jerome. It took brilliant Renaissance scholarship (and an infusion of Greek

experts after Consantinople fell to the Turks) before there was a reliable original

from which to translate. People who emphasize technology as a historical factor

tend to overlook the profound linguistic and literary innovations that were required

before a first translation could be made. —The Latin Bible was not secret;

Latin was the language of literate people throughout Europe. —The Church

invested tremendous resources in popularizing the Bible through painting cycles,

stained glass windows, "picture Bibles," passion plays, and readings

in churches, including huge, broad-aisled Franciscan and Dominican churches that

were designed to hold mass audiences. (These were "communications technologies"

of great power.) —Some modern critics assume that the Church wanted to control

the original text of the scriptures because then it could withhold the radical

parts. I could be wrong, but I would guess that popular passion plays and Franciscan

sermons actually emphasized the radical messages of the original Bible.


of this matters because it casts doubt on some widespread modern assumptions about

power, institutions, and technology.

against “starving the beast”

A letter

in yesterday’s New York Times says:

"Yes to no new

services, and let’s get rid of some of the old ones while we’re at it. We have

had way more than enough "services" for decades! It’s about time that

somebody finally understands!

"I hope to see those bumper stickers

in 2004. Of course, I hope that people would realize what the slogan means: a

cut in services means a cut in expenses means a cut in government intrusion into

our daily lives!

"Isn’t it about time that we rewarded ourselves with

freebdom again?

"Disclaimer: the government has likely refined its

methods of intrusion, so it could feasibly cut back and still intrude more. So

let’s cut the budget even more and not let that happen."


think the writer is making a mistake, even granting his own basic values. His

argument is: Quite apart from the pain of paying taxes, government spending is

bad because it buys "intrusion." The parts of the government that he

presumably finds "intrusive" are the offices involved in regulation

and law-enforcement: the FBI, OSHA, EPA, etc. He wants to starve these agencies

as a way to increase personal freedom. But they are not expensive. All of

the discretionary programs outside the Department of Defense, put together, consumed

just 19% of the Federal

Budget in 2002, and that included entirely non-"intrusive" programs

like the Weather Service and medical research. Therefore, deep cuts in federal

spending will have to come out of Social Security (23% of the budget), Medicare

(12%), Medicaid (7%), and other means-tested entitlements (6%). (I assume that

Defense, at 16%, is untouchable; and the remaining 17% is interest payments and

other madatory spending.) If anything, a cash-starved government might resort

to more regulation, because it would need/want to respond to social problems

and it would find regulatory mandates cheaper than spending programs.

why blog?

A friend of mine saw my May

23 entry, which is about the moral dangers of seeking fame, and asked: "Is

writing a blog part of an effort to become famous?" I replied (in effect):

"I have looked deep within and discovered that 75% of my original motivation

for starting the blog was self-aggrandizement." (At least I’m honest.) But

I do have other goals, including:

  1. To explore the ethics of recording

    ideas and experiences in a public way—that is, in a way that’s honest and

    potentially interesting for other people, and that respects others’ privacy rights

    and my own duties to the institutions that I work for. Being public in this way

    is somewhat tricky, and it’s supposed to be a modest experiment in living democratically.

  2. To

    experiment with this new genre ("the blog") by writing unusual kinds

    of entries. For the most part, I try not to offer statements of personal opinion

    or simple links to other sites, but instead I like to pose moral or philosophical

    questions that have arisen in some recent experience.

  3. To create a notebook

    from which I can later borrow for longer, more systematic writing.

  4. To

    have a platform for presenting short comments for a small audience, easily and


  5. To present myself to anyone who’s interested. The best description

    of who I am (as a professional) is a record of what I’ve been doing.

two contributions to the Commons

The second day of Deliberative

Democracy Consortium meetings leaves me with little energy for composing a

blog. So I’ll reference two valuable items connected to the commons idea:

  1. There is an effort underway to reverse the recent FCC decision to allow

    companies to own almost unlimited numbers of media outlets in each community.

    The bill to do this is S. 1046. See this web page from Common

    Cause for action steps.

  2. Paul Resnick, a professor at the University

    of Michigan’s School of Information, is really one of the intellectual parents

    of our local work on the Prince George’s

    Information Commons. He and Harry Boyte wrote an important paper arguing that

    land-grant universities should revive their extension role for the 21st century

    by creating a network of community groups that would use the Internet for local

    civic purposes. We think of the Prince George’s project as a pilot for this idea.

    Paul has now put the original, inspirational White

    Paper on his website, which is full of other relevant material.

deliberation and the scope of the public sphere

I spent the day at the semi-annual meeting of the Deliberative

Democracy Consortium‘s steering committee. We were brainstorming about what

would compose the infrastructure of a deliberative democracy in the United

States—everything from physical meeting spaces, to networks of trained facilitators,

to formal mechanisms for injecting the results of citizen deliberations into government

decision-making. An interesting philosophical question arose at one point. Assume

that you want a fully deliberative democracy. Which path seems better?

  1. Make governmental institutions more deliberative. They alone represent everyone,

    and they are already committed to egalitarian deliberation (a form of "voice")

    as a method of decision-making. Allow the market to remain mostly non-deliberative,

    because it reflects other values (such as efficiency and freedom of "exit.")

    However, remove any arbitrary constraints that would prevent the state from regulating

    the market if that’s what people want. They may choose market solutions,

    and that’s fine. But we should consider democratic institutions to be plenipotentiary,

    and leave it up to the public to decide how to use the state.

  2. Try to make

    market institutions as well as the state more deliberative. Perhaps even seek

    to reform other institutions too, such as families, religious congregations, and

    nonprofits. Do not consider the state to be sovereign or plenipotentiary. Imagine,

    instead, that power ought to be divided into several distinct sectors (state,

    market, and civil society), none of which rightly rules the others. But make all

    these sectors as deliberative and democratic as possible.

In my view,

this is really a difficult choice, and there are numerous reasons for and against

each option.