Information storage and communication increases our ability to discover and accumulate knowledge. And if Stephen Pinker is to be believed, humans have become more peaceful over time. However, the connection between better access to information and our softer world is dubious at best according to Adam Gopnik:
N.Y.U. professor Clay Shirky—the author of “Cognitive Surplus” and many articles and blog posts proclaiming the coming of the digital millennium—is the breeziest and seemingly most self-confident. … Shirky believes that we are on the crest of an ever-surging wave of democratized information: the Gutenberg printing press produced the Reformation, which produced the Scientific Revolution, which produced the Enlightenment, which produced the Internet, each move more liberating than the one before. Though it may take a little time, the new connective technology, by joining people together in new communities and in new ways, is bound to make for more freedom. It’s the Wired version of Whig history: ever better, onward and upward, progress unstopped. In John Brockman’s anthology “Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?,” the evolutionary psychologist John Tooby shares the excitement—“We see all around us transformations in the making that will rival or exceed the printing revolution”—and makes the same extended parallel to Gutenberg: “Printing ignited the previously wasted intellectual potential of huge segments of the population. . . . Freedom of thought and speech—where they exist—were unforeseen offspring of the printing press.”
Shirky’s and Tooby’s version of Never-Betterism has its excitements, but the history it uses seems to have been taken from the back of a cereal box. The idea, for instance, that the printing press rapidly gave birth to a new order of information, democratic and bottom-up, is a cruel cartoon of the truth. If the printing press did propel the Reformation, one of the biggest ideas it propelled was Luther’s newly invented absolutist anti-Semitism. And what followed the Reformation wasn’t the Enlightenment, a new era of openness and freely disseminated knowledge. What followed the Reformation was, actually, the Counter-Reformation, which used the same means—i.e., printed books—to spread ideas about what jerks the reformers were, and unleashed a hundred years of religious warfare. In the seventeen-fifties, more than two centuries later, Voltaire was still writing in a book about the horrors of those other books that urged burning men alive in auto-da-fé. Buried in Tooby’s little parenthetical—“where they exist”—are millions of human bodies. If ideas of democracy and freedom emerged at the end of the printing-press era, it wasn’t by some technological logic but because of parallel inventions, like the ideas of limited government and religious tolerance, very hard won from history.
Of course, if you stretch out the time scale enough, and are sufficiently casual about causes, you can give the printing press credit for anything you like. But all the media of modern consciousness—from the printing press to radio and the movies—were used just as readily by authoritarian reactionaries, and then by modern totalitarians, to reduce liberty and enforce conformity as they ever were by libertarians to expand it. As Andrew Pettegree shows in his fine new study, “The Book in the Renaissance,” the mainstay of the printing revolution in seventeenth-century Europe was not dissident pamphlets but royal edicts, printed by the thousand: almost all the new media of that day were working, in essence, for kinglouis.gov.
Even later, full-fledged totalitarian societies didn’t burn books. They burned some books, while keeping the printing presses running off such quantities that by the mid-fifties Stalin was said to have more books in print than Agatha Christie. (Recall that in “1984” Winston’s girlfriend works for the Big Brother publishing house.) If you’re going to give the printed book, or any other machine-made thing, credit for all the good things that have happened, you have to hold it accountable for the bad stuff, too. The Internet may make for more freedom a hundred years from now, but there’s no historical law that says it has to.
Some more gems from this piece are below the fold.
I was aware that every generation has had its share of whiners who feared society was falling apart, but I didn’t appreciate how long scholars have been feeling overloaded with information:
Among Ever-Wasers, the Harvard historian Ann Blair may be the most ambitious. In her book “Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age,” she makes the case that what we’re going through is like what others went through a very long while ago. Against the cartoon history of Shirky or Tooby, Blair argues that the sense of “information overload” was not the consequence of Gutenberg but already in place before printing began. She wants us to resist “trying to reduce the complex causal nexus behind the transition from Renaissance to Enlightenment to the impact of a technology or any particular set of ideas.” Anyway, the crucial revolution was not of print but of paper: “During the later Middle Ages a staggering growth in the production of manuscripts, facilitated by the use of paper, accompanied a great expansion of readers outside the monastic and scholastic contexts.” For that matter, our minds were altered less by books than by index slips. Activities that seem quite twenty-first century, she shows, began when people cut and pasted from one manuscript to another; made aggregated news in compendiums; passed around précis. “Early modern finding devices” were forced into existence: lists of authorities, lists of headings.
Everyone complained about what the new information technologies were doing to our minds. Everyone said that the flood of books produced a restless, fractured attention. Everyone complained that pamphlets and poems were breaking kids’ ability to concentrate, that big good handmade books were ignored, swept aside by printed works that, as Erasmus said, “are foolish, ignorant, malignant, libelous, mad.” The reader consulting a card catalogue in a library was living a revolution as momentous, and as disorienting, as our own. The book index was the search engine of its era, and needed to be explained at length to puzzled researchers—as, for that matter, did the Hermione-like idea of “looking things up.” That uniquely evil and necessary thing the comprehensive review of many different books on a related subject, with the necessary oversimplification of their ideas that it demanded, was already around in 1500, and already being accused of missing all the points. In the period when many of the big, classic books that we no longer have time to read were being written, the general complaint was that there wasn’t enough time to read big, classic books.
Blair’s and Pettegree’s work on the relation between minds and machines, and the combination of delight and despair we find in their collisions, leads you to a broader thought: at any given moment, our most complicated machine will be taken as a model of human intelligence, and whatever media kids favor will be identified as the cause of our stupidity. When there were automatic looms, the mind was like an automatic loom; and, since young people in the loom period liked novels, it was the cheap novel that was degrading our minds. When there were telephone exchanges, the mind was like a telephone exchange, and, in the same period, since the nickelodeon reigned, moving pictures were making us dumb. When mainframe computers arrived and television was what kids liked, the mind was like a mainframe and television was the engine of our idiocy. Some machine is always showing us Mind; some entertainment derived from the machine is always showing us Non-Mind.
And finally, something very obvious that many people fall into the trap of ignoring: the past may not predict the future. The most common response I hear when I mention global catastrophic risks of all kinds is that ‘people have always been concerned about apocalyptic scenarios, and we’re still here, right?’ Even apart from the anthropic problems specific to this case, the world is changing quickly, and so we shouldn’t count on the future resembling the past. Humans spent thousands of years wanting to fly, and then one day, some did:
Armed with such parallels, the Ever Wasers smile condescendingly at the Better-Nevers and say, “Of course, some new machine is always ruining everything. We’ve all been here before.” But the Better-Nevers can say, in return, “What if the Internet is actually doing it?” The hypochondriac frets about this bump or that suspicious freckle and we laugh—but sooner or later one small bump, one jagged-edge freckle, will be the thing for certain. Worlds really do decline. “Oh, they always say that about the barbarians, but every generation has its barbarians, and every generation assimilates them,” one Roman reassured another when the Vandals were at the gates, and next thing you knew there wasn’t a hot bath or a good book for another thousand years.