The Culture of the Copy: On the Printing Press, the Internet & the Impact of Duplication
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.