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From Gutenberg to the Internet: A Comparison of the Impact of Gutenberg Printing Press and the Internet as Media Technologies

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Juwairiah Ahmed

on 9 April 2013

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Transcript of From Gutenberg to the Internet: A Comparison of the Impact of Gutenberg Printing Press and the Internet as Media Technologies

Protestant Reformation Gutenberg- Media Power and Control While the printing press became a powerful force supporting creativity and change, it is imperative to note that the widespread dissemination of knowledge and information was not without its pitfalls. The propensity to exert control on the part of government and religious authority to restrict the spread of these technologies was clearly an obstacle. The printing press allowed knowledge and ideas to be stored easily and permanently in books and reach a wider audience. As such, censorship of print media was a major preoccupation of the authorities in the European states and churches. The most famous and widespread censorship system was that of the immensely powerful Catholic Church, with its “Index of Prohibited Books”—a collection of printed books that the faithful were forbidden to read (Briggs & Burke, 2005). The political and religious rulers contended that the written word was reserved for “God’s chosen priests” and not for regular people because this might enable people to challenge traditional authority and ways of thinking (Demers, 2007). Church authorities frequently used intimidation to prevent the propagation of ideas they deemed to be dangerous, and tried to restrict progress and limit creativity and innovation through censorship practices (Norman, 2006). Essentially, it was a repressive attempt to fight print and thus, maintain power and control. The social response to the new technology introduced by Gutenberg was multifaceted. As such, an important implication of the Gutenberg printing press in the emerging social climate of fifteenth century Europe was the dissemination of human knowledge. In an era where educational opportunity was prohibitively limited and reserved for the especially elite, printing facilitated the accumulation of knowledge by making discoveries more widely known and preventing information from being lost (Briggs & Burke, 2005). Information could now be distributed to a far wider audience, much faster and at lower cost. Larger segments of illiterate society could afford printed books, enabling more people to follow debates and take part in discussions matters of interest. This had the effect of broadening the social horizon (Meadow, 2006). Gutenberg: Broadening Social Horizons and Knowledge Internet - Virtual Public Sphere There are important similarities between the public sphere that was so crucial for the Protestant Reformation and what the world has witness recently in the political reform of the Arab Spring; the rise of a public sphere is largely religious and political and linked to the emergence of new media (print for the Protestant Reformation and internet for the Arab Spring) and in both cases the access of ordinary people to new media has undermined the power of the established authority (Briggs & Burke, 2009). However, in today’s age of digital technology, the traditional public sphere has moved online and has reappeared as a “virtual public sphere” (Benmamoun. Kalliny & Cropf, 2012). On a vastly larger scale, the virtual public sphere has achieved the empowerment of large numbers of people to create a massive movement, as happened in the Arab Spring. People transcending all national, social and economic boundaries have some together over mutual interests and are not rooted in physical or geographical locations. Rather, they encompass a relatively unlimited virtual area which has the potential to significantly contribute to increased engagement over political, social and economic issues, thus, fostering greater public participation and debate (Benmamoun. Kalliny & Cropf, 2012). Therefore, Habermas’s visionary concept of a public sphere is as relevant today as it was when it was first put forth. Internet - Broadening Social Horizons and Knowledge Furthermore, the era of modern education that started with the press, has reached its pinnacle in the Age of the Internet; an information society emerged. Now, information; whether public or private, verbal and visual, could be transmitted, collected and recorded, regardless of its point of origin, through the internet. This had deep implication for the up and coming group of “information workers,” a knowledge-based group who would transform the world. Learning and teaching was drastically affected by the rapid availability and transmission of information. Global information networks now allowed world-wide communication channels in real time among people transcending national boundaries. As such, the natural consequence of information and communication networks was “Globalization”. The world became connected through shared commerce, trade, policy and governance (Briggs & Burke, 2005). Henceforth, the role of the Gutenberg press and the internet in the establishment of information and knowledge networks is profound because it enabled increasingly complex social organizations and structures to emerge and prosper. Internet - Power and Control: The Arab Spring The Arab spring was an uprising spurred by the Arab world’s educated middle class youth who were keen for political change and economic opportunity. These youth took advantage of the widespread accessibility of Internet and social media technologies to organize and disseminate their reform philosophy, engage in political activism, inform citizens and mobilize protests (Wolfsfeld, Segev & Sheafer, 2013). Internet and social media gave Arab youth who have traditionally been marginalized from national and political discourse, an avenue to express themselves and their ideals, report stories of corruption, oppression and police brutality. The remarkable political use of Internet technology tools by the Arab youth took the Arab governments by surprise, so that these repressive governments resorted to immense censorship, filtration and intimidation (Benmamoun, Kalliny & Cropf, 2012). Despite these drastic measures, it is apparent that these attempts to control and retain power are failing miserably as these activist movements have largely succeeded in toppling their regimes. Thus, the power of the internet is actually helping the global citizenry to voice their opinions and concerns, and shifting the focus of power and authority from an elite few to a much larger, widespread majority. Essentially, the central authority of government is being decentralized and concentrated in the hands of the people to greater extent. Much like the reforms that took hold some five centuries ago, the Arab Spring has yet again proved the sheer power and utility of media technology. From Gutenberg to Internet By: Juwairiah Ahmed Internet Gutenberg Printing Press Revolution or Evolution? Despite vehement opposition from religious and political authorities, the Gutenberg printing press not only flourished but is also largely regarded as an important driving force for one of history’s greatest revolutions; the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was a period of dramatic, often violent, religious dissent during which various religious groups broke away from the dominating Catholic Church to form Protestantism (Schlager & Lauer, 2001). Through the power of the press, Protestant leaders, most prominently Martin Luther, spread their teachings throughout European populations. Martin Luther actually published his “95 Thesis” outlining his ideas for reform and produced mass copies of it to be widely distributed among the European population (Demers, 2007). One of Luther’s central arguments was that the Bible, not the Church was the supreme religious authority. The Bible was originally written in Latin, a language reserved for the scholarly, however, Luther spearheaded its translation into the vernacular, or local, languages so that the Bible is accessible to the general public (Schlager & Lauer, 2001). Through the use of the press, Luther’s ideals for reform, a local controversy was transformed into a major public event spanning nations, and gaining momentum as it radically continued to challenge the authority of the Church. Without the Gutenberg printing press and its ability to put out large amounts of this important information, it is highly doubtful that reform leader such as Luther would have been successful in their crushing revolt, as previously tried by many others before the advent of the press (Demers, 2007). Thus, the printing press served as a primary vehicle for driving one of the greatest reforms in history. Gutenberg-Public Sphere Connery (1997, p.161) defines Habermas’s concept of the public sphere as; “a discursive space unregulated by established authority, in which all participantsare considered equally entitled to speak and be heard.” As such, when Luther began to put forth his reform ideologies, he did so in a public arena, by addressing ordinary people in the vernacular languages. As a great majority was still illiterate, verbal discourse of the pamphlets distributed by the Reform leaders led to many people hearing the message in a public sphere. Historical records indicate that both the importance of public discussions of reform ideas and the role of the printed media was essential for the success of the Protestant Reformation (Briggs & Burke, 2009). Thus, the idea of a public sphere for discourse over the alleged misgivings of the dominant Catholic Church was an inherent and essential element of the Protestant Reform. A Comparison of Media Technologies Henceforth, after considering the comparisons and parallels drawn between the Gutenberg press and the Internet in this paper, it begs the question; “is the Internet really a revolutionary media technology as its is commonly made out to be, or rather is it an evolution of media technology that had already existed since the inception of the printing press or even before?” Truthfully, such questions are not easily or decisively answerable, however, it seems that the internet is an evolution, and improvement over older media technologies, and by no means, is it complete. At best it is a work in progress, and as human knowledge advances so will our technologies (Schultz, 1996). In an unceasing cycle, human knowledge will shape our technologies and our technologies will in turn, shape our knowledge. The Internet The Gutenberg Printing Press Conclusion Therefore, the world as we know it today would have not been possible without invention of the Gutenberg printing press and the Internet. Media technology, unlimited in its scope and diversity, will inevitably take forms that are unimaginable today; but whatever those forms may be, it is for certain that printing of some sort will be involved. Because of the central role that printing continues to play with regards to varied forms of information, it is unthinkable that printing will ever become obsolete. Instead, just like the internet, new purposes and applications of printing will continue to be invented. Though the Internet today is a much grandiose manifestation of its precedent, both forms of media technology have and will continue to immensely impact human thought and social organization. Indeed, the freedoms we enjoy today—religious, social, political, economic—and strive to increasingly defend are a testament to the profound and enduring impact of the earlier Gutenberg press and more recently, the Internet. Introduction The role of media is paramount, even profound, in the manner in which it shapes the lives of individuals and societies the world over. Since the inception of media, it has continued to exert strong influence on the very thread of human society and human organization. Thus, the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press in the fifteenth century had a momentous impact, much as the Internet continues to do so today. To this effect, the Gutenberg printing press was responsible for some of great revolutions in history, formed the basis for the modern market economy, and radically changed the socio-political structure of Europe (Adelmann, 2012). Similarly, the internet sparked the “information revolution,” and continues to revolutionize the manner in which we seek information, communicate, do business, and connect with others across the globe (Demers, 2007). Therefore, this paper will seek to compare and analyze how the Gutenberg press and the Internet have allowed for the development and flourishing of complex social organization, the shifting nature of power and control, and the increasing de-centralization of authority structures. Thank You :) Adelmann, B. (2012). The internet: Gutenberg Press 2.0. The New American, 28(6), 17-21.
Benmamoun, M., Kalliny, M., & Kropf, R. A. (2012). The Arab Spring, MNEs, and virtual public spheres. Multinational Business Review, 20(1), 26-43.
Briggs, A., & Burke, P. (2005). A social history of the media: From Gutenberg to the Internet (2rd Ed.). Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Briggs, A., & Burke, P. (2009). A social history of the media: From Gutenberg to the Internet (3rd Ed.). Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Connery, Brian A. "IMHO: Authority and Egalitarian Rhetoric in the Virtual Coffeehouse" in Porter, David A. "Internet Culture". London: Routledge Inc., 1997: 161-179.
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