Thursday, September 1, 2011

Internet & Books Share Same Critics 2

We continue with the common criticisms leveled at the Internet's proliferation in our society, life and schools.
Like Marshall McLuhan said, many would rather live in the past age than in the present.  Is this true? Let us investigate.

Too Much Information?
People's negative feelings towards books was enhanced due to the sheer number of books being published. ". . .early modern scholars confronted what seemed to them to be an unprecedented 'information overload.'" (Eisenstein, 343)
  Exactly how large was this mass of books? According to Michael Clapham in Printing, A History of Technology, (vol. 3),
A man born in 1453, the year of the fall of Constantinople, could look back from his fiftieth year on a lifetime in which about eight million books had been printed, more perhaps than all the scribes of Europe had produced since Constantine founded his city in A.D. 330. (quoted in Eisenstein, 15) 

first printed map 1472
Why was this vast amount of printed books such a problem back then, when no one seems to complain about it today? This happened for two reasons. First, "It took at least a century of printing before the multiform maps and tangled chronologies inherited from scribal records were sorted out, data reworked, and more uniform systems for arranging materials developed." (Eisenstein, 133)  People today, can go to a library or log onto a computer and easily find any book they want quickly. Even before computers we had card catalogues and the Dewey Decimal System. This was not always the case.
When libraries first came about, each one used a different method to organize its books. Medieval library catalogues . . . reflected the multiform character of scribal culture and were, for the most part, idiosyncratically arranged, designed to help a given custodian find his way to the books. . . (Eisenstein, 71)

Before the printing press it was not nearly as important to know the order of the alphabet because not all libraries, not even most of them, were in alphabetic order.
Ever since the sixteenth century, memorizing a fixed sequence of discrete letters represented by meaningless symbols and sounds has been the gateway to book learning for all children in the West. This was so little the case before printing. (Eisenstein, 70)

...while this information overload on the Internet seems to be a huge problem that is taking way too long to solve, it took about 100 years to solve the problem of the information overload that print caused; and the Internet has only been around for about 20 years.f..
This also applied to regularly numbered pages, punctuation marks, section breaks, running heads, indexes, title pages, and Arabic numerals. All of these were rarities before the printing press. So while we have no problem finding books now, back in the late 1400s and early 1500s, when the printing press first came out, it was a pain in the butt to find anything until the more common methods we use today came into effect.

The second reason this information overload was such a problem back then, but not now, was due to the readers of the time, not being able to differentiate between fiction, non-fiction, science and what is today termed pseudoscience.
Secret formulas used by the alchemist could not be distinguished from those used by apothecaries, goldsmiths, glaziers, or luthiers. All had belonged to the same 'underworld of learning' and emerged into view at more or less the same time. Thus when 'technology went to press' so too did a vast backlog of occult practices and formulas, and few readers were able to discriminate between the two. For at least a century and a half confusion persisted. (Eisenstein, 157)

Later on Eisenstein goes on to say,
Distinguishing between scientific journals and sensational journalism is relatively simple at present. But during the early years of the Royal Society, when sightings of monsters and marvels were still being credited and recorded, the two genres were easily confused. (Eisenstein, 299)

It is ironic that the World Wide Web today is credited with creating information overload. It is not the amount of information on the Internet that is the problem; it is our inability to find exactly what we are looking for that is the problem. Few are bothering to teach our youth the correct way to do web searches, how to search engines like Google and Yahoo, organize the links that come up, and even more importantly,  how to evaluate the reliability of websites. We expect that today's generation will know how to do these things because, after all, this is the technology of their generation. Before anyone prepares to give up all this "troublesome technology", please keep in mind that while this information overload on the Internet seems to be a huge problem that is taking way too long to solve, it took about 100 years to solve the problem of the information overload that print caused; and the Internet has only been around for about 20 years (the World Wide Web even less).

Worse Memories or More Storage Space?
Books were accused of causing people's memories of events to worsen.
Frances Yates has added a fascinating sequel by her study of the long -lost arts of memory. Not only did printing eliminate many functions previously performed by stone figures over portals and stained glass windows, but it also affected less-tangible images by eliminating the need for placing figures and objects in imaginary niches located in memory theaters. By making it possible to dispense with the use of images for mnemonic purposes, printing reinforced iconoclastic tendencies already present among many Christians. (Eisenstein, 39)

After all, why should anyone memorize anything when they are able to just look it up in their books?  This is a common argument against the use of the Internet today.  That books brought about a poorer initial presentation after Guttenberg's printing process was introduced is illustrated here.  The Internet has restored this with the addition of moving images and sound.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:

Today, people like to critique the use of the Internet claiming that people don’t memorize anything anymore. Why? Because it is so quick to just “Google it.” People hate that the World Wide Web is replacing our memory. My question is why is this so horrible? Isn’t there something to be said for spending less time memorizing? Isn’t there some advantage to this? Eisenstein argues:
Less reliance on memory work and rote repetition in lecture halls also brought new mental talents into play. Printing enabled natural philosophers to spend more time solving brain teasers, designing ingenious experiments and new instruments, or even chasing butterflies and collecting bugs if they wished. The pleasure principle should not be ruled out when considering the rapid development of new puzzle-solving techniques by men who were aptly described as dilettanti and amateurs. . .
. . .
Early modern science owed something to playfulness and 'idle' curiosity as well as to piety and profit-seeking drives." (270)
In fact, earlier in the same text she says,
As sixteenth-century astronomers, [Tycho & Copernicus] may be distinguished from their predecessors not so much because they were influenced by one or another Renaissance current of thought but rather because they were freed from copying and memorizing and could make use of new paper tools and printed texts. (Eisenstein, 244)

In hindsight, many of the great men of the era of the printing press owe their greatness, in some part, to not having to spend as much time memorizing. Think of all the hours people have spent memorizing information we no longer need to know. Imagine if we could get all those thousands of hours back. Oh how much more we could have accomplished!

Idleness or Intellect?
Another complaint about printed books 500 years ago (and the Internet today) is all the trivial and lewd information they contained. No one would have cared how much time people spent reading if everyone was always reading bibles and scientific journals. However,
Book reading did not stop short with guides to godly living or practical manuals and texts, any more than printers stopped short at producing them. The same silence, solitude, and contemplative attitudes associated formerly with spiritual devotion also accompanied the perusal of scandal sheets, 'lewd Ballads,' 'merry booked of Italie,' and other 'corrupted takes in Inke and Paper.’” (Eisenstein, 104)
Now-a-days many people roll their eyes when they see someone break out a laptop or a tablet at the beach or in a coffee house. However, when someone takes out a printed book and begins to read, no one seems to mind; no matter what the content. And if we see someone reading poetry most people have added respect for him/her. This person is reading poetry? She/he must be a true intellect. But men of power and success in the 1500s used to look down on people who read, especially people who read fiction and poetry.
The competent business or professional man, who had been the natural ally of the early printer, was the natural enemy of the professional fiction writer or lionized poet. . . . any man who worked hard for a living, could not afford to spend much time reading novels or poetry." (Eisenstein, 116)
Society of Dilettanti
In fact, many people of the time, “worried about cultural anarchy and the vulgarization of taste" (Eisenstein, 117)
due to printed books; so much so that this is when censorship began. People felt it necessary to keep certain books away from individuals; just like how today parents and schools try to block certain websites from kids. Now I’m not saying we should start opening up porn sites to children; far from that. But just like with printed books in the 1500s, people do not want to stop at censoring kids or just pornography. People want to censor sites like Wikipedia and YouTube because they contain some inappropriate content; from adults as well as kids. But keep in mind that censorship can have some horrible side effects. Eisenstein reminds us that, "Official censorship could affect even the hidden life of the mind. Conditions that guarantee speculative freedom are probably related to the 'development of originality'" (271)

  She even goes on to give us a powerful example which she quotes from Alexandre Koyre:
'Poor Borelli! He was truly on the road to the great discovery. . . He renounced all theory beyond the brute, experimental fact and by this very means barred the road to progress. Hooke and Newton had more courage. It is the intellectual audacity of Newton just as much as his genius which permitted him to overcome the obstacles that stopped Borelli.'" (278)
Here you have it. If Isaac Newton were to adhere to the bans of certain books of his time we may never have heard of him or any of his revered theories and laws.

And he is not the only one. There seemed to be a trend during that time that those who ignored the censorship, and branched out on their own to explore what was out there were rewarded with greatness.
Students who took advantage of technical texts which served as silent instructors were less likely to defer to traditional authority and more receptive to innovating trends. Young minds provided with updated editions, especially of mathematical texts, began to surpass not only their own elders but the wisdom of ancients as well. (Eisenstein, 293)

One such example that Eisenstein reminds us of was Tycho Brahe.
Tycho set out to become an astronomer by defying his tutor and teaching himself. He bypassed the traditional master-apprentice relationship by taking advantage of printed materials. (Eisenstein, 244)

Tycho Brahe 
There is a lot to be said for giving students the ability to explore on their own. This is why the World Wide Web is so wonderful. Students can explore anything they are interested in on their own without having to wait for someone to teach it to them. So maybe, rather than keeping it from them, we should be teaching them how to navigate it properly and evaluate the reliability of the differing sites. After all, students and people in general are motivated by freedom. Yes, some will use this freedom to look at pornography. Don’t kid yourself, though. Those who want to, already do. There are just too many sites out there for us to block them all. However, many students will use this freedom for bigger and better things.

Giving students the freedom to choose what to read on their own will cause them to read more. And giving people the power to publish their writing on their own (which the Internet also does) will cause them to want to write more. No student will ever complain about writing a text message or reading a comic book. Rather than just trying to force them to read what teachers want them to read, and forcing them to write something which only a few will see, most don’t care about, and will shortly be thrown out and forgotten. And then we sit back and wonder why no students want to read and write anymore. As Eisenstein tells us,
The wish to see one's work in print (fixed forever with one's name in card files and anthologies) is different from the desire to pen lines that could never be fixed in a permanent form, might be lost forever, altered by copying, or - if truly memorable - be carried by oral transmission and assigned ultimately to 'anon' (95)

If students were given the opportunity to write something that they truly cared about, and publish it in a medium where millions of others would not only be able to see it but no one but them could remove it, how much easier do you think it would be to get them to write?

Plagiarism or Collaboration?
One last major complaint about printed books early in their existence was that they promoted piracy and plagiarism. ". . .copyists had, after all, never paid those whose works they copied." (Eisenstein, 113)  

However, as bad as it was at first, we eventually overcame these obstacles. ". . .early printers were primarily responsible for forcing definition of literary property rights, for shaping new concepts of authorship, for exploiting bestsellers and trying to tap new markets." (Eisenstein, 96)

So while, yes, the Internet is having problems with piracy and plagiarism, this does not mean that it will always be this way. Eventually, we will find a way to solve these problems, if we as a population truly want to. However, we would argue that one of the reasons why there was such a dramatic increase of ideas and technological evolution during the first hundred years of the printing press was due to the lack of restrictions and copyrights. It is amazing how quickly our society advances when people share ideas openly.

While these are the major complaints that took place during the rise of the printing press, they were, by no means, the only ones. Books were even attacked for causing "The public airing of private thoughts." (Eisenstein, 146) Again, just like Twitter and Facebook are attacked today.

In this context, we post a video by Clay Shirky, professor of New Media, New York University.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:


Eisenstein, E. L. (1980). The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Volumes 1 and 2 in One) (p. 832). Cambridge University Press.


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