How Did We Lose A Revolution?

Reading Response to Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press As An Agent of Change

Throughout all these readings, one through-line for me has been human’s ability to make technologies invisible, to make revolutionary artifacts and systems of knowing mere wallpaper in front of which we create other technologies. Elizabeth Eisenstein’s text The Printing Press As An Agent of Change contains a deluge of information that overwhelmed me in its thoroughness and curiosity about the many ways that the introduction of the printing press changed the world, or did it? See, one of the aspects of Einstein’s text I was most impressed by is her lack of allegiance to any narrative about how the printing press changed the world.

In general, Eisenstein’s text claims the history of the printing press’ impact on society is difficult to determine because it impacted areas so unevenly and at different rates that it is difficult to isolate what was owing to the press’ invention at any particular point in time. Biased by their varying fields of interests, Eisenstein states that scholars have tended to oversimplify printing’s history and flatten out the response of people to create particular narratives. Repeatedly through the first two chapters she notes trending changes that have occurred in the wake of print’s creation only to find several exceptions to those trends. Despite the difficulties in finding a clear narrative though, Einstein states that by paying attention to the communication revolution enacted by print, we can better recognize the motives of people rather than ascribe them to whatever reasons are laying around.

In order to determine the impact of the printing press, Eisenstein starts her analysis at the advent of printing when printing presses were being established in urban centers in Europe. One of the more notable things about this period regards what survived and what manuscripts no longer existed. While presses were able to churn out a thousand copies in the time it took a scribe to copy one, that doesn’t mean that presses were creating a greater variety of texts and making printed versions of all existing manuscripts. After all, when considering a small cadre of people often did the labor required to create these books, including “A scholar-printer himself [who] might serve not only as publisher and bookseller but also as indexer and bridger- lexicographer-chronicler” (Einstein 87). How did the labor involve in printing inform where they chose in invest their energies? For instance, were Bibles printed often because they sold well, or were they selling because they were so widely available that printers had to make their own variations to keep up in the markets?

Particularly of note to me was the ways that Einstein explored how printing may have changed knowledge making, catalyzing the Enlightenment movement. In short, Einstein argues that print made a variety of texts more available and therefore people could reference books with greater ease as they worked towards confirming ideas purported by other texts. Additionally, print made it possible for multiple readers in disparate locations to read the same texts, facilitating discussions about ideas across geographical spaces, much as Sequoyah did for the Cherokee many generations later.

However, one of the more interesting ways that print impacted knowledge making was its role in “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.” (Einstein 108). The great irony here being that print, a technology that’s invisibilized in contemporary settings brought greater visibility to the ways that figures and information were moving further and further from their original designs. This accelerated corruption generated an atmosphere in which people were less willing to hold a text’s information as represented in its most ideal state, and contributed to a space wherein people worked to corroborate information, kickstarting knowledge making processes that led to things like the creation of “The new surveys, [which] in turn, [led] to further interchanges which set off new investigations; the accumulation of more data making necessary more refined classification, and so on – ad infinitum” (Einstein 111). Accelerated corruption as the parent of continuous refinement has an air of poetry to it that I really like, and it is a fun thought experiment to consider how society may have developed differently if not for print.

I am wary of sounding as if I know ascribe too much to the creation of print, but I also don’t want to underestimate how a machine that essentially embodies efficiency impacted the way we learn, make knowledge, communicate and navigate the world. How did we make the printing press one more piece of metal in a room? Have we gained anything from our migration to more digital spaces? Recently, I have heard about rumblings with social psychology circles regarding the public’s access to research data that they find are not replicable, resulting in this non-scholarly persons sharing their own findings online, which in turn diminish the credibility of the original paper. How may we see this greater access to data in light of the way codified knowledge changed as a result of the printing press? If we are in the midst of another communications revolution, what direction should we hope it moves towards? How do we create knowledge without creating waste?




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