Communication revolutions

February 21, 2010

The printing press constituted a true revolution in communication. But what really happened as a wider consequence of that revolution? Let’s try to reconstruct the circumstances that preceded printing. We know that there was a strong, although very divergent scribal culture before the printing press. The cultural texture was quite thin outside of monasteries, libraries, and towns like Bologna. That led to a heavy reliance on the vocal transmission of information, on storytelling. The information culture was half-spoken, half-written. The most interesting era was the hundred years before Gutenberg. Historians say that the availability of paper led to the literate man becoming his own scribe.

The influence of the scribe was greatly enhanced because of a complementary character, the copyist. At first, the shift from script to print produced a social culture that was not very different from the culture produced by scribes. The writer – printer process was not very different from the scribe – copyist process, if looked at from the outside. Of course there was a huge increase in the output of books and a drastic reduction in the man-hours required to turn them out. The first change was a remarkable increase in productivity.

But then, the communications revolution of print caused remarkable changes in information-related practices: the well-informed man had to spend a part of each day in a temporary isolation from his fellow men – reading. Another development was the Sunday papers replacing church going.  Sermons used to be coupled with news about local and foreign affairs. News gathering and circulation were now handled much more efficiently by the new players. You could even get the newspaper every day! Concerns were voiced that the new technology of print is going to destroy peoples’ brains; You don’t need to remember any more. You just look up things in the newspaper!

The most noteworthy social change was taking place on the community level. To hear, you have to come together. To read, encourages you to draw apart. The notion that the society can be regarded as a bundle of discrete units supported the principle that detached people can be represented through a system of disconnected political parties . The reading public was very different from the one before. It was not only dispersed, it was very atomistic and individualistic.

Learning, which used to take place in vocal interaction in groups, was now the activity of a solitary, independent individual. The picture of the student in the library reading room was transferred to classrooms and the architectures of education.

According to some researchers, print “silenced” the spoken word. The orators of Rome gave way to the men of letters. Newspapers became stronger than broadcasting companies. Information technologies and communication technologies have since been seen as two separate domains, not only for technological reasons, but because of the historical developments described above.

Today, we are going through another revolution in communication. Digitalization and the Internet are providing new means for the new scribes to contribute. We call the scribes Bloggers, and we call the copyists Tweeters. The Internet is providing us with much faster and much more efficient means to be informed than the mainstream media players can provide. This time it is about real time! Furthermore, we can achieve two major quick wins. First, if we combine communication technologies and storytelling we can create a much richer information tapestry than present IT systems are capable of.  Second, instead of drawing apart, we can now come together. The way written word is used on Twitter or on Facebook is much closer to the vocal transmission of information than to writing. The culture is again half-spoken, half-written.The printing press separated information and communication. Social media are converging the two.

The real promise of the Internet is however in the social changes that are still ahead of us. The revolution is just about to begin.

Thank you Bo Carpelan


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