Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Internet & Books Share Same Critics 1

The Internet - is it the enemy of community ties? Is it spreading inaccurate knowledge? Does it encourage vulgarization of taste?  Does it cause information overload?

We are getting increasingly tired and bored of reading articles and hearing individuals complain that technology and specifically the Internet and the World Wide Web are causing the downfall of our education, young people, and our future.
"Comparisons of scribal reference works with early printed versions often show that an age-old process of corruption was aggravated and accelerated after print." Elizabeth Eisenstein
It appears that everywhere we turn, we are bombarded by the same old arguments. In short, the Internet and its users have been accused of “spreading inaccurate knowledge;" "ruining our ability to memorize;" “weakening local community ties;” encouraging “cultural anarchy and the vulgarization of taste;" causing an “[information] overload [which has] become more acute than they were a century ago, and it seems likely they will weigh even more heavily on future generations than they do on our own;" and the list goes on and on.

Basically, if there is a problem in the world, the Internet is to blame for it! We are surprised world hunger and corruption in politics haven’t been mentioned yet!

The people who believe these accusations seem to want us to ignore the Internet, and return to the good old days of the printed book. There is only one problem with this. The arguments listed above are not only directed at the Internet of today, but were also directed against the printing press and printed books. Indeed, the quotes mentioned at the beginning of this article, were taken directly from attackers of the printing press.  How quickly we forget! Let's tackle each of these one by one, shall we?

Accurate or Inaccurate?
typeset book from the 1400s
People tend to have this belief that if something appears in a printed book it is fact. This is obviously not true. And this belief was certainly not always the case. In fact, when the printed book first came out it was constantly being critiqued for its inaccuracies. At the time, many people were so frustrated by the amount of errors in books that they wanted to return to scribal manuscripts. So the printed book was not always as factual and accurate as people today like to believe. In fact, according to Elizabeth Eisenstein in her book, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, for the first 50 years or so, mistakes and errors in books were rampant. She goes on to say:
Comparisons of scribal reference works with early printed versions often show that an age-old process of corruption was aggravated and accelerated after print. In the field of Bible illustration, for example, inferior-quality blocks used repeatedly led to unintelligible lettering; misinterpretations of blurred captions by ignorant craftsmen produced mystifying juxtapositions; all errors were compounded by pirated editions issued over the course of decades. (82)

However, while print had mistakes, it wasn’t as if manuscripts didn’t have any. Print just caused the errors to appear faster; so they were more apparent.

When we first read this, we immediately began thinking of Wikipedia and the number of people (particularly teachers, professors, and librarians) we have heard say that wikipedia shouldn’t be used, especially for research papers. Why? Because of the number of errors and inaccuracies it contains?

1st edition Britannica
What these people do no realize is that studies have been done on this and have found Wikipedia to be as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica. However, if you buy a copy of Encyclopedia Britannica, the errors it contains are permanent; at least until a new edition comes out and then you have to spend more money. Most errors in Wikipedia articles are corrected within hours and it costs no money. Now which sounds better?

Another thing to keep in mind is that if you use the standard criteria for how to evaluate a website and apply them to Wikipedia, it passes with flying colors. It passes standard evaluative criteria such as:
  1. Can you contact the authors of the articles? Yes. 
  2. Does it update the website regularly? Yes. 
  3. How is the spelling and grammar? Generally good. 
  4. Are the articles unbiased? Just check what Wikipedia says about themselves. 
  5. What type of website is it? It is an .org, Not as good as an .edu; but not as bad as a .com.
We provide a set of videos of the visionary Marshall McLuhan who understood both the similarities and differences between media. If you cannot see the embedded videos, here is the link:

 Social or Solo?
Coffee houses
Another complaint people had about printed books when they first came out, (which is reminiscent of critiques against the Internet today) was that it made people less sociable. “Complaints about the 'sullen silence' of newspaper readers in seventeenth-century coffeehouses point to the intrusive effects of printed materials on some forms of sociability." (Eisenstein, 104) Eisenstein goes on to say,
The displacement of pulpit by press is significant not only in connection with secularization but also because it points to an explanation for the weakening of local community ties. To hear an address delivered, people have to come together; to read a printed report encourages individuals to draw apart...The shift in communications may have changed the sense of what it meant to participate in public affairs. The wide distribution of identical bits of information provided an impersonal link between people who were unknown to each other. By its very nature, a reading public was not only more dispersed; it was also more atomistic and individualistic than a hearing one. (105)
So it would be unfair to say that printed books just decreased people’s sociability? Just like the Internet today, books had a strange habit of both increasing and decreasing sociability. In some ways "the new industry encouraged informal social groupings that cut across traditional frontiers." (Eisenstein, 199)
How exactly? Well,
The advent of printing led to the creation of a new kind of shop structure; to a regrouping which entailed closer contacts among diversely skilled workers and encouraged new forms of cross-cultural interchange . . .
Other fruitful forms of collaboration brought together astronomers and engravers, physicians and painters, dissolving older divisions of intellectual labor and encouraging new ways of coordinating the work of brains, eyes, and hands." (Eisenstein, 27)

This doesn’t even include all the people that began to gather in order to discuss books that they read. Book clubs serve this purpose today.  People love to talk about books they have read. Yet at the same time, the mere nature of the book, forces people to be alone, unless you are reading aloud. Eisenstein reminds us that,
. . . bookshops, coffeehouses, and reading rooms provided new kinds of communal gathering places. Yet subscription lists and corresponding societies represented relatively impersonal group formations, while the reception of printed messages in any place still required temporary isolation - just as it does in a library now. (106)

"Urban populations were not only pulled apart, they were also linked in new ways by the more impersonal channels of communication." Elizabeth Eisenstein
Again, this is not very different than the Internet today. The Internet has loads of differing social sites for a plethora of different reasons. There are the commonly known ones such as, MySpace, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Yet there is also and Diigo for Academia and researchers. There are Avatars United, for gamers; Blogster among others, for people who blog; Buzznet for photos, journal and video-sharing and for music; Flickr, for sharing photos; Fubar, for singles looking for dates; GovLoop, for people in government; LibraryThing, for book lovers; Ravelry, for people who knit and crochet; SocialVibe, for charity;, for travellers;, for people in fraternities and sororities; Ning, for people who want to create their own social website; and even Elftown and for people with more distinct interests. Basically, if there is a hobby that exists, then there is a social website for it. So it is very difficult to understand how the Internet is causing us to be less social. We would argue that really all it is doing is changing the way we socialize.

Ironically enough, the printed book helped socialization in one way so much, that it helped fix the errors that people tended to complain about, and allowed for a quicker evolution of ideas. This help came in the form of  the people’s ability to collaborate with each other. the very course of accelerating a process of corruption, which had gone on in a much slower and more irregular fashion under the aegis of scribes, the new medium made this process more visible to learned men and offered a way of overcoming it for the first time. (Eisenstein, 82)
Authors and publishers even encouraged readers to look for the errors and help fix them.  An ancient form of crowdsourcing:
. . . the requests of publishers often encouraged readers to launch their own research projects and field trips, which resulted in additional publication programs. Thus a knowledge explosion was set off . . .  after printing, large-scale data collection did become subject to new forms of feedback which had not been possible in the age of scribes." (Eisenstein, 85)

This didn’t just happen in some books, it happened in all sorts of areas. Authors and publishers asked for help in correcting mistakes and gathering information in books having to do with natural history, geography, and physics. They weren’t asking just experts. They were asking uneducated people to write in their observations on everything from birds to tides. Eisenstein reminds us that:
When authors of atlases and herbals called on their readers to send in notes about coastlines or dried plants and seeds, a form of data collection was launched in which 'everyman' could play a supporting role. (266)
The similarities between this kind of collaboration and the collaboration that occurs through the Internet today are astounding. How is this collaboration any different than that which occurs via World Wide Web?  If, in fact, David Hume was correct when he said that
The Power which Printing gives us of continually improving and correcting our Works in successive Editions appears to me the chief advantage of that art,"(Eisenstein, 86) 
How do you think Mr. Hume would have felt about websites like Wikipedia? If the printing press was an advantage because of its ability for “continually improving and correcting” its works, then the Internet is this same displays this same advantage in a literally, exponential way.


Richard said...

Interesting read..

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