My new piece on “Tyndale, Gutenberg and an Open Information Age” is published today in Aeon Magazine:
Five hundred years ago William Tyndale opened up the Bible by translating it into English, using Gutenberg’s printing press to share his work. Today, instead of Gutenberg’s press we have the Internet. If we are to take advantage of the incredible potential of the Internet we need to follow Tyndale’s example and make information open: not the Bible this time but all public information from music to medicines, software to statistics.
On the 6th of October 1536, in the prison yard of Vilvoorden castle near modern-day Brussels, a man named William Tyndale was strangled then burnt at the stake. His crime? To translate the Latin Bible into English, his native tongue. A priest and scholar, Tyndale was an information freedom fighter, whose mission was to open up the scripture for ordinary men and women. ‘If God spare my life,” he reportedly told a fellow priest, “I will cause the boy that drives the plough to know more of the scriptures than you!’
Tyndale worked in the midst of an extraordinary new information era, ushered in by the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press. Prior to the press there were just thirty thousand books in all of Europe; fifty years later, in 1500, there were more than ten million. The Catholic Church had responded to these developments with alarm. It tried to retain a monopoly on biblical interpretation by declaring translations from Latin heretical. Their logic was simple: control the flow of information, and you control its power.
And that takes us back to Tyndale. He took the possibility created by the printing press and married it with openness. Today, the equivalent gesture would be to turn away from private monopolies to fund innovation and creativity, and instead use state-funding and crowd-sourcing. If this sounds utopian, reflect on the fact half of all medical research and development in the US is already paid for by the government, and that most of of technology in the iPhone was built from state-sponsored research programmes.
Digital technology must be combined with concrete actions that bring openness across the spectrum, from maps to medicines, from software to schools. Better that we do it through public institutions, instead of relying on mavericks and martyrs.