At the same time that this age of transition grants us the opportunity, the freedom, and the responsibility of recognizing that some of our fundamental assumptions thus relate crucially to particular material conditions, it also reminds us that in every change, in every potential advance, something is gained but something is also lost. In changes of information regimes, as in any other change, there is no free lunch. Or, to evoke the title of Newman's own novel of religious faith, there is always loss and gain. Plato, Socrates relates, feared (quite correctly it turns out) that writing, which functions as a prosthetic memory, would encourage certain kinds of forgetfulness. People were willing to risk that sacrifice in exchange for a radical new means of preserving exact arguments. Indeed, as Marshall McLuhan and other students of the relation of information paradigms to culture have pointed out, before writing, many forms of Western thought would have been virtually impossible to conceive and impossible to record and hand on to others.

Some apparently minor changes in the material conditions within which we encounter language have had fundamental cultural effects. For example, until a thousand years ago, materials on which to write were so expensive or so difficult to obtain that scribes found themselves obliged to pack as many words as possible on each page, and in order to do so they omitted spaces between the end of one word and the beginning of the icons2/next. Thus, economic reasons directly produced a form of writing that made reading a matter of deciphering streams of alphabetic characters, a process that was best done aloud. In contrast, the availability of less costly surfaces on which to write led directly to silent reading, and with it came new conceptions of private, interior space. Late-twentieth-century college and secondary school teachers who fear the effects of new information paradigms and practices have a long and honorable pedigree: in the fourteenth century, historians of reading remind us, the faculty at the University of Paris repeatedly made rules forbidding undergraduates to read silently to themselves for they feared that without proper guidance students might get into trouble, might get things wrong. This example further reminds us that all new developments in information technology have eventually turned out to foster democratization, though some, like writing itself, took millennia to evolve from the property of the few to the empowerment of the many.

Similarly, printing, or ratherĘthe combination of the printing press and movable type, had radical and often radically destabilizing effects on European culture. Gutenberg's invention made multiple copies of individual works widely available, and like the invention of interword spacing hundreds of years before, it had dramatic cultural effects apparently out of keeping with these few simple facts. As Marshall McLuhan, Elizabeth Eisenstein, and other students of the Gutenberg Revolution have shown, the economic need to secure enough readers to pay for the multiple copies that are the primary fact about printing led directly to the predominance of vernacular languages, their centralized or official forms, and standardized spelling and grammar. These changes in turn fostered nationalism.

According to Alvin Kernan, print culture also swept away "an older system of polite or courtly letters — primarily oral, aristocratic, authoritarian, court-centered — . . . and gradually replaced [it] by a new print-based, market-centered, democratic literary system" (4) that had major effects on "individual and social life. For example, print technology changed the audience for literature from a few "manuscript readers or listeners . . . to a group of readers . . . who bought books to read in the privacy of their homes. Print also made literature objectively real for the first time, and therefore subjectively conceivable as a universal fact, in great libraries of printed books containing large collections of the world's writing." Print, Kernan demonstrates, also freed authors from the patronage of the wealthy few by leading to "copyright law that made the author the owner of his own writing" (4-5).

Equally important, scholarship, teaching, and indeed educational institutions as we know them are also largely the product of the Gutenberg revolution. Printing technology adds the qualities of fixity and multiplicity to written language. By producing many copies of the same work, printing, in other words, permits readers separated in time and space to consult and comment upon the same text. The printed book costs so much less than did the manuscript book, or codex, that it becomes available in vastly larger numbers; faculty, students, and individuals outside institutions can afford to own their own personal libraries. With the development of high-speed printing in the early nineteenth century — the age of steam's gift to the reading public — books, periodicals, and other kind of printed information, including college catalogues, and more recently, student evaluations of faculty teaching, become possible, too.


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Last modified 18 October 2005