Interlude: Death by press

This series often refers to the printing press as precedent for how NFT technology may disrupt centralised digital culture. Here's the one-pager history.

“God is dead,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in The Gay Science.

To believe in something greater is a timeless human universal. For more than 2000 years, God had been our binding glue. By the time Nietzsche came around in the late 1800s however, we had antibiotics, electricity, engines, telephones and cameras. Not God but science had made the world smaller and less scary. Religion took a backseat to new grand narratives of infinite human progress.

We had killed God and become gods ourselves. Murdered with the printing press.

Before press

Before press, people didn't read. Ideas were stored in manu-scripts — written by hand. Memes travel slowly because manual copying takes ages and one script can only have one reader at a time.

You get inverse network effects. On the demand side, why and how would you learn to read with so few books available? On the supply side, why would you dedicate months and years to writing with so few readers available?

Distribution of memes concentrates in the hands of the literate handful. In the European Middle Ages, this power fell to the Catholic Church. Monks in monastery libraries would spend their sweet time scouring, selecting and copying texts. Of course, only those lip-syncing the holy word made the cut. From there, it'd trickle down to the masses orally through church service, cathedral schools, and the first universities.

It was a case of systemic ignorance rather than outright censorship. People just didn't know any better. Non-religious texts were rare because nobody cared. Critical writing even less so because it'd get you killed. The word of God was truth itself.

In meme terms, the god meme monopolised mimesis in medieval society. People were born into it and lived life obeying, praying and repenting so they'd go to heaven after. Representing God's will on Earth, the Church was the only source of truth and culture. The sole meme dealer

After press

Introduced in by Johannes Gutenberg in ~1440, the printing press slashes the unit cost of text (meme) replication. Network effects flip. As books spring up like mushrooms, the common man learns to read, then write. Literacy and education grow to unprecedented levels.

Much to the Church's delight, at first. Bible sales were off the charts. But grapes quickly turn sour when critical readers discover glaring inconsistencies between God's word and the Church's actions. Corrupt practices like the sale of indulgences — you could pay for salvation — stir protest. Martin Luther and John Calvin openly challenge the Church, using mass print to rally masses to their opposing views.

There's a new meme dealer in town: Protestantism. Protestants and Catholics would be at each others' throats for centuries.


The religious clash is just the first stone of the multi-dimensional domino effect set in motion by the printing press.

In a nutshell:

  • The press decentralises knowledge from the sole Church to the sum total of human knowledge at that time in history.
  • Long-lost Greek and Roman writings resurface. People discover different meme dealers (sources) and their memes (truth). They learn the art of interpretation: to construct their own truths.
  • Rationality finds its feet. We learn to think for ourselves. Knowledge is compared, combined and criticised to create more of it.
  • Reading triggers writing. New ideas are published. The meme pool diversifies, exponentially scaling cultural LEGO remix potential.
  • The never-ending process of truth-seeking becomes authority itself. We do this through reason and logic, supported by experimentation and measurement: the scientific method.
  • Off slides the veil of faith, illusion and dogma. The Church's monopoly of truth breaks.
  • The new arch-meme guides art (Renaissance) and thinking (humanism) in a cultural revolution known as The Enlightenment. The Enlightened man is curious, rational and inventive — like poster-boy Leonardo Da Vinci.
  • Human progress takes flight as curiosity → knowledge → imagination → invention.

Cheaper meme distribution shifts the power to shape culture from the hands of the one Church into those of the masses. In wake of Enlightenment, the decentralised meme pool would replace religion with ideologies like individualism, capitalism, liberalism, nationalism and democracy as the new cultural base layer: modernism.

“Our technology forces us to live mythically” — Marshall McLuhan
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