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?

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