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Page last updated at 16:12 GMT, Friday, 1 January 2010

The great, always-on information tap

Movable type and now this lead to information overload


The myth that Albrecht Duerer is left-handed gives an insight into the history of information overload, writes Lisa Jardine.

As we enter a new decade with its fresh agendas and challenges, it feels more important than ever to know who we can trust to keep us well-informed. Bombarded with information by all kinds of new and traditional media, how are we to evaluate the available evidence, let alone decide which way we will vote?

The rhetoric of those in positions of power announces every decision reached to be a watershed moment.

"Today is a major step forward for the American people," Barack Obama proclaimed, as the Senate moved gingerly towards a decision on healthcare, just before Christmas. "After a nearly century-long struggle, we are on the cusp of making healthcare reform a reality in the United States of America."

Lisa Jardine

Truth across time apparently remains tantalisingly elusive, however hard the on-the-spot witness tries.

It was the second time in recent weeks that the president of the United States had made such an announcement. At the end of the climate change meeting in Copenhagen too, he hailed the compromise, non-binding agreement reached at the end of protracted and at times chaotic negotiations in similarly decisive terms:

"For the first time in history, all of the world's major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action to confront the threat of climate change. This important breakthrough lays the foundation for international action in the years to come."

And yet the reams of paper and acres of screen space filled by pundits, critics, climate change protesters, bloggers and twitterers seem to be telling us the opposite - that there was no shape, no resolution, no positive outcome that could be identified under the flood of information washing over us as events in the conference halls unfolded, minute by minute.

As the exhausted delegates made their way home from Copenhagen, commentators on online sites, in newspapers and on television concluded that compromise and procedural manoeuvring had prevailed. It was all a terrible disappointment.

Data bombardment

Which of these versions tells us the truth about unfolding events? With today's continuous stream of media-coverage, more seems to be less when it comes to being able to reach our own conclusions on the basis of what we read and hear.

The more we are bombarded with data, the less clear it is which way any of us ought to go in giving our assent to social and political initiatives.

Of course, in the days when information travelled more slowly, it was that much easier for the eager recipient of the latest headline news to be misled.

Albrecht Duerer
This gentleman got in a state over the fate of Luther

In May 1521, news reached the German painter Albrecht Duerer - then in Antwerp - that the radical monk Martin Luther had been arrested and imprisoned, following his condemnation as a heretic by the Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms.

Rumours spread like wildfire - Luther had been incarcerated, he had been interrogated and murdered. A distraught Duerer contemplated the loss of the man he regarded as the saviour of Christianity with dismay:

"May every man who reads Dr Martin Luther's books see how clear and transparent his teaching is when he sets forth the Holy Gospel. O God, if Luther is dead, who will henceforth deliver the Holy Gospel to us with such clearness? What might he not still have written for us in ten or twenty years?"

In fact Luther was not dead or even detained against his will. It was many months, however, before his true circumstances became known to his devoted followers, let alone the general public.

The changes Duerer anticipated Luther might make did indeed take place, sweeping across Europe in an unstoppable tide. In fact, the instrument of Luther's success in spreading his reforming message was the very new technology that had misinformed Duerer about his death.

Shopping list

Duerer never met Luther, nor even heard him preach in person. Everything he knew of Luther's radical teaching came from his published pamphlets, printed on the newly invented printing presses, in runs of thousands, and distributed right across Europe.

In the autumn of 1520, on the way home to Nuremberg from a business trip to Aachen, Duerer did some shopping in Cologne, keeping a careful record of his expenses: "I have bought a tract of Luther's for five weisspfennigs. And I spent another weisspfennig for one pound of candles. I gave six weisspfennigs for a pair of shoes and 1 more for beer and bread."

For a little less than the price of a pair of shoes, Duerer acquired the latest instalment in the developing drama of Martin Luther's confrontation with the Pope. It clearly wasn't cheap, but it kept him abreast of the most important international movement of the day.

Barack Obama
Barack Obama is left-handed

The printing press meant that Duerer, like thousands of other ordinary German men and women, experienced the Reformation not as a remote quarrel between members of the clergy, but at first hand. It made it possible for him to participate immediately in an international crisis within the Catholic Church as it took shape.

Still, truth across time apparently remains tantalisingly elusive, however hard the on-the-spot witness tries. Duerer - an early master of perspective - believed that where his own profession was concerned, the truth could be achieved visually through mathematical measure and proportion: "Whoever proves his point and demonstrates the fundamental truth using geometry should be believed by all the world."

Not so. Like many artists, Duerer painted and drew a number of self-portraits in the course of his life. In one delightful pen-and-ink drawing, made when he was about 22, the artist looks quizzically towards us, a flat cap perched jauntily on his head, his long wavy hair falling over his shoulders. His left hand is poised in the moment of drawing - thumb, middle and forefinger in the act of gripping the pen, his open palm facing out towards us, his two remaining fingers held elegantly aloft.

So does this mean that Duerer was left-handed? Well, no, of course, it does not. Like most artists, Duerer paints himself by looking in a mirror, and thus paints the "mirror image" of himself, reflected through 180 degrees, so that the painter's right hand - the one in which he holds his pen - appears to be his left one.

Yet Duerer's name continues to appear in any number lists of "south paw" or left-handed figures from history - just try putting "Duerer" and "left-handed" into your search engine. The precision of line and angle in his drawing still has the capacity actively to mislead.

Left-handed fellowship

As a left-hander myself I confess to being a little disappointed at not to be able to number Duerer among my confreres. It was a struggle growing up left-handed in the fifties. At primary school I vividly recall sitting obstinately over my pudding when the other children had crocodiled their way back from the canteen to the playground.

Unless I held my spoon in my right hand, my teacher told me firmly, I was not allowed any crumble and custard. Unless I finished my crumble and custard, I was not considered to have finished my lunch, and so could not go and play with my friends.

No wonder the left-handed are inclined to hail one another as soon as they notice a similarly awkward signer of a document or credit card slip. "Oh! I'm left-handed too!" they exclaim, with audible pleasure.

Perhaps the only answer to the problem of sifting the truth out of the dross of banal information is simply to wait and see, letting the tide of documentary material settle into not-yet-detectable patterns before deciding on a conclusion.

History will tell whether Barack Obama's much-criticised early policy decisions are part of a carefully set agenda or not. Of course that leaves us with the problem of just how we are going to act for the common good in the immediate future

There is however one thing we can learn about the president of the United States through the media coverage that is true beyond a shadow of doubt.

When you eventually watch the video clips of Barack Obama signing that much-contested, watered-down healthcare bill you will be able to confirm for yourself that the president is indeed left-handed.

Here is a selection of your comments.

In your closing remark about how we can confirm Mr Obama's left handedness, it would also be possible to flip an image or video presentation to give the appearance of being left handed. Can we believe everything we see or hear in the media especially these days? It just made me smile how something as little as being left handed COULD indeed be a trick or mistake ... as you explained with Duerer, it was done with mirrors. With modern technology its simple to display a mirror image - sometimes the mistake is clear to us when you see text on a t-shirt the wrong way. Unless you were sitting there or had a point of reference ( eg: a clock ) who knows!
Richard Lyon, Cambridge UK

Very good article, quite to the point. In fact, it reflects the age-old problem of historians, that the sources, no matter how authentic, may not only contradict each other, but also agree on false information. Indeed, sometimes information and truth are a matter of perspective, as it were.
D. Fear, Heidelberg, Germany

Only a southpaw could ramble from Heidelberg to Copenhagen by way of Washington, DC to make an unclear point about left-handedness with such effortless flair. Bravo! (P.S. I'm a lefty myself.)
Martijn, Helmond, Netherlands

I discovered in recent years, that flicking with my nib right-handed across a page left to right in imitation of writing, it became evident that the process would be somewhat easier if I were right-handed. Being a leftie, I have to use a pistoning action with thumb and two fingers to travel across the page. At least I learned early to position the nib well forward of my grip, so that I could still view what I was writing.
Mr K L Lortie, Launceston, Cornwall, UK

"Oh! I'm left-handed too!" is a common exclamation in this house - I, my husband and my daughter are all of the south-paw persuasion! So what? We also all touch-type, are learning Greek and have (well, in my case had, I've gone silver) dark brown hair.
Megan, Cheshire UK

"Which of these versions tells us the truth about unfolding events? With today's continuous stream of media-coverage, more seems to be less when it comes to being able to reach our own conclusions on the basis of what we read and hear." Well, silly old us! Before we had the internet, we were said not to have access to the information that would allow us to take decisions in our own interests. Now that we do have access to that information, it is supposedly too much for our little minds to cope with. Of course the truth is evident and the confusion the writer concludes we must have does not exist; Barack said the conference was productive (truth #1), but it actually achieved very little (truth #2).
Geoff Kendall, Harrogate

Lisa Jardine rightly mentions the 'elusiveness' of truth. George Soros (wearing his philosopher's hat) writes persuasively on this topic, calling 'reflexivity' the notion that the truth is frequently distorted by the text that purports to describe it (something Karl Popper did not take fully into account in his 'Open Society'). Also, that while during the Enlightenment (which arguably began in Duerer's time) it was taken for granted that enquirers sought the truth, this is no longer a given, especially when it comes to political discourse. So yes, minor events are increasingly (though not always, NB!) described as momentous by politicians(whether left- or right-handed), as their agenda is not to tell the truth, but to distort it in order to get their way and to stay in power. This is a moral failure, and it is seriously corrupting our western democratic institutions.
Martin , London UK

Gerald Ford - Left Handed
Jimmy Carter - Left Handed
Ronald Reagan - Left Handed
George HW Bush - Left Handed
William J Clinton - Left Handed
Andrew Armstrong, London, UK

I'm surprised that left-handers were still being forced to change hands in the fifties. I collected my bus pass a few weeks ago and hence was at school in the fifties and never once came across a teacher who tried to force me to be right handed. I was fortunate to have a father who understood the problem even though he was right handed. He patiently explained to me how scissors worked for instance - in the right hand. When I was much older he made me a left handed cork screw, by then as much alien to me as it was to anyone else!
Keith Taylor, Shepton Mallet

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