From ........... MACWORLD

October 1996

page 254


by Joe Schultz

ONE OF THE PERKS OF working in a museum is the people you run into.

Recently a German historian of technology stopped in to the editorial office of the journal I work for. It's a scholarly journal, and there are plenty of scholars around who think that, what with the ability to self-publish on the World Wide Web, such journals are headed the way of the dodo—and good riddance. So the conversation inevitably turned to electronic publishing, the future of scholarly publishing, and so on. The German scholar observed,

Have we really gone overboard over the Internet? Even people who want to tone down the frenzy seem to get swept up. This past May, Steven McGeady, vice president of Internet technologies for Intel, told a Harvard conference audience that the cockeyed predictions of Internet futurists were feeding an unwarranted hysteria. He prefers, he said,

Where does McGeady find clues to understanding these interesting times? Try the Protestant Reformation, that minor episode in European history that arose out of a small disagreement over the nature of eternal salvation and went on to shake the cultural foundations of Western civilization, redraw the political map of Europe, and light the fuse on the Industrial Revolution. Nothing to get worked up about.

Revolutions Compared

Another comparison equates "this" Information Revolution, electronic publishing, with "that" information revolution, Gutenberg's invention of the movable-type printing press 500-plus years ago.

With that invention, printed texts went from being a rarity, laboriously hand-copied one at a time, to a mass-produced, commonplace commodity.

The technology did more than simply spread the printed word. Among other things, it spread literacy, enabling large numbers of people to do something as radical as read the Bible for themselves.

While some thinkers welcome the Internet for its democratizing potential, others are skeptical or even gloomy. Sven Birkerts, for example, in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age [Faber & Faber, 1994], fears that we face the end of literature rather than the liberation of information.

Either way, we still use the same language — "publishing" online things called "electronic books," for example — to talk about both print and electronic paradigms, even as the two forms grow more dissimilar.

The confluence of factors that made adoption of the printing press feasible — from the spread of literacy to the development of the textile industry [rags for paper] — doesn't much resemble the network of systems, technologies, habits, and desires that produced the World Wide Web, but the comparison is still suggestive.

McGeady's point is that translating the Bible and other religious texts into the vernacular provided content that made the ability to print books useful and desirable. And content, as plenty of people are anxious to point out, is something the World Wide Web still needs. Right now, there's not much there there.

While it's natural to compare the two information revolutions, it does tend to push us toward the millennialist view — which, as my German colleague pointed out, Americans seem drawn to anyway. Print so effectively wiped out oral culture that it's nearly impossible for us to imagine that preliterate culture; we can't unlearn how to read. Will new media — not just the hypertext world of the Web, but electronic communications media of all sorts — do to print culture what print did to oral culture? Will society become postliterate, and if so, what will that mean?


These are important questions, but still visionary. Meanwhile, we're left looking for some workaday perspective. Fortunately, poking around in the historical attic is a bit like consulting that vernacular Bible to support an argument; you can find something to suit nearly any purpose. [By the by, the Bible is now available online in multiple translations with full automated searching; cross-references to important works of literature published since 1517; and links to concordances, commentaries, QuickTime movies of places mentioned in the text, and audio clips of Charlton Heston reading from the Book of Exodus.] Whoever coined the term 'information superhighway' already said a lot about the striking parallels between networked computers and what's still the emblematic technology of the twentieth century, the automobile. Next time you're stuck in freeway traffic or bogged down online waiting for a page to download, you'll have time to think of other analogies.

JOE SCHULTZ is managing editor of Technology and Culture


the journal of the Society for the History of Technology.


page 254 ........... October 1996 ........... MACWORLD