All throughout human history technical breakthroughs have altered the topography of human thought. Or, rather, human thought has had a freer expression when it creates a more efficient vehicle for its own transmission. The 18th century, more than many, may remind us of our own time. That period was the culmination of what had become known as the "Republic of Letters," a shared domain of imagination that lasted from 1500 to 1800.
As Open Culture points out, by the late 18th century, new technology had culminated in national postal services and mass printing. This mechanically-based read/write web allowed for the proliferation of ideas across international borders in record time and subsequently led to revolutions, not unlike the Arab Spring and #occupy movements of today. (Though with more guns.) Stanford University has been conducting a project to map the data from the Republic and its efforts have led to some interesting discoveries.
By mapping the correspondence of the intellectuals of the Republic of Letters, Stanford, along with its partners, including Oxford University's Electronic Enlightenment project, have discovered for instance that leading enlightenment figure Voltaire had virtually no communication with English thinkers. Given England's prominence in French thinking of the time, this is surprising and introduces a new question for academics to pursue: Why?
One of the project's primary investigators, Dan Edelstein. explains.
The "visual browsing tool" (see below) is particularly intriguing. It is information-rich, but easy to use. You can watch the connections grow over a 51 year period. You can filter by years or by correspondents. You can compare the correspondence flow between two writers or view the era in terms of the geographical flow of ideas. You can click on correspondence to read the digitized original at the website of the Electronic Enlightenment.
Click to access data visualization