Thursday, May 2, 2013

Game changers: printing press or internet

A friend says the printing press is more of a change agent than the internet.  I disagree. The only book I have on my Kindle directly related to the reception of the printing press is "Divine Art, Infernal Machine: The Reception of the Printing Press in the West from First Impressions to a Sense of an Ending" by Elizabeth  L. Eisenstein.  She says that many monks hated anyone connected to the new invention of printing and gives a quote about the reception of Bibles in print:

FUST, or FAUSTUS (JOHN) a citizen of Mainz and one of the earliest printers. He had the policy to conceal his art; and to this policy we are indebted for the tradition of "The Devil and Dr. Faustus," handed down to the present times. About 1460, he associated with John of Guttemburgh… and… having printed off a… number of copies of the Bible, to imitate those which were commonly sold in MS, Fust undertook the sale of them in Paris, where the art of printing was then unknown. As he sold his printed copies for 60 crowns while the scribes demanded 500, this created universal astonishment: but when he produced copies as fast as they were wanted and lowered the price to 30 crowns, all Paris was agitated. The uniformity of the copies increased the wonder; informations were given in to the police against him as a magician;… a great number of copies being found [in his lodgings], they were seized; the red ink with which they were embellished was said to be his blood;

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. (2011-01-21). Divine Art, Infernal Machine (Material Texts) (Kindle Locations 171-178). University of Pennsylvania Press. Kindle Edition.

Concerning the comparison, note the book is entitled "reception in the West" and that is a major marker for me.  In about 20 years, some people in the entire world are using keyboards, monitors and software to communicate, even between languages.  Facebook alone has a BILLION users.  There are only 7 billion humans so in twenty years, one seventh of mankind is using Facebook, which is only 10 years old.  It is true that a couple of years ago, Time had an article that said the hot new innovation across the whole Earth was television since much of humankind hadn't experienced it yet but wanted to.  But commercial tv, like printed books, are one-way.  I get your book and read it but you don't get my reaction, comments or objections.  You don't get my questions, which by themselves might lead to improvements in your book and lead you to a deeper understanding or further investigation.

I just phoned you to see if you had a Kindle yet.  I hope you get one, much as I hope you have the conveniences of electricity and running water in your house.  I am interested since it is itself a side of the internet but more importantly, you could get the book "Too Big to Know" by David Weinberger, a Harvard law librarian, on the subject of the impact of the internet on the state and use of knowledge today.

You have mentioned your distinction before between convenience and culture.  You might be interested in the paper by P.W. Anderson (1972), called "More is Different", emphasizing what is often called "emergence", the fact and phenomenon that with sufficient increase in numbers or quantity, the whole deal changes qualitatively, not just numerically.  Much like the earth with a million humans is very different from the earth with 20 billion humans.  So with the internet.  Publishing is now in the hands of nearly anyone, not just those with connections and proper English.  I think just about any argument that applies to the printing press applies as well to the internet.  Note that the internet is moving quickly from transmitting written words in all languages all over the place to transmitting sound files, pictures, videos, and movies.

In Lynn's history of Stevens Point, she makes the point that the railroad made getting to Point easier "so more people came." Enough change in convenience and you get a different deal altogether.

As I said before, it seems smart to wait a while for the comparison since at least 100 years ought to lapse before judgment.  You point to the disturbance the printed word made to the systems of authority.  Don't you think the Arab Spring, China's suppression of Google and other worldwide effects are being felt from what we call "free speech" and electronic communication? Philosophers are especially aware of the power of conversation and dialogue and multilogue, and the internet provides that.  The internet is the printing press on stilts.

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