In his provocative new book, "Masters of the Word: How Media Shaped History From the Alphabet to the Internet" (Grove Press, $27.50), William J. Bernstein argues that the control of communications technology is a fundamental pillar of political power. Throughout history, he writes, authoritarian states maintain a monopoly on disseminating information, whether via the written word in ancient Egypt or radio in Nazi Germany. But then new technologies shatter that monopoly and empower the individual, from the simpler alphabet that fostered increased literacy and democracy in ancient Greece to the printing presses that enabled religious and political radicals to spread their messages across early modern Europe. In a recent phone conversation from his home in Oregon, Bernstein discussed the ongoing relevance of this pattern in the age of the Internet -- and his own circuitous career path.
How does a practicing neurologist become a financial adviser and then start writing history?
While working as a neurologist, I was investing for my retirement, and I realized the strategies I developed were something other people would want to read about, so I got involved in financial publishing. Most people don't realize that history is an incredibly important part of investing: The reason those brilliant people at Long Term Capital Management almost brought down the world economy in 1998 is that although they were Nobel Prize-winning mathematicians they had no grasp of financial history!
I found I enjoyed writing history, and while I was working on a history of trade called "A Splendid Exchange" I came across the story that became the kernel of this book. It was about the Corn Laws . I realized the reason they didn't get repealed until 1846 was that before then, only the English aristocracy could travel and communicate, and everyone else was disenfranchised. The railroad and the penny post changed all that; when their opponents could communicate as readily as the aristocracy, the Corn Laws were repealed.
Your fundamental point is that when more people get access to the means of communication, the result is more democracy.
Once you see it, you realize that it's everywhere in history. Another story that didn't get in the book was a passage from Plato's dialogue "Phaedrus," in which he has Socrates saying, "This new technology, this writing, is really messing up humanity. It's destroying our memory, we don't know anything anymore; this will be the end of us." It's the 400 B.C. equivalent of "Look at all the trash on the Internet" and "Google is making us stupid"!
Obviously, you don't believe this; in fact, you argue that the Internet and social media have largely taken over the historical role of newspapers. Can a bunch of bloggers really replace, say, The New York Times?
Journalists always ask, "What newspaper organization now would have the moral authority and the moxie and the power to face down Richard Nixon and the government the way the Times did with the Pentagon Papers?" The answer, of course, is that no one these days does, but the point is you don't need an organization anymore. Daniel Ellsberg needed The New York Times to get the Pentagon Papers to the public; now all you need is a thumb drive.
You don't worry that an authoritarian state could take control of the Internet?
I just don't see that as a possibility. You have to realize that the Internet was originally designed as a system that could withstand a massive thermonuclear attack, and if it can withstand that, I think it ought to be able to withstand any government. What I do worry about is an economic catastrophe; nothing is better for totalitarianism and genocide than a bad economy. We didn't get it in 2008-9, because we didn't get 40 percent unemployment, but the Spanish are heading in that direction now. It will be interesting to see if the social welfare network holds.
Do you plan to continue dividing your time between financial work and writing history?
Life is all about variety; any job gets boring after a while. I love writing books, I love doing finance and writing about it; I also love my grandchildren and enjoy spending two or three months a year traveling. The trick is to do all the things you love -- and don't do too much of any of them.