Note — Jan 12, 2020

What the Internet Can Learn From the Printing Press

Seen in → No.108

Source → theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/01/be...

Cullen Murphy at The Atlantic looks back to Elizabeth Eisenstein’s (historian of the printed word) study of Gutenberg to make a parallel with the internet and tries to give us a better grasp of just “how unforeseeable (and never-ending) the ‘unforeseeable’ really is.”

Venice, with its dense cluster of print shops, played the role of Silicon Valley. The printing press would soon upend the social order in ways that no one had anticipated and that few today give much thought to. […]

Her larger point is that the world was never the same again. As she explained to me, we no longer register the impact of the printing press because we have no easy way to retrieve the ambient sensation of “before.” […]

The printing press transformed religion, science, politics; it put information, misinformation, and power in the hands of more people than ever before; it created a celebrity culture as poets and polemicists vied for fame; and it loosened the restraints of authority and hierarchy, setting groups against one another. This shattered the status quo in ways that proved liberating but also lethal: If the printing press deserves some of the credit for democracy and the Enlightenment, it also deserves some of the blame for chaos and slaughter. […]

Dewar made a crucial distinction: between technologies, such as knives and microwave ovens, whose intended consequences far outweigh the un­intended ones, and tech­nologies, such as cars and air-conditioning, whose unintended consequences dwarf the intended ones. The study’s main message was that the internet, which originated as a form of military communication, was technology of the second kind. Its consequences would be “dominated” by the unforeseeable and the uncontrollable.