George William MacArthur Reynolds was a British author and journalist who hit his stride in the middle of 1800s. Wikipedia says he was more read than Dickens or Thackeray. I hadn’t heard that much about him until our summer intern, Maha Atal, sent me a note about her thesis research in which she makes an interesting point: The Victorians argued about how to control their information revolution, how to maintain professional authority when everyone suddenly had access to romance novels and news and could find out what their politicians were actually up to.
Sound familiar? Here we are, 150 years later, experiencing a revolution in media in which everyone has more access to information. What can we take from history to inform our present?
That’s one thing Maha is asking. After she finishes her junior year at Oxford, she’ll join us this summer to work on The Talent Hunt - our annual look at design schools. She’s thinking about it, and I hope you are, too. We want this year’s list to be twice as robust.
Here’s what Maha has to say about why Reynolds matters:
I’ve started some research on GWM Reynolds, a novelist-journalist-politician in 1830’s Paris and 1840’s London. I'm trying to find out how the years in France influence his English career, and if they explain why he's so eclectic for a Victorian. His contemporaries couldn’t figure him out, and when they objected to him as a rule-breaker they were also defining the rules of the game.
What’s great about this research is that these writers lived when the press was a new idea, and they talk very explicitly about what the purpose of journalism in modern society would be. Whatever political slant they spoke from, they were all fundamentally hopeful. They asked a lot of their press, and if they seem overly critical of newspapers, it's because they set the bar way higher than most subsequent generations.
The Victorians argued about how to control their information revolution, how to maintain professional authority when everyone suddenly had access to romance novels and news and could find out what their politicians were actually up to.
Their questions remind me of the debates we are having today, with our own informational revolution: online journalism, social networks, and user-generated encyclopedias. We’re figuring out how to revise copyright laws for Napster, how to maintain accuracy at Wikipedia, and how to maintain privacy on Facebook. Journalism has been at the center of these debates, not only because we’ve had to modify print journalism to accomodate blogs and reach blog readers, but also because journalists—in print or online—have been carrying on our conversation about information in all its forms.
At the end of the day, that’s what the Victorians recommended—-most of them don’t have neat answers to the messiness of historical change, but they believed that by talking about the challenges, and letting readers engage different views, the press would be doing its job.