How far and in what ways is it reasonable to see the development of print as a motor of revolutionary social change?
Print and the ways of presenting the written word have had a long history in which the ideas that were possible to be communicated through these written words profoundly influenced human history. The first movable type of print consisting of baked clay was developed in China in AD 1050. This was followed by the wooden movable type of print that was also invented in China in AD 1300.
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However, it was the invention of Gutenberg which brought together a number of technologies to bring about the first printing press which had a capability for conveniently and inexpensively bringing print to the masses. The Mid – 15th Century invention has since then assisted in bringing about profound and revolutionary changes in human societies and culture around the world. The development of print, which was by itself a revolution, made it possible for knowledge and ideas which had previously been the preserve of the privileged nobility to be brought to the masses.
The media was born as a result of the invention of the print and this media not only brings culture and information into the private domain of individuals, but also sets societal standards, trends and a whole way of life through print advertising. Print made it possible for ideas to be discussed and a societal consensus to evolve as a result of these ideas being able to be communicated cheaply and effectively. Political revolutions, the evolution of science and technology, culture, religion and the interactions of humanity have all been profoundly influenced by print, which is still evolving from its earlier beginnings and has the capacity for inducing profound as well as revolutionary social change. This brief essay takes a look at how print can act as an agent for bringing about social change and also just how far print can go towards influencing such a change.
Ever since the Mid-15th Century when Gutenberg had discovered the idea of the first movable type printing press, the print media has profoundly shaped the world in which we live. Printing brought together the technologies of paper, oil – based ink and the engraved lettering to quickly as well as cheaply make many copies of the content which was required to be printed. Although the written word had been discovered much earlier then the time of Gutenberg’s invention, its power and value had been limited because of the difficulties associated with its quick and inexpensive reproduction. Written manuscripts containing ideas, human knowledge and information had been very expensive and cumbersome to reproduce, limiting their access to the privileged and the noble classes with mostly oral traditions of communications being relied on. As a result of inventions such as the movable type and later the electronics communications technologies, humanity now lives in the information age when ideas abound and are communicated to millions instantly.
The advent of electronics communications technologies has invariably propelled the print into a new light, making it easier to store, process and exchange information. Obviously, such capabilities expanded the breadth as well as the depth of thinking of an average individual and thus transformed the society in which they lived. Because the technologies associated with printing are constantly evolving, therefore, it is very likely that the evolution of these technologies will continue to have a revolutionary impact on the society at large. The invention of printing by itself was revolutionary and since its inception, the technology has continued to shape the world and humanity (Jones, 2000, Chapters 1 – 6), (White, 1979, Chapters 1 – 5) and (The University of Vermont, 2005, Complete).
Literature related to history has indicated that printing profoundly influenced change in the Europe during the Middle Ages, assisting in bringing about the Reformation, Renaissance and the Scientific or Technological Revolutions. The Protestant Revolution and humanity’s change in the concept of the earth – centred to the sun – centred universe were also influenced by the print making it possible for the ideas to propagate. Print made it possible for the many millions to examine ideas, debate their usefulness and present their own views, resulting in a consensus being developed much more rapidly then would have been otherwise possible.
A greater level of homogeneity was brought about then would have been otherwise possible. The print is something which could be understood and interpreted by humanity and its processing, reproduction, transmission or storage only assisted in making it more appealing or conveniently presentable to the mass audience. It is the convenient and ready availability of sound ideas in print with a capacity for appealing to the mass logic which has the capacity for bringing about radical social change, if the ideas that are being presented in print are logically sound and appealing to the mass audience.
It was the availability of information, ideas and the desire of the masses to be informed of these, along with their desire to have access to knowledge that was the birth of democracy. No longer was knowledge and wisdom in the sole custody of the privileged few and it was the collective will of all who could access as well as understand the print which determined the future of societies, cultures and nations. Nearly all political revolutions in the world after the Middle Age in Europe were made possible because there was the support of the masses which was pitted behind such changes and such support was only made possible because it was convenient to communicate through the print. Oral traditions had required a vastly superior effort and because of a limited capability for the oral message to be communicated to a large audience, societal decisions were made by a few.
Even established religion benefited enormously from the capabilities of the print. Although the wine or olive oil screw type press had been in use in Europe much earlier then the invention of Gutenberg and block – print technology had been known of since the time of Marco Polo’s return to Europe from his travels to China at the end of the 13th century along with mass paper making techniques which produced paper that was considered to be too flimsy for use in books, it was Gutenberg’s invention that brought together many technologies to make print seriously feasible, opening up the way for a capacity to influence social change like it had never been possible before. The private experience that was made possible as a result of the print invariable led to the public expression of an individual’s personality, character and beliefs which had been shaped by their private experiences (Eisenstein, 1979, Parts 1 and 2), (Eisenstein, 1993, Chapters 1 – 5) and (Briggs, 2001, Chapters 1 – 5).
It was the development of the print which gave birth to the media which used print to bring culture and information into private spaces of individuals. In addition to bringing culture and information into the private spaces, the media also shaped society by presenting advertisements which prompted individuals to purchase, prefer a way of living, develop societal standards and highlight issues as well as setting trends. Having advertisements presented in print led to more print as more newspapers, magazines and journals were sold and print itself blended into the fabric of the society, transforming culture, thinking, values and expectations for the future. This domino effect also provided a vocation for many who are associated with the print industry and a new set of professions was introduced. It was print that assisted in the evolution of technology in general and the design of the new electronic communications media which is in the process of further changing societies (Dewar, 2000, Complete), (Eisenstein, 1979, Parts 1 and 2) and (Eco, 1995, Pp 71 – 74).
The history of the print had to be discussed in order to be able to make some sort of predictions about the future. The potential for bringing about revolutionary social changes in the future is still very much a possibility and it is worth investigating how print can influence and bring about social change. Technology and lifestyles are constantly changing and the way in which print technology influenced society is also evolving. Without the development of the print, humanity will be living in an oral society with its enforced illiteracy of the masses and the manipulation of the oral tradition or knowledge to suit the purposes of individuals or the state, as was the case in China prior to the development of the print.
In such a society, the creation as well as the possession of knowledge is only restricted to the few creators of knowledge and there is a capacity for the masses to be fed what versions of oral truths that suited the political powers of the day. Development of exact sciences, technology, logic and reason was, therefore, very much hindered in the oral society which emphasised more on rote memorising rather then an understanding of its knowledge (Dewar, 2000, Complete), (Eisenstein, 1979, Parts 1 and 2) and (Eco, 1995, Pp 71 – 74).
In this brief essay, an attempt has been made to take a look at the development of print and its potential for as well as the manner of bringing about revolutionary social change in societies.
The Capacity of the Print to Influence Revolutionary Social Change in the Future
It is necessary to understand the historical influences of the print in bringing about revolutionary social change so that the future implications for social change can be considered. The history which has been discussed in the introduction to this essay was presented with this concept in mind. The modern educational systems around the world, the production of books, the growth of the literati culture and the popular culture are all made possible because printing and the economic reproduction of the written word is possible. Books on a subject have to accumulate in order to make a difference and these books must be logically correct and present the truth in order to be of lasting value.
The ideas that are presented in print are still subject to criticism, debate, investigation and understanding prior to acceptance. Advances in technologies which continue to make the production of print easier, faster and more economical also attempt to present the print in more innovative ways. These technologies also free up humans to try and produce better quality of print and to try to understand the message instead of devoting more time to the production of the message. In developed societies, it is not just the print which counts but the quality of the ideas in print that are of the greatest importance.
The qualities of ideas that are presented and recorded in print determine the state of intellectual development of the society and its capacity for improvement as well as gaining an edge over other societies. Some print is very highly regarded because it represents the essence of human knowledge, understanding or universal truths. Encyclopaedias, handbooks, the Scriptures and standard texts represent the print which the society has accepted as being of timeless importance after much debate, criticism and consternation. Often, the knowledge stored in print in these important books will represent the culmination of great struggles, triumphs of understanding, conflict and even bloodshed. However, print represents ideas and the truths which have to be utilised in order to be of benefit.
The print must be of importance and it should be given importance for the benefits of the print to become available. Respecting print means that the ideas, knowledge and truths that are contained in the print are being respected, considered, given importance to and are held as being profoundly important for the individual, humanity and the society. Giving respect to the Holy book does not mean that there is respect for the paper, ink or the quality of craftsmanship but that there is respect for ideas. Hence, unless the print is capable of producing ideas which are accepted as being profound, important and of significance for the future, the capacity of the print to bring about revolutionary change is restricted. Therefore, a progressive society which has the capacity for benefiting from revolutionary change must also have a system for producing the ideas which are of profound importance.
These ideas must then be held as being important and acted upon or implemented into practical realities. Unless the message which is considered to be of importance is transformed into practical reality by a society, the society cannot benefit from the message or the ideas and hence the print itself is not able to induce change. In the context of social change, there has to be a requirement for change which is embodied in a vision of something better and this vision must be sufficiently appealing to the many, or to those who are important in the society, for the vision to be attempted to be transformed into practical reality by committing resources, effort, taking the risks involved in change, going against the established order, getting organised or the pitting of an organised movement against tyranny to produce change
. A developed society has to have a system for using print to disseminate or generate ideas, conduct discussions and a scrutiny of these ideas. There has to be a constant desire to have something better and to transform ideas into practical realities. Print can act as a vehicle for conveying ideas and their wider scrutiny but print by itself is important because it can do this in an economical, effective and appealing manner in order to effectively make the ideas available to the many (Jones, 2000, Chapters 1 – 6), (McGINN, 1991, Chapters 1 – 4) and ( Dewar, 2000, Complete).
Although the basic reason behind the importance of print and its capacity for influencing change are the ideas that are contained in the print, the manner in which the print can be presented, communicated, stored, manipulated and the knowledge which is considered to be of importance retrieved from the print is also constantly being influenced by the force of ideas and changing. The capability of presenting the printed word as a sequence of signals in a computer and its rapid manipulation has made it possible for the society to consider and develop ideas much more rapidly then it was previously possible. This capacity has been of great benefit to the society but it has also had an impact on the printing of ideas on paper.
Print on paper must now coexist with print as an electrical signal and the society has progressed sufficiently for the rapid and cheap transformation of the print on paper to the electronic print to be made possible. Hence, centralised printing presses are now still useful but they are being challenged by the distributed printing presses which are capable of quickly transforming the electronically stored print into print on paper when required. A cheap printer connected to a computer which is linked to the World Wide Web has the capacity for tapping into a huge reservoir of ideas and the human repository of knowledge. These ideas can be selectively printed as required on paper for the convenience of the human users.
The larger press is used for printing material for which there is a confirmed demand and it is very likely that in the future all kinds of books will be downloaded from websites when and if required to be viewed on small or computerised portable reading equipment. The price of such computer equipment which need not be as sophisticated as a laptop computer, but which can also integrate a lot of other functions into it such as the communication function and the entertainment function is progressively declining. This does not mean that the printing press is likely to become idle, because humanity has a requirement for all kinds of packing, wrapping and informative material which is in constant demand. However, it is very likely that the high value added print material will be preferred in the electronic format and stored on web servers or the CD – ROM to be downloaded when required for payment by electronic means.
The benefits of purchasing a book in the electronic format are much superior to having a published book on paper. New editions can be rapidly produced and information in the electronic book readily manipulated. This is already happening and the only reason why individuals still prefer to read paper books is because the display technologies which provide the written word in human readable form need to be improved and made more affordable. That this is happening is the beginning of another social revolution which is likely to gain momentum with time. Hence, humanity is moving towards an age in which there will be far fewer books in the paper print form and very many web repositories from which electronic books, newspapers and magazines can be downloaded.
There is likely to be an emphasis on having small portable devices which will have the telecommunications capabilities and pleasant displays that are affordable. Such devices can usher in a new social revolution. Such a social revolution is not likely to be bad because the dwindling global forests require new attempts to conserve energy and reduce waste. A burgeoning repository of human knowledge means that permitting rapid access and manipulation of the electronic print is required. This, however, does not mean that there is not going to be a demand for the editors, the creative writers, researchers, scientists, technologists and philosophers etc who generate the content which could previously have been printed on paper only. There is in fact likely to be a greater demand for such creative individuals, especially those who are capable of producing quality.
The creative content industry will continue to boom and there will be a greater demand for good content because content will still be king. It is very likely that even schooling will be more distributed with pupils being able to download their lessons from a server rather then physically carrying backpacks of books to school. Universities will become more of a place for conducting research and generating new content then a place for disseminating this content through print on paper. The transmission of knowledge through the vastness of the globe and even into space and under the ocean will become an instantaneous affair rather then requiring the transportation of huge piles of bulky paper across the vastness of oceans, on ships, for the force of ideas and enlightenment to be unleashed in a dark region of the world. Language and the printed word, or rather the represented word is still important because this is what humans understand. However, the need to print this word on paper will be diminished.
It is all a question of economics and developing newer and more capable computerised devices is gradually changing the way humans live. Sufficiently reduce the cost of portable computing equipment, software as well as the cost of telecommunications and the revolution will be very much accelerated. It is surprising that many publishers have not taken up the challenge and produced important books which can be downloaded from web stores. This most certainly has something to do with the price an individual has to pay for the right viewing hardware for electronic text. Widespread adoption of such hardware is also limited by its fragility and complexity. Young children and many elderly individuals can find it difficult to operate viewers of electronic text and hence prefer the printed word.
Perhaps there is a need for the invention of a cheap device with the human / computer interface vastly simplified for the purpose of reading and interacting with the electronic text. A new revolution is certainly possible and it is very likely already happening, in which humanity will live in a world without the printed book (Dewar, 2000, Complete) and (Smith, 1994, Chapters 1 – 4).
Revolutionary social changes have always depended on the force of ideas which used to be conveyed through the print after an age of the oral tradition. However, the printed word on paper is now becoming rather inconvenient as a medium for transmitting and disseminating these ideas and humanity has found more convenient ways for doing this. However, for revolutionary social change to be possible there has to be a need for change, merit in the ideas and a capacity to topple the existing order or norms of the society. History has indicated that despite the force and the might of tyranny, it is the soundness of ideas and their appeal to the masses which are the engines for change. Hence, ideas presented through the written language must be widely available and considered to be important by the masses for revolutionary social change to take place.
Because of the high cost of the computing equipment and the complexities involved in its operation as well as the fragility of the equipment, such equipment is still in the process of gaining a wider acceptance. Costs associated with communications and a decent bandwidth for telecommunications is also another deterrent. It will still take some time for the full effects of the information age to become apparent and there will be many unintended consequences of change in this age. However it is very likely that in the future, the print media will give way to the electronic text viewers / communicators as the most widely means for distributing these ideas and conducting social debates on them. Humanity has indeed come a long way since the invention of the printing press (Briggs, 2001, Chapters 1 – 5) and (Cooper, 2004, Complete).
The print media has contributed very significantly to bringing about social change since the invention of the Gutenberg printing press. The renaissance, the scientific revolution and many other political revolutions benefited from the capability of the print to cheaply and conveniently disseminate ideas. It was, however, the force of these ideas which was behind the revolutions and the print acted by accelerating the dissemination, debate and acceptance of ideas, something which was not possible to be done in the oral tradition. In the present age, the electronic word is gradually going to replace the printed word as a more convenient and faster means for disseminating ideas as the technology and its present limitations are gradually overcome.
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