The printing press constituted a true revolution in communication. But what really happened as a wider consequence of that revolution? Let’s try to reconstruct the circumstances that preceded printing. We know that there was a strong, although very divergent scribal culture before the printing press. The cultural texture was quite thin outside monasteries, libraries, and cities such as Bologna. That led to a heavy reliance on the vocal transmission of information, on storytelling.
The information culture was half-spoken, half-written.
The influence of the scribe was greatly enhanced because of a complementary character, the copyist. At first, the shift from script to print produced a social culture that was not very different from the culture produced by scribes. The writer – printer process was not very different from the scribe – copyist process, if looked at from the outside. Of course there was a huge increase in the output of books and a drastic reduction in the man-hours required to turn them out.
The first change was a remarkable increase in productivity. But then, the communications revolution of print caused remarkable changes in information-related practices that led to even wider social changes.
The well-informed man had to spend a part of each day in temporary isolation from his fellow men – reading. Another development was the Sunday papers replacing church going. Sermons used to be coupled with news about local and foreign affairs. The new media players handled news gathering and circulation logistics much more efficiently.
The most noteworthy social change took place on the community level. To hear, you have to come together. To read encourages you to draw apart. The notion that a society can be regarded as a bundle of discrete units supported the principle that detached people can be represented through a system of disconnected political parties. The reading public was very different from the one before. It was not only dispersed, it was very atomistic and individualistic. As a result, the present political system was born.
Learning, which used to take place through vocal interaction in groups, was now the activity of a solitary, independent individual. The picture of the student in the library reading room was transferred to classrooms and the architectures of education.
According to some researchers, print silenced the spoken word. The orators of Rome gave way to the men of letters. Written text was now about facts and talk was cheap.
From this point on, people have tended to see information and communication technologies as two separate domains, not only for technological reasons, but because of the historical developments described above.
We are again going through another revolution in communication. The way the written word is used on Twitter or on Facebook is much closer to the vocal transmission of information than to writing. Through closely combining communication and information technologies, we are creating a much richer cognitive tapestry than the present separate ICT-systems are capable of. Second, instead of drawing apart, we can now come (digitally) together. The culture is again half-spoken, half-written. The printing press separated information and communication. The Internet and the new social technologies are causing the two to converge.
The first change is again a remarkable increase in productivity, but again, it does not end there. The real promise of the Internet is in the new information-related practices and the social innovations that are still ahead of us.