Saturday, 21 April 2012

Go with the flow or fight the change?

In praise of scribes

Johannes Gutenberg's printing press was first used around 1440 AD.
Gutenberg's press

Until that time the only way books could be "published" was by painstakingly copying them by hand (although there were some precursors around before this that employed the idea of printing presses [1], Gutenberg's was the first truly successful application). Thus there was an entire industry of around the hand copying of books, and a profession to undertake it: the scribe. It goes without saying that the scribal industry had huge power: it was through their auspices that books could be copied, and through books that ideas could be captured, stored and circulated. Book creation was also incredibly expensive because so time consuming and painstaking. We may admire the beauty and artistry of a Lindisfarne Gospel [2], but JK Rowling wouldn't have stood a chance if she'd written Harry Potter back then because at most a few tens of copies might have been created (rather than the millions in circulation today).

So Gutenberg's press comes onto the scene. Ironically, initially to help the church (the main "owners" of the scribal industry) to mass produce church indulgences [3]. Such had become the demand for these, that hand writing them meant supply could not meet demand. And this meant income was constrained (for indulgences had to be bought). Before his famous Bible [4], he mainly printed indulgences - probably thousands of them. The church must - at first - have been very pleased.

But then came the revolution - book printing practically overnight destroyed the scribal industry. Did the scribes welcome this with open arms? Did they see the future and embrace the changes, perhaps setting themselves up as typesetters and printers? Not a bit of it. For example, written in 1492, the work De laude scriptorum (In praise of scribes) by German abbot Johannes Trithemius was a rearguard action against printing and in favour of the scribal industry [5].

Information everywhere

Looking back we can see the short-sightedness of this. It was inevitable that printing would replace hand copying of books. Indeed it is in part due to mass printing that the scientific revolution of the 15th century onwards could take place as ideas could be much more easily communicated.

The parallels with today are obvious. As digital and electronic media become ever more widespread, the older mechanisms for storage and distribution are threatened. The music and film industries are just one example. They are fighting their own rearguard action. CDs, DVDs and BluRay discs are relatively cheap to produce and are easy to control. Electronic media are much less easy to control and far cheaper. Yet these industries are fighting the move to electronic media tooth and nail; and even where they are trying to embrace it, it is only in the context of retaining control.

In years to come people will probably look back at them and wonder why they resisted the change. The information everywhere world of Minority Report [6] will be as different to our way fo sharing information as printing presses were to the scribal industry.

Bringing it home

Is this a "good thing"? The answer, as with all things human-related, is yes and no. It depends what we do with it. Clay Shirky's vision of the positive applications of cognitive surplus [7] represent the good that can happen. But the world of TV series like Homeland, where surveillance can become so total that every aspect of one's life is observed and recorded [8] (and potentially misused) is a darker side.

AS we move forward, it won't be one or the other, it will be a mix of both. Those of us with a more philanthropic bent must ensure that the cognitive surplus world is supported and embraced, knowing that there will be plenty of the Carrie Mathisons around to, promote the alternative.

  1. see (accessed 21/4/2012)
  2. e.g. (accessed 21/4/2012)
  3. see (accessed 21/4/2012)
  4. You can British Museum view digital images of his Bible here (accessed 21/4/2012)
  5. Eisenstein, E.L (2005) The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, pp.11-12
  6. Douglas Coupland, producer of the movie: "An enormous factor in daily life in the future is going to be that information is everywhere" (accessed 21/4/2012)
  7. Shirky, C. (2010) Cognitive Surplus - Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Penguin
  8. see  (accessed 21/4/2012)

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