I bought Tony Horwitz’s new book, A Voyage Long and Strange just prior to getting on a plane at Santa Barbara airport. By the time I landed in Newark, I had finished the book. It is one great read.
Horwitz fills in the ‘missing years’ in American history, between Columbus’ discovery of The New World i 1492, and the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620. And what a fascinating story it is.
I was struck, however, by the impact that the relatively new technology of the printing press (1452) had on our perceptions of history to this day. Columbus discovery in 1492 was only 50 years after Gutenberg first set ink to movable type, forever changing the world. And, there is no doubt that Columbus was the first European (at least since the Vikings) to set foot on the Americas, (even if he thought he was just off the coast of Japan).
The interesting part is in the name Americas. Why is the place not called Columbia?
It turns out that while Columbus was a great sailor and navigator, he was pretty crap at his command of the then-new technology of printing and mass media (such as it was). A well-connected Florentine merchant, one Amerigo Vespucci was hardly the sailor that Columbus was, but boy did he grasp the power of the Internet of his time.
Vespucci, (so I learned from Horwitz), rushed to print, and boy did he understand his audience. Here is a paragraph from one of his books about The New World (Courtesy, A Long and Strange Voyage, p.77):
Native women, he claimed, were giantesses – “taller kneeling than I am standing”- and impervious to age and childbearing, with taut wombs and breasts that never sagged. “Being very lustful,” Vespucci wrote, the women used exotic devices and insect venom to “make their husbands’ members swell” to fantastic size. Best of all, they were “very desirous to copulate with us Christians,” and native men regarded it as a great token of friendship” to give the Christians one of their daughters, “even when she is a young virgin”.
Not surprisingly, writes Horwitz, Vespucci’s book became an instant best seller.
At around the same time, (the printing press being so new and all), the first mass produced atlases were also starting to come out. And so when atlas and map maker Martin Waldseemuller added the new, ‘fourth continent’ to his maps of the world, what name did he give it? America, after the well-known author and explorer Amerigo Vespucci!
That is the power of the press. While Columbus died in penury and to some degree in disgrace, the Americas gets name for the man who was a soft porn writer, the Harold Robbins of his day.
All of which leads us to our own Gutenbergian revolution – the marriage of video and the Internet.
Watching the returns from Indiana and North Carolina, it is not necessarily the ‘best’ who get elected (or even noticed), it is those who understand the new medium and how to use it best.
Perhaps it will be the videos of the Rev. Wright on Youtube (‘God Damn America’) that will be the demise of the once promising Obama campaign. Perhaps there will arise a candidate who really understands the power of the web/video marriage. Or perhaps there will come a news carrier (former newspaper?) that will learn to embrace the new medium for all that it is capable of?
That isn’t to say it is always the best and the most deserving who triumph, but rather those who understand just how the new medium works.
History, so goes the old aphorism, is written by the winners. In truth, I think, it is written by those who first pick up the newest pencil.