Saturday, November 24, 2018

'The Printing Press as an Agent of Change', History, and the Internet

After writing a few posts about history over the past several months I've decided to switch this topic up a bit. Where my last few entries on history were a bit dry and academic, I wonder how I'd go about writing history for a lay-audience? I know I don't have many readers interested in this subject, so how would you present a study of print culture to those very people with no interest?

The Printing Press as an Agent of Change is an academic book, written for historians and other academics. The interest of most casual readers in something like this wouldn't go very far. They'd make note that the printing press was an important precursor to the modern world, and leave it at that. So how to write about this book in a way that this type of person would appreciate and enjoy?

Many historians share this concern: about how to get people interested in history. But in my view those historians are coming at the problem from the wrong angle. It's not that people aren't interested in history, it's that, for the most part, history has no relevance to them. When a single mother of three needs to find a way to feed her kids, she's not pulling out a military history of the American Revolution to find ideas. History as a field is usually far from her (and most of our) day to day concerns.

So the argument there is that you can't write about history, or really anything, in a way that will appeal to a lay-reader unless that writing has some kind of relevance to that person. Reading takes effort, and people usually only make an effort if it has some kind of pay-back. And so unless someone is explicitly interested in history, or that writing about history offers real, useful perspective, a post like this would be quickly passed over.

So how to write about the printing press in a way that describes it's relevance?

I might start by mentioning that in 15th century Italy book production went up by a factor of 1000 percent, and that you could make an analogy between the press and the invent of the internet today. Both of these inventions conferred major progress in our ability to exchange information, and the former had a massive impact on the world, while the impact of the internet is still unfolding.

So what can Elizabeth Eisenstein's book tell us about the type of change that we're in the throes of right now?

The Printing Press as an Agent of Change

In The Printing Press as an Agent of Change Eisenstein studied the transition from manuscript to print culture in the fifteenth century, and it's later impact on Europe. She explains that there had been scholarly agreement that the printing press was important, but that no one in the proceeding centuries gave it any serious attention. Because of this Eisenstein considered the press worth some historical study.

She then goes on to explain some of the difficulties in undertaking this study, because before the printing press was invented we had few records of how our world worked. It's hard to compare the world after the press to the one before it because we just don't know enough about that world.

And yet she tries to complete the book anyway, often raising more questions than she answers.

Some Features of Print Culture

In this section of the book Eisenstein describes some key features of the shift from script to print. It gave a sense of how books changed once the press was invented, in a way that was quantifiable and scientific. In this section she makes clear that after the press was invented books became more standardized, repeatable, and the information contained within them could be compared and contrasted among a wide variety of scholars. It became easier for people to read the same book and come to shared understandings, which was difficult before the press came along.

Classical and Christian Traditions Reoriented

In this section Eisenstein discusses problems with defining the Renaissance Period in Europe, and how to place the press within that context of rapid social change, transitioning between the medieval and modern eras. She explains that this isn't as easy as it seems.

The overall gist of the section explains that medieval man, due to the press, was finally able to understand his/her place in history. For once the Ancient period up to the present was made intelligible, and scholars could finally understand, in some respects, how things actually worked. This brought about the beginnings of curiosity, inquiry, and natural philosophy, eventually becoming the scientific revolution.

The Rest

This was about where even my own interest petered off. The book was text heavy, and it was right around here that the noise to signal ratio became very high. But overall the gist was that more information was available to the European and that it was being put to increasingly productive uses.

Relevance to the lay reader?

So if the press represented a major cultural shift in our world due to a faster exchange of information, what kind of change will the internet lead to?

The printing press doesn't make a perfect analogy with the internet, but what's clear is that they both allow people to learn more quickly. And usually that information is used toward productive ends. People will use it to become more efficient, more healthy. Businesses will use it by hiring a greater number of skilled people, and making their processes more efficient.

Overall: the world will become smarter, and with that information being moved within the bounds of internet networks, it can move further, faster, easier, and more rapidly than ever before.

When the printing press was invented we saw a shift between a world that was hugely superstitious to one that, at least does it's best to, follow reason when making decisions. A shift to what historians now call 'modernity'. So now that we're right in the middle of the next major leap, the question is: where will the internet lead us?

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Our Trip to Italy and Greece

Over the past few weeks (from September 22nd to October 6th, 2018) Els and I travelled to Europe for our honeymoon. Our first stop was Rome for four nights, after which we got on the Jewel of the Seas with Royal Caribbean for nine days to travel to Sicily, the Greek Isles, and finally Naples. And now that the trip is through I want to put a few thoughts and photos out there on our experience.


When we flew into Rome we had taken a red eye flight that departed from Toronto at 9 pm, and landed in Italy in the late morning. When I booked the flight I thought we'd be able to sleep through the night, but we were so crammed into the plane that this wasn't the case. Because of this both Els and I missed nearly an entire nights worth of sleep, which really threw us off for the first day in the city.

Needless to say we were there for four nights where we did most of the typical stuff. We spent a day seeing all of the major historical sites, spent a day at the Vatican, visited the Borghese gallery, and had a few nice nights out for dinner.

All in all Rome was a good time but as we were responsible for feeding ourselves there, navigating the city, and recovering from our flight we were a bit worn down during this leg of the trip.

It was a beautiful city but I also didn't expect the scope of how many tourists would be there. And this became a trend - the sheer number of tourists in every city we visited, taking pictures, snapping selfies, and spending money. Throughout all of it you couldn't help but think about the rampant consumerism of the tourist industry, and how nice it would be to go somewhere away from the hustle and bustle of major tourist centres.

A little shopping after the Colosseum

Being silly at the Trevi fountain

The Pantheon

Touring galleries in the Vatican

View from Castel Sant'Angelo

Out for an authentic Roman meal

Galleria Borghese

Messina and Taormina (Sicily)

After four days in Rome we made our way out to the nearby port in Civitavecchia to board the ship. Our first stop was in Sicily, which I had heard was the least interesting port of our cruise, but I enjoyed it.

Prior to the trip I was told that Taormina was the place to go, but when we got there via bus it was once again completely crowded with tourists, and overrun with tourist shops and eateries. This wasn't what I was looking to get out of the trip, but at that point it seemed like it was going to be the dominant experience of our two weeks away.

My main interest while away was less about tourist attractions and more about the real culture and people living in the places we were visiting. I wanted to see how the Italians and Greeks really lived. And to that end I did enjoy the bus ride we took between Messina and Taormina which allowed Els and I to see the Sicilian countryside, coastline, and some of the housing developments between the port town and tourist area.

Mt. Etna

Swordfish pasta - a specialty in Sicily

The Jewel of the Seas

During the cruise we had two days at sea surrounding the sailing into and out of Greece. I had been looking forward to these days quite a bit as they'd give me a chance to really kick back, pull out a book, and enjoy some quiet time.

I won't go into too much detail about the ship, but as a quick summary I liked it and would definitely go with Royal Caribbean again. Many people on the boat were telling us that they preferred Royal Caribbean over others, and that if you didn't want a party culture (we didn't) it was the line for you.

I found the amenities and entertainment well done, and also found that there was plenty of space on the ship to hang out and have a coffee or drink. But despite the stuff to do, when we were on the boat we were usually worn out from the ports and not wanting to do much more than rest or eat. So all we needed most of the time was a lounge chair.


The night before we arrived in Athens I got a case of food poisoning and ended up touring the city on little sleep while recovering from a stomach bug. That made things interesting, but I loved this port.

Before arriving I didn't know what to expect, and I had heard soundbytes that Greece was struggling economically, but once we got into Athens you could definitely see and viscerally feel the struggle that Greeks were going through. It gave every appearance of a country that was slowly failing, and where the educated were fleeing from.

When we got off the boat we had cab drivers pressuring us into expensive tours. When we finally found a driver to take us to the Acropolis he tried to act as a stand in tour guide, and when we neared the city centre he again started pressuring us to join a tour. Finally we fought him off but you could see he was desperate and you had to feel for him.

We started out at the Acropolis and were there early enough that it wasn't overrun by people yet which was nice. It was also a bit rainy that day. I enjoyed the Acropolis but didn't want to linger on Ancient Greece too much when we were there, afterward choosing to avoid the popular museums and instead take in the atmosphere and culture of the city. One of the main things we wanted to do that day was visit the Central Market, but we were in port on a Sunday and it was closed.

After leaving the Acropolis we were initially struck with the amount of graffiti everywhere, which we snapped some pictures of. We then went to a nice shopping district called Plaka, and eventually ventured out a bit further into more of a classical Athenian area to check out a bookshop.

Unfortunately, because of the stomach bug I wasn't feeling great that day and didn't get as many pictures as I would have liked, but we still got some nice shots. And while the parthenon was a striking feature of the city, what really grabbed my attention was the view of the city from the acropolis. I had some moments standing up there where I was awestruck with both the view and the fact that, yep, we were in Athens.

A view of Athens from the Acropolis

My lovely wife


The next day we were in Mykonos which was one of the ports I was especially looking forward to. While we were there I was still experiencing the last remnants of my illness, but it really wasn't too bad at that point.

The reason I was looking forward to Mykonos so much was that it was one of the simplest ports that we'd visit. We had no tours planned, nothing complicated to figure out, all we had to do was get off the boat, check out the island, and then get back on the boat, easy peasy.

I had fun there but did find it a bit underwhelming. It wasn't that there was anything wrong with the island, but it didn't have many elements that I was genuinely interested in. Another touristy culture, negligible history, not really much there to hold my attention besides coffee and food. So on this day I mostly followed Els in and out of shops while I relaxed and tried to rest off my stomach bug.

We did have some great views and meals while we were there, however.


Rhodes was another port that I had been looking forward to for the same reason I was Mykonos. Nothing complicated about the day, just get off the boat and enjoy. It also had the added benefit that it was a world heritage site.

When we got to this port I was fully recovered from my illness and ready to enjoy the day. We got off the ship early when the old town was still waking up, and bought tickets for the Archaeological Museum as well as a Palace.

The Archaeological Museum was cool, with tons of ancient pottery and statues, including some pieces that dated back nearly 3500 years (definitely spent some time checking these out). The Palace was also fun, although we went through it pretty quickly. Afterward we quickly wandered through a museum of modern Greek art.

Despite the history of Rhodes the old town was yet another touristy area, but by this point of the trip I had just accepted that this was the Greek economy.

After the brief history tour we left the old town near the port and did a bit of shopping along the perimeter. Finally we walked along the shoreline, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and headed back to the ship a bit early so we could spend some time relaxing on the boat.

The Old Town

Inside the Archaeological Museum

She got snapped at shortly after this

Palace of the Grand Master


Santorini was the crown jewel of the trip. We didn't do a whole lot while we were there other than drink coffee and have lunch, but it was far and away one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen.

The day started with a transfer by boat from the port at Fera to a town nearby called Oia. For about twenty minutes we watched the sun rise and bounce off of the island, water and ship as we sailed away from Fera. We did this to get out of the touristy area a bit; Oia was still touristy but not nearly as much so as Fera. Once again we got to the island while the town was still waking up.

We walked up about 250 steps to get to Oia, then found an empty patio with a view to have some coffee and a bite to eat. There was no one around at this point and some relaxing music playing, and for the next hour this was about as relaxed and aesthetically pleased as I've ever been.

Finally we got up and walked around a bit, bought a few trinkets, and then at 11 am sat down for lunch with another fantastic view.

After lunch we had to catch a bus back to Fera where we spent a bit of time before getting back on the boat. It was busy in Fera, and we had to take a cable car down (with a long lineup beforehand) so we didn't have much more time on the island.

Once back on the boat we decided to skip dinner to watch the sunset, and we were glad we did as it was a nice ending to the day.

A few espressos to start the day

Lunch with a view

The Amalfi Coast

After Santorini we had a day at sea followed by a stop in Naples. At this point it felt strange that we still had two days left on the cruise as Santorini felt like the climax, and we easily could have gone home at that point.

But on the day at sea we spent some time relaxing, and then luckily had a paid tour of the Amalfi Coast during our stop in Naples. So not much to do or think about in this port either, just get in a van and be carted around by our driver, along with two other couples that we joined the tour with.

While the areas we visited were undoubtedly beautiful they were also pretty empty of the culture that I had been craving throughout the trip. For the most part the day was filled with views, with a small amount of time in both Sorrento and Positano. We were also both pretty worn down by this point of the trip, so I had a hard time enjoying it as much as I likely would have if it had been earlier on in the cruise.

It was a neat time, but if I could do it over again I likely would have stayed in Naples, or maybe gone to Pompeii.

After Naples and the Amalfi Coast it was time to go home. Nothing too interesting happened after that point. I spent the night packing and getting ready for our trip home, while Els checked out the final show of the cruise.

The next day we arrived back in Civitavecchia, took a shuttle to Fiumicino Airport, flew home, and are now back in London enjoying the rest of the weekend.

Photo Albums

Amalfi Coast




Jewel of the Seas






The Amalfi Coast