What makes a communications technology revolutionary? One answer to this is to ask whether it fundamentally changes the way society is organized. This can be a very hard question to answer, because true fundamental changes alter society in such a way that it becomes difficult to speak of past society without imposing our present understanding.
In her seminal work, The Printing Press as An Agent of Change, Elizabeth Eisenstein argues just that:
When ideas are detached from the media used to transmit them, they are also cut off from the historical circumstances that shape them, and it becomes difficult to perceive the changing context within which they must be viewed.
Today we rightly think of the internet and the mobile phone, but long ago, the printing press and the telegraph both had just as heavy an impact on the development of society.
Thinking of the time before the telegraph, when communications had to be hand delivered, is quaint. Trying to conceive the world before the uniformity of communication brought about by the printing press is almost unimaginable.
Eisenstein argues that the printing press “is of special historical significance because it produced fundamental alterations in prevailing patterns of continuity and change.”
Before the printing press there were no books, not in the sense that we understand them. There were manuscripts that were copied by scribes, which contained inconsistencies and embellishments, and modifications that suited who the scribe was working for. The printing press halted the evolution of symbols: For the first time maps and numbers were fixed.
Furthermore, because pre-press scholars had to go to manuscripts, Eisenstein says we should “recognize the novelty of being able to assemble diverse records and reference guides, and of being able to study them without having to transcribe them at the same time” that was afforded by the printing press.
This led to new ways of being able to compare and thus develop knowledge, by reducing the friction of getting to the old knowledge:
More abundantly stocked bookshelves obviously increased opportunities to consult and compare different texts. Merely by making more scrambled data available, by increasing the output of Aristotelian, Alexandrian and Arabic texts, printers encouraged efforts to unscramble these data.
Eisenstein argues that many of the great thinkers of the 16th century, such as Descartes and Montaigne, would have been unlikely to have produced what they did without the changes wrought by the printing press. She says of Montaigne, “that he could see more books by spending a few months in his Bordeaux tower-study than earlier scholars had seen after a lifetime of travel.”
The printing press increased the speed of communication and the spread of knowledge: Far less man hours were needed to turn out 50 printed books than 50 scribed manuscripts.
Henry Ford famously said of life before the car…