Sauerberg: I don’t think that Tom and I think in completely parallel ways here, but we have a return to a situation where you count on individualism and where authority is a problem. If you go back to a time before the parentheses started, you sometimes could match authority with God or with a metaphysical world picture that made sense. The problem is that, nowadays, after the parentheses, you would have to find a new sense of authority. The Wikipedia phenomenon is very characteristic of the situation because on the one hand, we have the destruction of all paper, all print encyclopedias. We have to use the online facilities, but the online facilities like Wikipedia are looking desperately for authority in order to become credible, so there is a war out there in cyberspace fighting for authority. But the point is that with the encyclopedia, within parentheses, the authority was in the encyclopedia, in the format of the book, in the book as a symbol. We no longer have that. You have to make up your own authority. Whenever you look up a word, you have to be very much aware of, “how far is this authoritative?” So you have to think in two planes at the same time, on two levels.

DS: So you’re saying that’s in contrast to before the parenthesis, when authority was clear?

Sauerberg: I think authority was always invoked before the parentheses. You lived with God in the back of your mind all the time. What happened within the parentheses was that you abandoned God. I mean you didn’t realize it until Nietzsche, but you abandoned the metaphysical theory behind everything. But now you have to have this double mindset. You’re always looking out, checking, at the same time, as you are experiencing things.

DS:I want to stay in the period before the parentheses and understand how did people think and communicate and how the way they communicated altered the way they thought?

Pettitt: I think we agree but we have our different emphases. After all, Lars Ole is interested in literature and philosophy and the higher reaches of culture and cogniniton. Specializing in folklore and popular culture, I’m more interested in what happened on the ground. Well, my phrase for it is that networking was replaced by the “containment” that we talked about. I’m right at the base of the cultural processes; I’m thinking about the actual physical means by which information was communicated, and it was done by connections. It was done by people who spoke to people. Any tale, any narrative that survived existed by virtue of someone performing it. Someone who knew it, remembered it, and they performed it again and again. Or they performed it, and someone else heard it and remembered it, and they performed it, and someone learned it from them—just connections. Connections between a series of performances from one person who knows the tale and then a series of people who passed the material onto each other.

That process of connection also involves instability because there’s no authoritative text. If you’re telling a story of King Arthur and Sir Lancelot, then the person who told it to you isn’t there when you’re telling it, and he didn’t compose it anyway, and there’s no fixed text. You will tell a story that works for the audience you are speaking to, and that story will change. So we’re talking about connections between performers, and through those connections, the material changes. The words are unstable and that is certainly going to have an effect on the way people think.

DS: So they were singing songs, reciting poems, playing the lute, and whatever else they were doing in the town square. But how did that affect the way they thought of themselves as people, of the society they lived in, of the world?

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014).

Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.