Sunday, June 10, 2007

what did the printing press change and how quickly did those changes happen?

that could be an important question if we are also interested in this question:
  • what will the computer change and how quickly will that change happen?
John Lienhard argues (what people said about books in 1498 ) that eventually the book ushered in scientific thinking. That it helped us to:
  • rediscover the writings and values of the classical Greeks
  • coupled Aristotle's observational science with illustrations (first, block print, later copperplate engravings)
  • transformed out epistemology from inwardly introspective to outwardly experimental, in part because the message embedded in the medium of books is that knowledge comes from outside ourselves
  • create new observational sciences such as botany, anatomy, geography and ethnography
  • led us away from deductive philosophies
So, the book ushered in a whole new way of thinking - scientific thinking

How quickly did those changes happen?

1450: printing press invented by Gutenberg ()
1454,5: Gutenberg Bible produced (Gutenberg Bible )
1456-mid 80s: classical and religious books were produced, essentially copies of profitable old manuscript books
1484: the first scientific illustrations appeared in books

So, it's reasonable to assume that the older generation has to die out before the new generation can find their own path. Although the older generation has it's share of creative visionaries they are marginalised by the majority.

Lienhard also warns that we have never been able to predict the future, that it is created by the younger generation. So what principles should the adults, who currently control things, follow, in shaping a future we cannot predict? Lienhard recommends:
  1. Seek out our own ignorance, that wisdom is having some awareness of our ignorance
  2. Good people make good machines. Bad people make bad machines.
  3. Don't try to plan the future, rather create a flexible present, so that the future can bend and find its own shape

The current older generation is embedded in print culture and blind to deficiencies in that culture, just like a fish swimming in water is not aware of the water

Greek philosophers who were there at the start were suspicious of print culture.
Socrates complained about writing. He felt it forced one to follow an argument rather than participate in it, and he disliked both its alienation and it persistence. He was unsettled by the idea that a manuscript travelled without the author, with whom no argument was possible. Worse, the author could die and never be talked away from the position taken in the writing.
- Alan Kay: Computer, Networks and Education. Scientific American September 1991
Marshall McLuhan argued that alphabetical and print culture elevated homogenous visual experience and relegated auditory and other sensuous complexity to the background and that this fostered a specialist outlook mentality(The Gutenberg Galaxy )

Print culture has produced amazing things. But we now have a younger generation who have grown up in new media. And we don't really understand what it all means.

The incunabula refers to the infancy of printing, before 1500. Cunae means cradle

We live in the age of a new cradle, the computer. But in Schools everything seems locked down and inflexible. Learn Office. Learn Applications. User Interface is a given. Block the read/write web. At a time when we should be encouraging the young to invent the future and usher in new ways of thinking and doing, the general educational School use of computers is becoming less flexible.


Anonymous said...

This is an interesting perspective to put some of the discussions about digital immigrants & digital natives in context.

This seems to be focused on Western culture only. What about the more global environment? I admit that my global history is about as weak as you'd expect an American from the public school system to have. I'm curious about Arab and Chinese culture though. Do you know if they experienced similar shifts in short periods of time? Were the changes brought by printed books or something else?

Also, I'm not sure I completely agree with Lienhard's second principle, "Good people make good machines. Bad people make bad machines." I think the focus now should not so much be on who made the machine or technology, but how it is used. YouTube can be used for videos of cats playing a piano, a politician sharing an optimistic vision for the future, or terrorists making threats. The creators of the technology aren't what made those videos good, bad, or just silly; it's the users of the technology.

I'd reword Lienhard's principle like this: "Good people use technology in good ways. Bad people use technology in bad ways."

What do you think? Is that valid?

Bill Kerr said...

hi christy,

Unfortunately, I'm ignorant about the history of Arab and Chinese cultures too but like you am curious to learn more

I agree with you that Lienhard's second principle needs improvement. I'm very tempted to buy his book, How Invention Begins , for further clarification of what he really means

Youtube can be used in deep ways, for trivia or for terror, as you say. But terrorists who are wedded to a fundamentalist religious ideology will never invent sophisticated machines because their outlook rejects the scientific world view. Rather they use machines invented by modern societies against those societies

My view is that we can't separate technology from human development, that humans and technology co-evolve. I wrote about this in my old blog, what is technology?

I like the slogan, "Tools are made by people; when tools call out for revolution, they will speak through people"

Anonymous said...

The idea that "humans are technology" from your old blog post is very thought-provoking. I need some more time to reflect on that before I can write about it intelligently; that's a big idea.

You're right that the worldviews that reject technology and scientific thinking won't invent any new technology. I don't think that has to be Islamic terrorists either; US fundamentalist Christians like the ones who just put up the creationist museum are quite similar in that respect.

If humans co-evolve with and through technology, does that mean that the fundamentalist groups that reject technology will ultimately die out because they are an evolutionary dead end? It's an intriguing perspective.

Thanks for making me think!

Unknown said...

The changes brought about by movable type took a lot longer than a generation to work through. The first novel did not appear till the 1700's and comics did not appear till the 1900's.

Not sure if that changes his conclusions nor whether it is a reliable predictor of the rate of change this time

Bill Kerr said...

Yes, Tony has some great information about novels and comics on his website , I'll quote some of it here (I love the quote about the novel):

[from tony's site]
In the 1700’s a new literary form, the novel, came into existence. When women started reading and writing novels, new literary forms arose which explored the realms of emotion. These novels were greeted with similar fears as are now held for computer games but the “victims” were feared to be women rather than children.

"There was a real fear that reading novels would disrupt the woman’s duties by giving them false ideas of life and particularly made women unsuited for and unhappy with the domestic roles for which society destined them. A woman's mind was considered weaker than the male's and therefore some people felt that these novels would also affect their morality. Novels, it was thought, made immoral actions seem more interesting than virtuous ones"
History of the Novel, Kristan Whipple, Studies in the Novel, 1740-1900, Department of English, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Later, a new literary/artistic genre, the comic, emerged and was the subject of similar criticism.
"crime comic books (mysteries, thrillers, horror, and police stories) were a harmful influence on young minds. Fifty years on, the targets of Wertham’s criticism seem relatively benign. For example, Wertham called Superman and Mighty Mouse “crime books” and labelled Batman & Robin homosexuals."
Literature Arts and Medicine Database, Literature Annotations Wertham, Fredric Seduction of the Innocent

Seducers of the Innocent, The bloody legacy of pre-code crime, Nicky Wright. Originally published in Comic Book Marketplace #65 (December, 1998)

Bill Kerr said...

I had another thought, Christy, about Lienhard's second principle. How about: "Good people make good software. Bad people make bad software." ?

I think social relations are embedded in software and the way it is produced. Hence when MS hides the file extensions by default and advises users not to modify program files or the registry it makes me mad!

I'm coming to the view that the best software around is Smalltalk / Squeak / Etoys because as well as being designed by very smart people the social intention behind it is great as well - to make something powerful enough and flexible enough that children could use it to make, in turn, whatever they wanted to make.

This is Lienhard's third principle:
"Don't try to plan the future, rather create a flexible present, so that the future can bend and find its own shape"

Bill Kerr said...

This New Scientist extract (Peter Norvig, Director of Google Research) suggests that more sophisticated, conversational interactive search will be the big shift in the next 50 years:

"We are in the middle of an expansion of information access, with the internet providing democratic access to billions of pages of text. Most of this is mediated by search engines. The only other comparable expansion started in 1456, with the introduction of the printing press. Fifty years and 15 million books later, the theologian Sebastian Brant wrote "There is nothing nowadays that our children... fail to know."

Today, 12 years into the era of search engines, we still have not made good on Brant's boast. Search engines deliver relevance but knowledge requires human work.

In 50 years the scene will be transformed. Instead of typing a few words into a search engine, people will discuss their needs with a digital intermediary, which will offer suggestions and refinements. The result will not be a list of links, but an annotated report (or a simple conversation) that synthesises the important points, with references to the original literature. People won't think of "search" as a separate category - it will all be part of living."