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What The Internet & Printing Press Have In Common

Photo by Bruno Martins on Unsplash

When we think of the internet, we don’t really think about books, let alone the printing press. Yet if it wasn’t for the printing press, we wouldn’t have the internet. Then there’s that printing press you probably have sitting near your desk or somewhere in the house, or the one down the hall at the office. We think of it as a printer, but it’s a descendant of it’s first iteration by Johannes Gutenburg around 1436. And Gutenburg’s fore-bearer was Chinese block printing in the 9th century. Even Koreans were messing about with metal type before Gutenburg.

That’s the technological ancestry. But the printing press is about far more than just printing books, posters, leaflets and brochures. And it has much in common with today’s internet and its impact on humanity. In fact, we might even say that the telegraph, telephone, radio, are just interstitial technologies. Though their impact has been significant, none of them rocked civilization and caused as much change as the printing press, or the technologies that make the internet work today.

Perhaps we can say that the internet is as profound a technology as the printing press. Probably even more so.

What was the real impact of the printing press on humanity? Professor of history, Elizabeth Eisenstein, wrote a seminal work in the late 1970’s that is still superb reading for anthropologists and sociologists, “The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.”

Courtesy of the trustees of the British Museum; photograph, J.R. Freeman & Co. Ltd. Via Britannica

Among her many insights into the impact of the printing press, is how the format and presentation of books, from scanning left to right, to chapter presentation, argument and story arch and arrangement of facts, may have deeply impacted the thought patterns of readers.

The printing of the bible lead to the fracturing of Christianity. Where once the Catholic church controlled, through the use of scribes, the production of the bible, Luther saw the value of the printed bible and the ability to distribute it with his version. Hence Lutheranism. I’m simplifying here, but you get the idea.

Today? The internet has enabled instantaneous reproduction of not just the bible in digital form, but all kinds of spin-off religios ideologies. From neo-paganism to Islamic and Christian fundamentalism (which existed pre-internet, but have been afforded greater impact because of it.)

She points out that printing serves the function of “amplifying and reinforcing” norms, values, beliefs and ideologies. In essence, printing is a means of transmitting culture. And culture is the survival mechanism our species chose over genetic adaptation to adapt to our world. Printing enabled us to do what humans love to do. That is, get inside each others heads and find a way to come to social agreement and evolve. The internet, at it’s most basic, fundamental level, is a means of cultural transmission.

The printing press afforded the spread of literacy, which still continues, but through digital means as well. From smartphones to eBooks and podcasts.

A knowledge explosion occured in the 16th century, often attributed to the discovery of the New World or the Reformation, but as Eisentsein argues, likely fuelled by the printing press.

Today, the internet is also causing an explosion of knowledge. The underlying computing technologies that enable the internet and the computers connected, has lead to us sharing, creating and debating at an ever faster, more impactful rate. Setting aside the silliness of TikTok videos.

But as we look at channels like TikTok or Snap, Twitter and think they are meaningless, they are to some degree, but they are also expressions of culture. They do serve a purpose. In the 18th and 19th century the printed version of TikTok and Snap etc., was the Penny Novels. Quick stories with as much value then as of reality TV today like the 90 Day Fiancee.

The printing press also contributed to the rise of individualism in the West. In the era of the scribe, due to the dearth of written materials, it required communal gatherings at churches or halls to receive messages and information. The book, newspapers, leaflets, brochures, started to break this cultural activity.

Today, we talk much of the fact that social media has brought us together, while at the same time making us lonely. The internet enables us to coordinate and organize and share ideas and thoughts unlike ever before, but it also contributes to even more individualism. Human cultures tend to suffer and perform less when we are overly individualistic. It is not in our biological nature. It leads t the weakening of social bond, yet oddly, can increase those social bonds around ideologies. Such as we see with far-right and far-left groups today.

The printing press also lead to a greater division of labour. Printers that focused on specialization such as books explicitly for men or women or certain social groups, business publications or supporting the growing bureaucratic systems. Society became more complex.

The internet too, as I have previously written, has also lead to an even greater division of labour. How would you explain to someone in the 15th century what a webmaster or DevOps Engineer or Full Stack Developer was? Let alone a coder or algorithmic ethicist.

Prior to the printing press, the majority of technologies we used were to manipulate our physical environment; agriculture, railways, mines, cities. All of which were conceived of in our minds. But the ability to communicate our inner world was fairly limited. With the advent of the printing press, all of a sudden, our cognitive world, our minds, could be explored more deeply than ever before. We literally changed our minds.

The internet is doing the same today. This is so important to humans it seems, that as we created digital technologies, one of the key things we desired to do was re-create our own minds. We call it Artificial Intelligence. Perhaps it is in part driven by our desire to get inside each others heads.

The phrase “a penny for your thoughts” or “so, what are you thinking?” has probably been uttered, in various ways, by every single human across every single human culture for thousands of years. We ask because we can’t know and we intuitively know that we aren’t getting the full, factual truth when thoughts are shared. Societal norms and cultural behaviours shape how much and what we share with one another and are impacted by our kinship relationships, be it work, play, community or home life. As much as we seek to understand the world around us, we seek to understand one another. It is another reason we are developing Brain Computer Interfaces (BCIs) to not just manipulate our inner world and outer world, but to perhaps, get inside someone else’s head.

The printing press enabled us to get a little bit more inside each others heads and to advance the survival f our species on a planet that is actually quite hostile to us. The internet has enabled this even more.

Because we are in the very early years of the internet and the resulting technologies it enables, we are also in a liminal time as we just begin to understand how the internet is changing our sociocultural systems globally. It took us a few hundred years to understand the profound impact of the printing press as a technology. The internet is as or perhaps more, profound of an impact. We will understand it more in a decade or so, but may not fully understand its impact for another hundred years as odd as that may seem. Massive, global, sociocultural change does not happen overnight…you don’t get a notification on your smartwatch or phone in the morning saying “World 3.0 has been successfully Installed.”

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

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Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious