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Digital mutations and cognitive mutations, 2. From Gutenberg to social networks

After the crucial passage from orality to writing, the invention of the printing press brought about an unprecedented reconfiguration of the circulation of information. The construction of scientific knowledge and political discussion was thereby disrupted, with a progressive expansion of reflection circles. Is the Internet but a new stage?

March 2012
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Executive Summary

With the invention of the printing press, the debate moved toward what separates manuscript culture from print culture. The question of orality remains acute: Marshall MacLuhan defends the idea that societies preceding the printing era were still oral societies and only the printing press made us switch to a civilization where writing is dominant, with literacy and the widespread practice of silent reading. Whereas medieval manuscripts were rare and locked away in places difficult to access, scholars were also rare, and reading aloud the manuscripts was the dominant practice.

In The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Elizabeth Eisenstein discusses this view: silent and individual reading already was a practice of scholars and literate types ahead of the advent of printing press, while reading aloud remained a common practice during several centuries in the towns and villages due to the low literacy rate. The breaking point, according to her, is to be found elsewhere. In scientific practice, the immutability of text improved reliability, and the accessibility of documents permitted by their mechanical reproduction facilitated the exchange of views and the elaboration of contradiction. Before the printing press, one first had to locate the manuscript and then decipher it, to ensure as far as possible it was not damaged or tampered with, as copyist monks had the bad habit of altering or censoring writings when copying them, based on their ideas or their prejudices,. And if you wanted to keep something, you had to copy it. The time necessary for the collection of information far exceeded the time needed once it became available. And scholars rarely had a sufficient number of reliable documents to work in good conditions. Printing, on the other hand, makes it possible for all sorts of different materials to be put examined by the same eyes, at the same time, in the same place – materials that scholars get to analyze and confront until consistency or inconsistency is found.

A new construction of knowledge

The Copernican revolution can be examined in the light of this analysis. Thanks to the printing press, Copernicus was able to compare multiple versions of the Ptolemaic system, each author seeking to solve a flaw in the system and adding complexity to the whole without, however, succeeding in improving the reliability of the description of the movement of planets or the calculation of their trajectories. One can also learn that authors like Heraclides or Aristarchus of Samos were early proponents, in ancient times, of the heliocentric theory. Many historians believe Copernic was also influenced by Arab and Persian astronomers of the Middle Ages whose demonstrations and calculations were integrated in its work.

Thus, the Copernican revolution combined observation and calculation on one hand, and on the other hand the compilation of documents whose numbers and variety allowed the scientist to ensure that he was not alone in thinking that the earth revolves around the sun and that others before him had set out to find a demonstration with partial success, while the texts of the proponents of the geocentrism theory proved him that were are in a scientific dead end. The way modern science is practiced has therefore built on these two characteristics, the availableness and the invariance of texts, to create a new model of knowledge construction and to invent the figure of the researcher who will gradually distance itself from the classical figures of the scholar and of the erudite.

Today, Internet seems to question the immutability of texts through the promotion of collective writing practices and permanent correction of documents, of which Wikipedia is the archetype. In La Grande Conversion numérique (The Great Digital Conversion), Milad Doueihi makes the following analysis: “Internet has erased the crucial distinction between author and reader in a way that is not conceivable in print culture; thus the materiality of the page (as a possible indicator of its uniqueness or specificity) has been rendered at best suspicious and ultimately fragile, perhaps even insignificant. A printed page is relatively fixed. It is associated with a work, an author. The digital “page” is virtual and dynamic, and while it is often the work of an author, it is more easily appropriated by a reader who can modify it, reproduce it in another context, and transmit it in various formats and versions. The printed page, in most cases, owes its meaning to the linear order it presupposes, the temporality of its reading, whether it is steady or fragmentary. The page digital is spatial, it gives priority to access. It has the likeness of a page but is not one, it has another reality and this reality can – and in fact, requires – non-linear of forms reading.”

The unstable and variable nature of Internet text is offset by the archiving of earlier versions, but this practice of continuous burying brings the web screen closer to of palimpsests and the documentary science of archeology. Within research communities this feature allows experimentation with new scientific communication and deliberation procedures, as Pierre Mounier pointed out in his article on open access: “The open archive has a dual role: instant access of the entire scientific community to the latest research findings – thus, speed is what is at stake here – but also the opportunity for the author to have his article reviewed and corrected before publication. Therefore such archives play a role as vectors of circulation of scientific information, and at the same time they are the very place where peer review exerts itself.” This highlights how cognitive technology transforms the architecture of the network of scientific discussion, however it is not known yet whether this change is marginal or whether it can participate, in combination with other factors, in a deeper transformation of scientific production.

For nowadays one can hear lots of people predictig of a radical change in scientific methods. Researchers are increasingly using the computing power of machines, cloud computing and the availability of gigantic databases to conduct ultra-rapid sequencing in physics or in biology, notably gene sequencing. The web guru Chris Anderson goes further and predicts the emergence of a science without hypotheses, without models, practically a science without theory, since the random analysis of mega-databases with mathematical algorithms will produce correlations and models on its own. This is what he calls the petabyte era. Such a vision was bound to draw critical attention: Chris Anderson indeed forgets that there is no data without theory and that any interpretation of a correlation is, in fact, a theory. The logographers mentioned by Thucydides are still among us, so is Plato's god Thot, and all those who invent marvelous stories to delight our ears. Perhaps even more so than before, because one of the new characteristics of the digital revolution is that it produces its own epic, its own mythical narrative – in real time. It is easier for gurus than for researchers to venture in the ways of forecasting and prediction; yet what we are in dire need of, regarding digital mutations, is a serious forward study.

A new public space: the mass media

The first half of the nineteenth century saw the birth of mass-circulation daily newspapers. This is still the print culture, and yet a major transformation is at work: the expansion of the political discussion networks and the construction of modern public space. In Discovering the News, Michael Schudson describes the magnitude of the mutation. Many concepts still in use today were built by and for the penny press: the news, current affairs, the scoop. Journalism is increasingly becoming a profession, while it used to be an amateur occupation in the previous century. And most notably, tabloïds are meant for everyone to read. At least for anyone who can read.

In the 1830s, what makes the difference between the penny press and the rest of the American press? A typical daily sells for six cents, at a time when the average daily salary is ninety five cents. And it is sold only by annual subscription, i.e. the sum of eight to ten dollars, while popular press is sold one issue at a time, in the street, and for one cent. The print run for a typical daily rate did not exceed two thousand copies in a large city, as its audience was limited to political and business elites. The content of the information corresponded to the public’s interests. Lots of information on ship arrivals in ports and the nature of their cargoes, a very violent editorial on national politics, very partisan news in brief on national politics, and no local information.

On the contrary a penny press newspaper reached 15 to 20 000 copies and was explicitly aimed at a large audience. The publishers insisted on the fact they accepted all advertisements without selecting them after prior criteria of morality or after personal knowledge about the advertiser. The New York Sun stated in its first issue that its goal was “to provide the public, at a price accessible to anyone, all the news of the day, and at the same time to be an profitable medium for advertising.” Unlike the conventional press, the penny press proclaimed its political independence, even its rejection of politics and the desire to adopt its readers’ point of view – as evidenced by this political information published by the Sun on December 9, 1833: “The proceedings of Congress thus far, would not interest our readers.”

Press entrepreneurs had the intuition that the social, economic and technological conditions of the time allowed for the establishment of a much broader network of readers than the traditional press, articulated around a revolutionary business model: the combination of four different funding streams whose interconnection was far from obvious at the time - commercial advertising, classified advertising, newsstand sales and subscriptions. The moment the architecture of a social network was formed, a new device emerged that changed the price and the nature of advertising, information content and lastly the style of the newspapers. And this revolution was at once technological, commercial and political. The penny press introduced citizens to a public debate they had previously been standing away from. It built, with others, a new public space.

What were the forces that allowed such a paradigm shift? Literacy of course, the democratization of political life, the expansion of the market economy with businesses striving to promote their products, and the growth of urban middle classes wishing to participate in public debate. In this picture, technology plays a significant role when one considers the combination of the rotary press, the telegraph and the railroad: the rotary press, to produce thousands of newspapers every day, the telegraph, to transmit articles and communicate with reporters, and railways, to transport newspapers as well as reporters.

According to Schudson, technical progress is not the key factor in the development of the penny press, but rather entrepreneurs who encouraged, funded and guided innovations. These newspapers were the ones where the latest machines were installed, they were also the first to use the telegraph to speed up transmissions. In this interaction between major technological changes and economic and social innovations that often were autonomous, cognitive technology has a special role. It is not a cause among others, it is what allows several causes to meet and to work together. Something that allows businesses to advertise their products would certainly have emerged in nineteenth century America. Something allowing middle class citizens to be informed and to build a public opinion would probably have been developed in the major cities of the East Coast. But this something became the penny press because businessmen seized a cognitive technology to tie together, in a joint endeavor, trade policies, democratic aspirations, advances in literacy and rising living standards.

Let us now examine, using the example of “objective information”, how intellectual categories that allow the inception of the new device are built. To elucidate the genesis of the definition of “news” as the objective report of a fact, it must be linked to the development of news agencies, which is itself linked to the invention of the telegraph. In 1848, in New York, a group of newspaper publishers created a cooperative, the Associated Press, to take advantage of the speed of transmissions by telegraph and to pool the costs of information gathering. The moment a news agency has to sell reports to several newspapers whose political sensibilities and editorial policies may diverge, the neutrality of this information becomes a commercial stake. The agency provides the original service of sending reporters to cover events as quickly and efficiently as possible. Newspapers select or reject the piece of news, rewrite it, comment on it or judge it. Thus, the material division of labor between agencies and newspapers gives ground to the need to distinguish between fact and comment, which became core to the representation of modern journalism. The conception that journalism has the duty to strive for objectivity feeds on the technological and organizational process of information production.

As surprising as it may seem, I would say that radio and television have not significantly expanded the public space built by the press in the nineteenth century. Their contribution was different. They broke the barriers between different discussion circles that were hierarchically structuring the public space. The separation between serious press and popular press reflected the division of public space in separate circles of political discussion. Radio and television transformed discussions networks by opening them. Discussion circles, once distinct and separated, became entangled. This does not mean there is equality for all in political discussion but rather that distinction and status hierarchies have grown weaker. Television delivers the same political message to each and all, at the same time. This unity of time, place and audience has had considerable impact on politics and democracy. I shall give just one example: until the mid-sixties, the political credit of a ruler was played out in Parliament before anything else. From that moment onwards, it has played out first and foremost in the media, and chiefly in the dominant medium, television.

The Internet revolution

This historical detour helps us to better understand what is happening in the present day, in the process of creative destruction affecting the press, radio and television. First, Internet is not just another medium meant to settle alongside the existing media to coexist with them. It has a capacity to absorb and absolutely overhaul them. The litany of compound words: web press, web radio, web TV, IP TV, connected TV, and social TV abundantly illustrates this point. Then Internet is the main, if not the sole media for publicized political conversations, other ones taking place chiefly in the private sphere. The fact that these political conversations are digitized and archived changes their status. They are increasingly being scrutinized and are subject to more and more quantitative and qualitative analysis. This is creating, alongside the usual opinion polls, a new category of information on how the governed feel.

Besides the public debate online, Internet provides the means for what might be called a low political mobilization, in any case weaker and less restrictive than the two traditional modes of street protest and partisan activism. It lowers the cost of political mobilization at once in terms of time, effort, and even commitment, if we think of the anonymity of certain interventions such as online petitions. Gradually we are experiencing a shift from a world where the number, position and status of transmitters and receivers were clearly identified and delineated, to a more blurry world where the line between transmitter and receiver is fading, where everyone can in turn be author, journalist, editor, where the monopoly of legitimacy of speech is disappearing, where political battles are less and less focused on controlling the political agenda and more and more about capturing the attention of citizens.

So in a very provisional manner, given that this media has not yet reached maturity, I would say that Internet’s political proposition is the opposite of television’s: this is not about everyone, nor at the same time, nor the same message. One can imagine a very flexible public space where discussion networks are subject to permanent rearrangement, where political mobilization is more of a spasm than long-term commitment: small networks, but that under certain circumstances can gear up into incandescence. While they are certainly not products of the web, the Pirate Party in Germany, the Occupy Wall Street movement or the Indignados of the Plaza del Sol in Spain clearly have something to do with Internet.

Jean-Louis Missika
Professor, Chair of Economy and Management of Digital Industries and New Media, CNAM (Paris)