Priestley: Jack of All Trades, Master of Some

Priestly’s quote about the governments fearing the “air pump, or an electrical machine”, shouldn’t be taken entirely literally. Rather, “unsound” governments and religions should fear the sweeping changes in societal thinking that these innovations, represent. This change is most readily apparent in the enlightenment ideals espoused by Priestley, or Benjamin, or any of the numerous intellectuals involved in the coffeehouse society that emerged during the 18th century. Contrary to the popular belief that “Scientific innovation tends to be imagined as something that exists outside the public sphere of politics, or the sacred space of faith”, “these three domains [are] not separate, but rather a kind of continuum…” (Johnson, p. 147) Each realm influences and is in turn influenced by the other two. Therefore, any changes in one of the domains, say the transnational camaraderie of an intellectual, scientific elite, is going to directly affect those invested in keeping the status quo, such as some of those in the political or religious realm. (Johnson, p. 140, 159, 212, 236)

I think that Priestly’s ideas about open information sharing, as well as the continuum of science, politics, religion are incredibly relevant to problems facing today’s scientific and technological communities. For instance, the internet and the debate occurring over the neutrality of the internet. We can clearly see both a political and economic element getting itself involved in the debate over net neutrality and the unhindered spread of information. This spread of information has also seen an influx of controversy from with various political, religious and scientific groups, knowingly spreading misinformation. This supposed corruption of something supposedly pure, is something that I don’t think would surprise or please Priestley. We can also see a parallel to Priestley’s own persecutions over personal beliefs with the current administrations denouncements of ideas prevalent in the science community based on political beliefs. (Johnson 176, 214, 228)

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