Saturday, October 9, 2010

Print / The Renaissance, Internet / The Digital Age

I asked a question in class recently about rhetoric in the Renaissance era of European history, in terms of how much the printing press had fueled the massive changes of that time period. It had made me wonder how similar the Internet era of American history is, and in what ways the digital age is akin to the shifting of human culture that happened around the Renaissance. I thought I had read something connected to that somewhere, and I finally found again today the piece that must have been lodged in my brain.

Clay Shirky, a NYU professor, is on my personal list of Top 10 thinkers right now in relation to new media, and I highly recommend his books "Here Comes Everybody" and "Cognitive Surplus." But the following paragraph actually was in a pro-con piece he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, opposite Nicholas Carr, which I recently used as a discussion prompt in one of my Creative Media and Digital Culture courses:

"Print fueled the Protestant Reformation, which did indeed destroy the Church's pan-European hold on intellectual life. What the 16th-century foes of print didn't imagine—couldn't imagine—was what followed: We built new norms around newly abundant and contemporary literature. Novels, newspapers, scientific journals, the separation of fiction and non-fiction, all of these innovations were created during the collapse of the scribal system, and all had the effect of increasing, rather than decreasing, the intellectual range and output of society."

Just that one paragraph raises so many more thoughts and questions for me, such as: Are there parallels between the Church's pan-European hold on intellectual life and the mainstream media's hold on intellectual life in the United States before the Internet? Are the Luddites of this age any different, or are these people who complain about technology just another perpetual human archetype? Because of the historic changes during the Renaissance, can we now, with confidence, predict that new communication forms will increase the intellectual range and output of our society in the long run, despite the many not-so-smart displays that also will come with that growth (people admittedly do a lot of stupid things with new technology today)?

I might be hypersensitive to the technology bashing, but I think that the Internet truly is changing us, and our capabilities, and transforming us -- yes, evolving us -- into a different sort of animal, just as the printing press and printed word did for people half a millennium ago. Do you see parallels as well? Or am I just not thinking deeply enough about this?

1 comment:

merk said...

i'm with you on the drastic changes the Internet and technology is bringing to society. at least, to those who have access to those technologies.

however, i wonder if the mainstream media really has a hold on "intellectual life." personally, i think corporations have a stronger influence than the media. after all, the audience of C-SPAN isn't as big as that of CBS or Fox. I also think Google, Microsoft and Facebook are easily the new "guardians" of knowledge. Between the three of them, it's pretty scary to think how much data they hold. It's even scarier to think how much information is willingly surrendered/given by users.

As long as corporations dictate the way we use our technologies, I think our chances of social "evolution" are slim. The printing press was great because no institution could ensure the destruction of every physical copy. With the right people, you could even build one yourself. However, imagine building a microprocessor or a cell phone network?

I probably sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I believe that if technology is ever going to help society advance, then it needs to be freely used/explored by the people. Patents, lawsuits and corporate secrets certainly don't help.

You might be interested in looking up "hacktivistm." Some ideas I've read about include converting predator drones into food/water supply drop vehicles, or re-purposing night-vision cameras to give live feeds into suicide intervention websites. Sure, you get an occasional molotov cocktail here and there, but such inventions often emerge out of a purpose. The printing press was an enabling technology because it was relatively unfettered, and I wish the same could be said about many of today's gadgets.