Monday, March 24, 2014

Nothing Changes

Back when I was doing research as a member of the Xerox family, I encountered many for whom Elizabeth L. Eisenstein was almost some kind of high priestess. She had written a monumental (two-volume) tome entitled The Printing Press as an Agent of Change; so it should not have surprised me that she would inspire many to look to the copy machine as a comparable "agent of change" and to view similar media-related innovations in the same light. I must confess that I have yet to read that book in its entirety; but I have begun to approach it from the perspective of her reviewers, both positive and negative. A review by Shannon E. Duffy showed up on H-Net and received Eisenstein's blessing in a retrospective article she wrote for The American Historical Review (for a forum piece edited by Anthony Grafton).

One particular sentence from Duffy's article particular impressed me when I read that review:
Moreover, the competitive nature of the printing industry, which was driven by a desire for sales, provided a new, more public outlet for controversies and insured that what began as a scholarly dispute between theologians gained an international audience.
Remember that we are talking about the threshold of the sixteenth century, yet the tension between scholarly and mercantile pursuits is no different today than it was then. The fact is that, over the course of the centuries, the public airing of disputes has had a healthy history as a marketable commodity with far greater impact than any interest in the dissemination of knowledge through reading or other educational practices. If Tim Berners-Lee spent more time reading history, he might have realized that 1) the World Wide Web would become the largest possible public arena for such disputes and 2) there would be those clever enough to make a fast buck out of those disputes by selling advertising space on the "virtual walls" of that arena. Sadly, he still seems to think that the growth of knowledge is all that matters, even if much of Eisenstein's research chose to focus on the plethora of "unexpected results" (a phrase from Duffy's review) that followed in the wake of the printing press.

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