This is the first posting in what may or may not turn into a series on the general theme of the historic impact of the ever changing and evolving technology of communication, thoughts provoked by the talk that Michael Jennings gave at my home on the evening of Friday April 25th.
One of my fondest memories is of an earlier talk given by Sean Gabb in this same ongoing last-friday-of-the-month series, about the impact of the printing press. He described this not in the usual way, by telling the story of the printing press itself, and how it spread, and what it caused, but by describing how things were done before printing existed. He described how documents were copied before there were any printing presses to copy them, the central point being that such documents only lasted so long and it was all that the copyists could do to keep existing texts in continued existence. In such a world it was very hard for knowledge to grow. On the contrary, the only thing it could really do was shrink, which does a lot to explain why the Golden Age in those days tended to be placed in the past, rather than in the future as we now tend to prefer.
But another way to look at the arrival of printing is to look at it not just as a means of data storage, but also as a means of data transmission.
Consider. With any means of communication there are basically two problems to solve. First, you have to concoct the message in the first place. Second, you have to transmit it. Now, look at printing from these two points of view. Clearly, it does wondrous things to the first process, but equally clearly, a little compression aside, it contributes almost nothing to the second. Getting a book from Antwerp to Rome still depends on the speed of a donkey, just as it always did.
This simple fact had huge consequences for the way that printing impacted upon the wider culture. Suppose you are a hand-copier of texts. Basically, your product is loaded onto donkeys just as soon as you and your assistants can finish the things. Therefore, your product is spread thinly, as it were, all over the known world, in rather the way that fish food sprinkled only very slowly onto the water of your fish tank is spread all over. Reading is the shared experience of an international elite which is small, but widely dispersed.
Did I say “international”? Make that pre-national. Civilisation consists of one elite, who all tend to speak and read in the one international (make that “universal”) language (Latin), who together preside over and quarrel about a mass of relatively tiny geographical possessions, whose various peasantries speak God knows what barbarous dialectical variants of whatever language thrives in their vicinity. Learning literacy and learning Latin are the same thing. The peasants – by which I mean nearly everyone – aren’t involved. That’s the world without printing.
Enter printing. Suddenly – suddenly at any rate in terms of the long span of history – each printing press is thrashing out more products than the wretched transalpine donkeys can keep up with, or it is wanting to if only it can sell the damn things.
A printer starts out by thinking that he is merely speeding up an existing business, but soon he starts to look at the local market in a new way. To cut a long story short, what he does is: produce books in the local language. That way, he cuts out all those donkey journeys and opens up a huge market right on his own doorstep.
The unbreakable, impossible to un-imagine link between learning and learning Latin is broken. And before you know it, the printers produce their first Killer App. The Bible in the local language, or the vernacular as the scholars call it. The world is no longer one community, with a civilisation-spanning elite that communicates more with itself than with any mere locals; it is shattered into several dozen separate communities, in which the locals start seriously to communicate with each other, but not so much with foreigners. And each of these new nations interprets the Bible in its own distinct way. Words like “national”, and in due course our own hybrid word “inter-national”, start to make sense.
It’s a new world.
But – and it’s a big but – the details of the story of how printing changed history, as with the story of how any big new method of data storage and data transmission change history, is massively more complicated than the little story I’ve just told about hand-copied texts and donkeys. (This lady, for example, goes as far as saying that printing did not cause nationalism, which is taking the “it’s complicated” line way too far.) The stuff about texts and donkeys is true, but there was much more to it than that, and that simple principle took several centuries to work its way through our culture. But the fact that these effects can often be very complicated is itself too complicated to elaborate on in this posting.
I pretty much worked out all of the above for myself, that is to say I got it from no one writer or mentor. Therefore, not many links. But I did a google search with “Printing” and “Nationalism”. I got lots of stuff, as you can imagine, and the detestable Eric Hobsbawm loomed larger than I would like. This (produced by these people) looks more promising, and more directly relevant to what I’ve written.