Steve Walker

Some less or more well-organised thoughts

Thought experiment – my answers to a 1472 MORI pollster

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Last weekend, John Naughton (a colleague in my dept. at the OU) wrote an interesting and thought-provoking article in the Observer ‘Everything you need to know about the internet‘. His first recommendation is to take the long view and suggests a thought experiment in which someone from 1472 is polled by MORI about some effects of the new-fangled printing. I’ve thought about these questions, from the perspective of the 21st century and can’t help concluding that the answers are still more difficult to attribute than John suggests. So, below is my attempt at answering, on a 1 to 5 scale, our MORI pollster’s questions, with explanations.

“On a scale of one to five, where one indicates “Not at all likely” and five indicates “Very likely”, how likely do you think it is that Herr Gutenberg’s invention will:

Undermine the authority of the Catholic Church?

The extent to which this has happened clearly depends on where our interviewee is. In England the attribution of the declining authority of Catholicism to the advent of print may have appeared highly plausible by the first half of the 16th century. A Spanish respondent where the Inquisition was underway during this period, and which by some accounts didn’t end until the late C18th , would not have been able to make this attribution for 300-350 years, and it’s quite clear from recent news that the Catholic church remains a powerful institution in countries such as Italy. Indeed, someone living in what we now know as Latin America might be able to argue quite convincingly that the converse is true – printing, and the printed Bible, increased the power of Catholic Church over their lives quite substantially over the same period as it declined in N. Europe. So, whatever the relationship between print and the power of the Catholic church, it certainly hasn’t been a simple one of cause and effect. It’s rather more about how print was used by different people in different places. So that’s a ‘4 – to some extent’ and a ‘2 – not much’ from me, depending on where you’re looking.

Power the reformation?

See above. Printing didn’t power a reformation where there wasn’t one. And whether our N. European respondent would see print as powering a reformation around them would depend to some extent on what is meant by ‘power’. If the analogy is to power in the sense that petrol powers a car, then there are two ways of answering the question. Did the availability of print (petrol) help the reformation (the car) to move forward then probably yes, it did, since many reformers used print extensively and deliberately. Did the petrol (print) cause the car (reformation) to come into existence, no it didn’t since the car may well exist independently of whether it has any petrol in its tank. Would the reformation (car) have happened without print (petrol)? Well, since cars can be fuelled in other ways, it may well be possible to move the car without petrol (power the reformation without print). So it’s either a split vote or a ‘don’t know’ from me.

Note 9/9/12: as Braudel notes in passing in ‘A History of Civilisation’ the geography of the reformation in northern Europe largely  coincides with the borders of the Roman Empire. This implies that at the very least some social/historical factors were important in powering the Reformation in some places and not others. He doesn’t mention print at all in this context (though see below) which suggests a possible Anglo(phonic)-centredness in accounts of print.

Enable the rise of modern science?

Probably yes, not least because ‘enable’ is a rather weaker verb than ‘undermine’ and ‘power’ and hence is rather easier to demonstrate. ‘Enable’ doesn’t mean that science was inevitable (as some contemporary religious cultures demonstrate), but it’s certainly arguable that modern science would at least have been much harder, if not impossible without print. It has been argued quite convincingly the most powerful research tool of the early scientist was the library, since much of the progress in early science was a matter of accounting differently for things that had long been observed (e.g. falling apples and the motion of the stars) rather than discovering new things with new tools (such as Galileo’s telescope, which clearly also had a role to play). A stronger form of this argument is that the advent of print makes a better starting point for thinking about the history of science than rather woolly notions of the Enlightenment. This requires a major rewrite of history to fit the technological story. It may be possible to demonstrate this, but it’s not a trivial point. So ‘4 – to some extent’ from me.

Note 8/10/12: Braudel also mentions printing, along with economic growth, as ‘helping’ scientific progress by allowing the widespread distribution of ancient Greek texts.

Create entirely new social classes and professions?

While a contemporary actor network theorist may have no problem in attributing this sort of agency to a thing, I’m not sure that ‘print’ created anything. In the first instance, printers did, so the direction of causality is at least debateable. The specific social structure and division of labour between printers, publishers, authors etc that emerged around printing are at least as closely associated with the emergence of early capitalist modes of production as with specifically print technology. As for ‘entirely new social classes’, I’m not sure what is meant by ‘class’ here. I suspect that it’s something rather wider than occupation but I’m not sure what, unless the claim is that the whole of capitalist development was due specifically to print, which is quite a claim. So for this respondent in the early C21st it would have to be at best a ‘don’t know’ but more likely ‘to a very limited extent’.

Change our conceptions of ‘childhood’ as a protected early period in a person’s life?

I haven’t heard this claim before. At first glance it doesn’t look plausible to me: my father’s research into our family history has found a ten year-old miner’s apprentice in the family in (I think) the 1840s. His childhood doesn’t look that protected by an invention that had been around for almost four hundred years. The actions of Victorian social reformers seem a rather more plausible and immediate cause for this in this country, and there are still campaigns running to end child labour in some parts of the world where, I believe, they’ve had print for quite some time too. So, this one probably gets a ‘1 – not at all’ from me.

One response to some of these points, put to me recently by another friend, is that I’m looking the wrong timescales, that we need to look at the ‘longue duree’. Maybe, but how long is long enough? Playing this card is akin to saying that invisible fairies come out at the bottom of the garden when nobody’s looking – it’s impossible to falsify. And of course, if the argument is allowed then a sceptic is equally entitled to argue that these observations only appear to be caused by print, as will become clear in the fullness of time. Which immediately leads to stalemate.

I’m not actually trying to argue that print has no consequences and that it’s all socially constructed. I’m arguing that print is one causal factor among many interacting ones in an open system, and that it’s actually quite hard work to tease out precisely what its relationship to particular outcomes is (to the extent it’s even possible to do this). Consequently, there’s little if anything inevitable about the outcomes which would probably be different under different social systems as demonstrated by looking at the world around us.

This is not just an obscure academic debate since the logic, of course, applies to technologies like the internet as well. We need to be very careful about arguments that the internet (or next generation access, or iPads or whatever) leads necessarily to x or y. X or y are often at least as much the outcome of political and commercial conflict, as in the current capture of regulation by the copyright holders. We can, as we are trying to do in Infinite Bandwidth, Zero Latency (IBZL) project, try to make some difference in the technologies we end up with.

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Written by Steve

June 24, 2010 at 11:26 pm

Posted in technology use

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