The End of the Economist

I admit I used to be a huge fan of the Economist. There were days when I would sit in the library and pore over editions from the early 1940s and marvel at the lengths they would go to offer analysis without bias. If you ever have a chance to do it I recommend it highly. It was spooky to see how accurate their writers were in predicting the future.

Things have changed a lot for them in the past twenty years let alone over sixty. I find their writing less compelling and less informed as time goes on, as if they are looking at the world through a shrinking scope. They seem to just be lazily writing their opinion, without any bother to research or read the data available. Take the recent article “Coming Full Circle“, for example.

They make a fair point about the impact of big media and industrialization in the West, but they also give a lopsided history of print and social networks from a pseudo-Western lens:

Until the early 19th century there was no technology for disseminating news to large numbers of people in a short space of time. It travelled as people chatted in marketplaces and taverns or exchanged letters with their friends. This phenomenon can be traced back to Roman times, when members of the elite kept each other informed with a torrent of letters, transcriptions of speeches and copies of the acta diurna, the official gazette that was posted in the forum each day. News travelled along social networks because there was no other conduit.
In early 1518 Martin Luther’s writings spread around Germany in two weeks as they were carried from one town to the next. As Luther and his supporters argued with his opponents over the following decade, more than 6m religious pamphlets were sold in Germany.

Uh, ok, a timeline from the Romans to the Germans?

That does not sound like a proper student of British education. Perhaps it is an American writer, unfamiliar with the Schoyen collection in London. I mean how ironic and strange for a British publication to glorify the technology of the Romans and the Germans!

Moreover, they completely miss the obvious fact that the Song (960-1279) dynasty China was widely distributing inexpensive printed books made with movable type. This, of course, was possible due to block printing used previously during the Tang (618-906) dynasty when printing cloth shifted to making Buddhist scrolls.

How do these fit the Economist’s “there was no technology” claim for information dissemination until the 19th century? Perhaps they are using a very specific and narrow definition of “dissemination” and a very specific and narrow definition of “short space of time”? Yes, Twitter did not exist until Twitter existed. Great analysis of “little distinction between producers and consumers of information” — social media.

The Economist missed a great opportunity to reference the “Diamond Sutra” (“stolen” by the British), which was printed on the 11th May 868 AD according to the British Library and starts with the words

“Reverently made for universal free distribution…”

They also missed the opportunity to explain the rapid transition in technology from elite use to common, such as the period soon after Empress Shotuku of Japan in 764 AD printed a million scrolls of the Hyakumanto Darani and distributed them to celebrate the suppression of Rebellion led by Emi no Oshikatsu.

I guess I also could go on and bring up pre-historic fire/smoke non-elite communication systems (that influenced Bronze Age relics still evident in Ireland and England), or birds like the Pigeon Post, or the hydraulic semaphore system used in Britain by Francis Whishaw in the 1800s, not to mention the talking drum…but I guess for the time being I’ll just have to seek other sources of news to find an informed and introspective analysis.

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