One song to the tune of another: the 18th Century prophet of social media revealed

A few weeks ago there was a “Twitter Makes Us Better People” meme doing the rounds. It reminded me why I’m suspicious of claims about technology changing behaviour.

In particular some social media evangelists seem to appropriate the language of radical politics to describe the alleged impact of Facebook, Twitter and the rest in some way turning the tables on big government and business. Yet, as Evgeny Morozev says,  “no dictators have been toppled via Second Life.

It prompted me to re-read the writing of John Thelwall, the 18th Century radical orator I studied for my final year history dissertation.

Thelwall was a colourful, controversial character, a romantic poet and friend of Coleridge and Wordsworth. He was radicalised by Britain’s war against revolutionary France, being tried and acquitted of treason as a leader of the London Corresponding Society. His writings in 1795-96 are seen as significant in their focus on the economic as well as political condition of the common people in wartime Britain. And he wore a cudgel-proof hat as protection against ruffians loyal to the Government, which I always thought was rather cool.

Thelwall’s writing can be hard going for a modern reader. He lacks the timeless, elegant theoretical exposition of his more famous contemporary Tom Paine. He spends a lot of time attacking the Tory Edmund Burke, condemning Parliamentary borough-mongers and invoking now obscure classical allegories.

But I think he deserves our attention for a number of reasons.

He worked in a time and place where real and imagined threats to national security had been used to curtail civil liberties. The repressive “Two Acts” introduced by William Pitt’s goverment to clamp down on free speech and assembly were said to have been framed with Thelwall in mind.

He stood at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution – seeing a shift from an agrarian economy to an industrial one, from a critical perspective, never rushing back to the woods. The diffusion of knowledge was central to the working of this trade. From The Tribune:

Commerce, uncorrupted by monopolizing speculation, is one of the greatest advantages that result from social union. It is by this that the comforts and accommodations of each corner of the globe are transplanted to every other, and that every individual spot of the universe might be benefited by the knowledge of all the rest.

During the mid-1790s Thewall appears to have moved from a rather dour first-things-first-ism to a position where, I suspect, he would have agitated for more equal access to cat food, stripy toothpaste and fizzy water. The growth of capital was to be welcomed, but only if all members of society could share in the fruits of economic advances.

And most of all in the context of the whole social media thing, John Thelwall understood the power of communication – so much so that when forced to retire from political life he forged a second career teaching elocution and is regarded by some as a founder of modern speech therapy. Today it’s the right who complain the loudest that children don’t speak proper, but Thelwall regarded elocution as a tool to widening participation in politics.

And so to some red meat for the social media mafia. Ten days ago I posted this quote without comment. Now I offer it wreathed round with hyperlinks, in my own grossly ahistorical London-As-Tokyo-style attempt to make the words of an 18th Century cudgel-proof-hat-wearer fit the world in which we now live.

“The fact is that the hideous accumulation of capital in a few hands, like all diseases not absolutely mortal, carries, in its own enormity, the seeds of a cure. Man is, by his very nature, social and communicative – proud to display the little knowledge he possesses, and eager, as opportunity presents, to encrease his store. Whatever presses men together, therefore, though it may generate some vices, is favourable to the diffusion of knowledge, and ultimately promotive of human liberty. Hence every large workshop and manufactory is is a sort of political society, which no act of parliament can silence, and no magistrate disperse.”

… and after expanding on how Socrates spread his message by wandering the public places of Athens he goes on…

“Now, though every workshop cannot have a Socrates within the pale of its own society, nor even every manufacturing town a man of such wisdom, virtue and opportunities to instruct them, yet a sort of Socratic spirit will necessarily grow up, wherever large bodies of men assemble. Each brings, as it were, into the common bank his mite of information, and putting it to a sort of circulating usance, each contributor has the advantage of a large interest, without any diminution of capital.”

As we move now to a “post-industrial” world it’s fascinating to see how our predecessors engaged with the disruptions of two centuries ago.

Citizen Thelwall reminds us that factories, not coffee shops, were the original social networking sites. What we know today as social media is nothing but a reinvention of the social places that people have enjoyed for hundreds of years, places they’ve made social by themselves, not waiting for permission or instruction.

Delightfully, “The rights of nature against the usurpations of the establishments” is now digitised by Google and reprinted in facsimile.

Update 30/04/2009: I found this and this.

3 thoughts on “One song to the tune of another: the 18th Century prophet of social media revealed

  1. Highly engaging, Matt. I’m all in favor of analyses like yours (or the one I made on Martin Luther) that remedy the ahistorical views commonly bandied about on Twitter. (I love Twitter, but let’s spread the love for history, too . . .)


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