Communication is a key tool of commerce, finance and power. Ever since the beginning of life in society men have endeavored to improve the scale speed and accuracy and practicality of information (collection, storage, analysis and transfer of information). Both in history and in science every innovation related to communication is held as a milestone, if not a minor revolution in the evolution of society.
Two of those innovations are the book (in technological terms, the printing press) and digital technology. In order to accurately assess and compare the impact of each one would probably need to have figures demonstrating the reach of both forms in the global society. But even thus one could then argue that digital technology is just an extension of the book, a collection of pages containing information on the form of script and images and that therefore the two can not really be compared.
In order to answer the subject question of this essay I have chosen to change it slightly, I will therefore compare the impact of the printing press rather than that of the book as in truth was not quite revolution as everyone knows; of course revolutionary ideas were compiled in books but they were often propagated in the form of double-sheet and leaflets or pamphlets (which do not quite qualify as books).
Printing is largely accepted as the innovation that brought the second major social shift (the first one being the transition from oral to scribal culture, meaning an important change in information transfer and the accuracy of the information passed on to others). It had certainly been identified long before, but it is only in 1970’s and 80’s that it was academically studied and maid the object of a book.
The impact of the printing press was quite comprehensively studied by Elizabeth Eisenstein with a first publication in 1979, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change and the master volume that is now often used to support all claims relating to printing press, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, published in 1983 by the same author. As a master on the subject E. Eisenstein defines three major “events” that are the direct fruits of the printing press; those are the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. Because we have not got sufficient space here and because Eisenstein is generally accepted as a master on the topic, I will not argue against her claims, although it is important to mention that a number of historians disagree on the matter of the Renaissance which they believe is the fruit of the scribal and oral transfers of knowledge and data among a quite limited number of people.
Eisenstein backs her claims with numerous examples of historical developments that were brought about or impacted by the development of printing beginning in the 1460’s. On my part, I think she missed one change of the greatest importance that is political change. The great political changes that occurred in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, in most European countries were a direct result of the printing press.
The French Revolution of 1789 was engineered with the use of double-sheets and leaflets. So were the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the rise of Communism brought by the publication of Karl Marx’s works and the rise of Hitler in Germany which was based on his use of newspapers and the publication of Mein Kompf. As to the Protestant Reformation, printing allowed Martin Luther to produce and sell three hundred thousand copies of his Bible, the financial product of which he was then able to use to finance the propagation of his ideas in printed leaflets on church doors and to general public. In a scribal culture, he would have never had the financial ability to produce enough material to propagate his ideas faster than the Catholic Church could have controlled the spread of those ideas.
A modern scientific thought is the “paradoxical” result of printing. Where as printing spread ideology that was accepted by others, when it came to scientific publication, the effect was the opposite; people would more often doubt than accept the scientific statements and would then experiment for themselves then either confirming or not the claims and often making new discoveries that brought science forward.
All the above clearly shows how powerful printing was in shaping the world into what it is in our days. Today printing is still a major tool in the propagation of ideas and information, few people read “digital” books and newspapers although those newspapers and books would not survive without digital media supporting them (for advertising) and extending their presence. There is no doubting that the printing press (and the book) changed the face of the world, it brought people to think together and made ideas travel far and wide unaltered. Its revolutionary effect is on the whole uncontested.
The digital era has started in 1947 with the invention of the micro-transistor chip and the subsequence evolution in semiconductor microelectronics techniques. Digital technology is nowadays a key aspect of all media technology; it is present in television, radio, press and obviously the internet despite the omnipresence in today’s societies. It is very difficult to asses the impact of digital media on the modern world, primarily because the technologies fuelling the digital revolution are still being developed at an astonishing rate, every six month or so improvements are made that bring new possibilities in the collection storing processing and transfer of information.
It is also difficult because of the breadth of the impact of information technologies to this day. So many areas of life are being affected that it is not yet quite possible to see which are really long-term and not just transitory effects (although one can still argue that after all everything is transitory) and which are really relevant and significant effects. At present some of the effects are contradictory, marginal ideas are becoming very easy and cheap to propagate, power is decentralized but it is becoming increasingly easy to control and monitor those currents and the groups involved. There in no lack of works attempting to draw a clear picture of what the digital age may lead to.
There is a plethora of books and essays treating on the subject and despite that we can only always come back to one conclusion, it is that we are in the midst of it and still walking into the future and the big picture is not clear yet. From all these books and essays written on the subject of digital media, one thing comes out though it is the consistent parallel that is made between the printing press era and today’s digital era. Those parallels are compelling enough to suggest that the changes impacted by digital technology will be at least as dramatic as those seen in the four hundred and fifty years after the advent of the printing press.
This able us to say that the future of the information age (which is the real sense of digital media) will be full of unintended consequences. If the changes brought about by the printing press on a lowly populated planet were so great and surely so unthinkable at the onset, there is little chance foresee today what may be the result of what is just happening now. Of course, out of the hundreds of thousands of predictions made by the present day analysts and historians some are bound to be right but even those people do put their ideas forward with a “I think” in front of them.
To answer clearly the essay question that is discussed here one really would need to narrow the comparison to a few parameters or define a number of areas of life for which we want to compare the respective impacts of the printing press and the digital technology. As we have not been given any of that, we have to stick to the present day debate aver internet and information technology. As well as the parallels made by analysts and historians, the concerns that the political class expresses over what should be done about the internet and information policy suggest that they are very worried about the consequences. This concern of the political elites is clearly a result of the lessons learnt from the impact and changes caused by the information revolution that was brought about by the advent of the printing press.
To a certain extent the Second World War (which is a result of Hitler’s rise to power, which is itself a result of his ability to propagate his ideas with the help of printing press) can bring modern day heads of states to wonder weather the internet (digital media by excellence) may help any “fascist” group rise to power anywhere in the world. If any such event came to happen (or for that matter any other event that can be compared to one of the other three identified by Elizabeth Eisenstein, the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation or Modern Scientific Thought) this would mean that the internet and the digital media were far more powerful tools than the printing press (and the book) that therefore the revolution wrought by digital media was more radical than the wrought by the printing press, as obviously the elites in power today want to insure they keep hold of their power which means making sure no change happen.
If they even fail to do so, that will mean that despite the printing press lesson, they did not have the ability to prevent changes. If no such changes were to happen that in turn would imply that the revolution wrought by the printing press was great and more radical then that “not wrought” (in actual fact) by digital media. If clearly no changes happen as a result of the advent of digital media that will mean that elites will have learned the lesson thought “by” the printing press and have been able to use that “printing press” experience to thwart changes from happening.
It is only in the 1970’s and 1980’s that the consequences of the advent of the book and the printing press where clearly identified, analyzed and supported by facts by Elizabeth Eisenstein. This means five hundred years after Gutenberg unveiled his printing press in 1460 and a thousand year after the first similar system invented in China. It is only sixty years since the first digital coding transistor was built in 1947 and sixty-eight years since Bell conceived the idea 1939. It is unlikely that the impact of digital media will be clearly seeable before another few decades. Therefore I can not bring a precise answer to the essay question as such, it would be as silly as comparing flour and bread or grapes and wine.
To this day digital media have only improved our ability to collect process and analyze data. Undoubtedly there are people somewhere already now who hope to bring revolution by using digital media, but whether those revolutions will happen or not is yet to be seen. If asked whether I think that digital media will have in the end a greater end more revolutionary and radical effect than the printing press has had in the past five hundred years, then my answer will be “No”, probably the same answer people in 1500 would have given if asked whether the printing press was going to change the world. But there again, considering the knowledge I and We, collectively, have of the past, I guess my answer is very nave but the future only will prove me wrong.