The culture of the copy: On the printing press, the Internet & the impact of duplication.
January 4, 2013
TMI- Too much information- is a concept we are all familiar with.
With a keyboard, a mouse click or two, we can access just about any bit of information we might need. What was once a long term investment in term of time and commitment, information can now be readily absorbed in a matter of moments. Is that a bad thing?
Maybe, maybe not.
As access to knowledge increases there will inevitably be problems and culture shock as one ‘regime’ replaces another- but that may very well be a small price to pay.
The same argument was made with the advent of the printing press and encyclopedias and other reference books. Prescribed avenues of study were upended as students could rely on books to search out information for themselves. The advent of books allowed students to become with related and non related disciplines and as a result research yielded fantastic results. As literacy and books came into wide purview (and not controlled by religious or aristocratic classes) our knowledge- and freedom- expanded exponentially. Education didn’t just empower a few individuals. Education empowers a nation, a culture and a society.
In nations where intellectual pursuits are encouraged, societies are free and advanced. In nations where intellectual pursuits are stifled, cultures and societies remain backward and constrained. A society and culture which fights to keep racism and bigotry institutionalized are lesser societies and cultures. A society and culture which fights and resists racism and bigotry are far healthier.
As revolutions rock the beginning of the 21st century we can only hope the revolutionaries who access to global information networks choose to embrace the elevation of their populations, societies and cultures. Those revolutionaries who choose to rearrange the deckchairs on what is a sinking ship will themselves be overthrown and be soon be forgotten.
Once unleashed, an educated class and those with access to education and knowledge cannot be kept down.
We now live in the early part of an age for which the meaning of print culture is becoming as alien as the meaning of manuscript culture was to the eighteenth century. “We are the primitives of a new culture,” said Boccioni the sculptor in 1911. Far from wishing to belittle the Gutenberg mechanical culture, it seems to me that we must now work very hard to retain its achieved values.
—Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962
Technological revolutions are far less obvious than political revolutions to the generations that live through them. This is true even as new tools, for better and worse, shift human history more than new regimes do. Innovations offer silent coups. We rarely appreciate the changes they bring until they are brought. Whether or not we become the primitives of a new culture, as the Futurist Umberto Boccioni observed, most of us still live behind the times and are content to do so. We expect the machines of the present to fulfill the needs of the past even as they deliver us into a future of unknowns.
World-changing inventions almost always create new roles rather than fill old ones. It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?was the classic response to the telephone, variously attributed to Ulysses S. Grant or Rutherford B. Hayes but probably said by neither of them. Life-altering technologies often start as minor curiosities and evolve into major necessities with little reflection on how they reform our perceptions or even how they came to be.
In the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke could see the significance of the French Revolution while observing its developments in real time. Yet “in the sixteenth century men had no clue to the nature and effects of the printed word,” writes Marshall McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy, his 1962 book on the printing revolution and the dawning of the electronic age. It wasn’t until nearly 200 years on that Francis Bacon located the printing press alongside gunpowder and the compass as changing “the whole face and state of things throughout the world.” Writing in his 1620 book Novum Organum (“New Instrument”), Bacon maintained that “no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries.” In the nineteenth century, Victor Hugo called the invention of printing the “greatest event in history” and the “mother of revolution.” Political revolution began in this technological upheaval.
An argument can be made, and so I will make it here, that the invention of the Internet is the under-recognized revolution of our time. The world-changing technology of the Internet, of course, is already apparent and barely needs retelling. The Internet is more significant than the telephone, the television, the transistor, or the personal computer because it subsumes all these prior inventions into a new accumulation that is greater than the sum of its parts. As the network of networks—the “inter-network”—the Internet is a revolution of revolutions.
Yet while we appreciate the Internet’s technological wonders, the cultural landscape it leads to is less explored. We acknowledge the Internet’s effect on information but are less considering of its influence on us. Even as we use its resources, most of us have no understanding of its mechanics or any notion of the ideas, powers, and people that led to its creation.
One way to situate the Internet is to see it as inaugurating the next stage of copy culture—the way we duplicate, spread, and store information—and to compare it to the print era we are leaving behind. New technologies in their early development often mimic the obsolete systems they are replacing, and the Internet has been no different. Terms like “ebook” and “online publishing” offer up approximations of print technology while revealing little of the new technology’s intrinsic nature.
Just as the written word changed the spoken word and the printed word changed the written word, so too will the digital word change the printed word, supplementing but not replacing the earlier forms of information technology. Speaking and writing both survived the print revolution, and print will survive the Internet revolution. The difference is that the Internet, with its ability to duplicate and transmit information to an infinite number of destinations, will increasingly influence the culture of the copy.
What the world is today, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg,” wrote Mark Twain. “Everything can be traced to this source, but we are bound to bring him homage, . . . for the bad that his colossal invention has brought about is overshadowed a thousand times by the good with which mankind has been favored.”
The Gutenberg revolution occurred around 1440 in near obscurity. The life of Johannes Gutenberg, the German metalsmith from Mainz, is largely unknown. The exact nature of the invention that he first unveiled in Strasbourg remains a source of debate. Even as the technology of book printing spread through Germany and Italy, Gutenberg died a financial failure. His recognition as the inventor of typography only came at the start of the sixteenth century, over three decades after his death.
Gutenberg did not invent every component that gave rise to the printed page. His innovation, as commonly understood, was to put existing technologies together in a press that used oil ink and movable type to stamp Roman letters arranged in rows onto a page. Gutenberg’s expertise in metalwork helped him develop a metal alloy for the letter punches that could withstand the pressures of the printing process. He also devised a simple hand mold to recast the punches. This not only led to the rise of a book’s standardized font but also enabled the reproduction of the printing machine itself.
The rapid development of print culture in Europe occurred across two trajectories at once. Each printing press could produce hundreds and soon thousands of pages a day, just as the printing machines themselves could be duplicated. In the 1450s, the greatest early demonstration of the new technology was the production of the Gutenberg Bible. Copies of Gutenberg’s rare original Bibles are today considered among not only our most valuable printed books but also the most beautiful. Thirty years after this initial run—a start-up operation that landed Gutenberg in court with his disgruntled investors—there were 110 printing presses in operation across Europe, with fifty in Venice alone. By 1500, European presses had already produced over twenty million books. A century after that, the number was 150 to 200 million copies. The printing press made bestsellers out of writers in their own lifetimes. Erasmus sold a remarkable 750,000 copies. Luther distributed 300,000 printed tracts.
The rise of print culture had countless benefits, but it also overturned many of the achievements of the manuscript culture it replaced. The great proliferation of printed books meant that scholars no longer had to seek out rare copies of written material, but literature also no longer enjoyed the protection of a scholarly class and a culture of scholasticism went into decline. As the sixteenth century saw a renewed interest in ancient writing, due to the wide reproduction of classical works, Latin also lost ground as the lingua franca of high culture. An increasingly literate middle-class public, unfamiliar with Latin, sought out books in their own vernaculars, which helped give rise to new national identities. As reading became a silent activity to be accomplished alone, the printed book challenged the oral tradition. Likewise grammar and syntax were regularized to illuminate sense rather than stress…