The consequences of the printing revolution, which happened around 600 years ago, profoundly shaped the modern world as we know it today. In my view, the internet revolution and rapid expansion of information accessibility has a lot of commonalities with the past printing revolution. Could we be living in a revolutionary era without even knowing it, and does history provide any lessons for us?
I have always been intrigued by how similar societal issues or dilemmas have remained over time. For instance, Socrates, who lived over 2,300 years ago, often pondered what happiness and virtue really meant, why so many people of his time were in constant pursuit of riches and fame, whether some corrupt people were unfit for power, and how society should provide for their citizens’ well-being and education. Wouldn’t you agree that these issues are as pertinent today as they were thousands of years ago?
For us as Homo sapiens, our surrounding environments and ways of living have changed since we were hunter-gatherers, by going through the agricultural, industrial, and most recently information revolutions. Yet, even as we have profoundly changed how we live and interact with our environment, most scientists would agree that our bodies and psychology still function in a similar way to our ancestors as according to an article in Scientific American. Since the human psyche has remained similar throughout history, I find it interesting to study past historical events in the hope that they may illuminate societal impacts and how we can apply these lessons to contemporary events.
In 1436, in the Rhine valley of Germany — sometimes referred to by historians as the Silicon Valley of medieval Europe — a young goldsmith, Johannes Gutenberg, began working on an invention that would allow lead letter blocks to be easily organized into a special matrix that enabled the printing of uniform pages to make books. With its original intention to print the Bible more efficiently, this printing technology soon spread to other printing applications. As technology developed and access to literary texts became more democratic, the monopoly that the literate elite had on education was gradually broken. The emerging middle class gained a new place in society, as they reaped the benefits made possible by the printing press by inhaling knowledge that was previously reserved for the upper class. A new rise of nationalism emerged, as new texts surrounding cultural self-awareness started emerging in Europe and gradually impacted the vernacular languages of nations, leading to the decline of Latin’s status as lingua franca of Europe. At the beginning of the 16th century in Europe, it is estimated that approximately 150 to 200 million books were in circulation and that the literacy rate speedily increased, as books became more readily available. Concepts that are familiar today, such as capitalism, spread from Italy to other parts of Europe, riding on the wave of mass communication made possible by the printing press.
One major figure during this period was the German professor and Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, who rejected several teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church at that time. As he refused to recant his Ninety-five Theses of 1517 that disputed the practice of indulgences — which, according to the Romans, upheld the Catholic order — he was pronounced an outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor in 1521. However, by using the printing press to spread his written ideas — by making the New Testament of the Bible accessible to the German masses — he managed to have a profound and chaotic impact on Europe by creating a chasm in the Christian church and decreasing the influence papal Rome had over the continent. Many countries took advantage of criticism of the Catholic order to increase their self-governance and reduce the taxes that they had to pay towards the papacy. Martin Luther did not explicitly intend to create any violence or upheaval; rather, his texts were aimed at freeing Europe from religious oppression and staying true to his interpretation of the holy scriptures. However, the impact of his teachings unintentionally sparked numerous wars over the reformation of Christianity throughout the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. As well as creating chaos, this Reformation had a profound effect on today’s state of Christianity, as Protestantism has the second highest number of worshippers after the Catholic faith. The Christian Reformation was only the beginning, as the printing press continued to spread ideas and reform our societies in increasingly modern and efficient forms.
“If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.”
So, what does this have to do with the internet revolution and the age of unparalleled access to information that we are living in now? Paradoxically, as in the aforementioned examples, access to information and the spread of ideas does not always bring about harmony and a deeper understanding of one another. Instead, the spread of ideas can create chaos, as certain ideas grow stronger and may challenge the current state of things. To bring this back to the contemporary, one astonishing statistic is that 90% of the world’s data has been created over the past two years alone and we are adding another quintillion (10¹⁸) bytes every day, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review. If we were to quantify this for humans, our brain would be able to hold around 2.5 peta (10¹⁵) bytes in total according to Scientific American, which is significantly less than needed for the human brain to keep up with one day of additional digital data generated. This puts us at a limited capacity to keep track of and build a nuanced view, given the constant influx of new, incoming data. As previously mentioned, our minds have not yet evolved to be able to process the flow of Information and the spread of ideas at an unprecedented scale to what Johannes Gutenberg and previous inventors ever could have imagined.
In his book ,“The Paradox of Choice — Why More Is Less,” published in 2004, the American psychologist, Barry Schwartz, describes the phenomenon of information overflow and how bad we are at managing it as a species. When it comes to having choices, we tend to be less happy than when we have less choices to begin with. Many of the existing social media platforms know about this and have tweaked their algorithms and products to keep us in a “filter bubble”, which depicts a state of intellectual isolation where we are fed with a subset of the gigantic cloud of information that these platforms contain and what aligns best with our current beliefs. The “filter bubble” aims to strengthen our current views, as this keeps us comfortable and engaged with content we already know. As the technology hub of the world has now shifted to Silicon Valley from the Rhine Valley, where it was in the medieval times, there is now another set of cultural values that dictate how this technology should influence us.
Seen through this lens, the internet is essentially the “modern printing press on steroids,” enhanced with a technology backed by computational algorithms and artificial intelligence based on a few data points from each user. The technology categorizes a hypothetical user with other similar individuals based on a few key metrics and puts them into a “filter bubble” to keep them engaged. This may of course have positive effects on an individual, as it keeps them engaged by recommending music or clothes that are similar to what they already like. In other instances, the algorithm could bias users by only feeding information that they would like to hear, and which already fall within their existing preconceptions without challenging their beliefs. This is also called “confirmation bias” in social psychology, a concept where we as humans favor and recall information in a way that confirms or supports our prior beliefs or values. I believe that on the bigger social media platforms of today, these algorithms have created a surge of increased polarization and misinformation, since we each tap into our own “filter bubbles” that work according to our confirmation bias instead of connecting and intellectually challenging ourselves.
Today, we are often surprised by how quickly society has perpetuated misinformation and strengthened polarization, as we have all been disconnected from the alternate realities of what others are consuming (their own “filter bubbles”). One example of this is the 2016 presidential election, which resulted in Donald Trump’s win. Trump’s victory came as a shock to many democratic states but not to the Republicans, due largely to the failure of polls to capture voters’ true feelings but also likely due to the bias of poll mechanics. On a global level, nations have also started to recognize the threat of foreign intervention in elections or in the spread of misinformation to strengthen certain vulnerable groups in order to weaken the political stability of a country. I believe this is why a lot of current autocratic regimes have decided to lock down and restrict access to information (i.e., China’s creation of their own regulated social media platforms), since the power of “filter bubbles’’ and “confirmation bias” can have a profound effect on the stability of a country if the information is not controlled.
As I compare and contrast what we are experiencing today and the original printing revolution, I found a few interesting parallels:
- The world is going through a period of chaos, where people are trying to make sense of the different perspectives or “truths” that they are exposed to on various information platforms. On an even higher level, this tension is seen at the level that impacts power-plays across leaders, nations, etc.
- “Filter bubbles” existed in the past but were generally based on geographic locations rather than algorithmic technology. During the printing revolution, it’s likely that Rome had very little clue about how influential and persuasive ideas from Martin Luther’s texts would be and how it was to live through that time of oppression. Basically, the world had different views then and very little insight into each other’s views.
- Ideas surrounding oppression spark anger and create fertile environments for revolution once ideas are quickly spread. During the medieval era, there was a perceived religious and tax oppression. In more recent history, workers’ strife brought about social reforms (unions, social security, etc.) and extreme communism. In today’s modern world, we talk about prolonged social injustice (the driving force being Black Lives Matter in the U.S.).
There are a few key differences between what we are experiencing today and history. To me, the main difference is in the number of perspectives we are exposed to on a daily basis, which have a large impact on our self-identity (e.g. certain moral beliefs and music taste). Furthermore, I believe that technology and social media companies have wittingly or unwittingly enhanced the effect of the “filter bubbles”, as we are constantly being reminded about similar perspectives on the same topic. Thus, strengthening our “confirmation bias” in a more enhanced way than before when information was scarcer — and less tailored to us. The information that most appeals to us and our viewpoints finds its way almost automatically without us knowing and divides us in numerous ways that weren’t possible before.
“Change is law and no amount of pretending will alter that reality.”
As the printing revolution started a cascading spread of ideas and change to world order, we would be naive to believe that information technology — or as I would call it, the modern printing revolution — wouldn’t bring around a bigger change of world order and chaos for the foreseeable future. One can rest assured that chaos doesn’t always mean that things will be worse off in the long run. As mentioned in the book, Factfulness, by Rosling et al., the world is statistically a far better place than it was a few generations ago in terms of economic development and the spread of ideas that have significantly increased global health, reduced poverty, and made other positive trends that benefit humankind. As we are experiencing many concurrent events — a global power-play, internal struggles in countries all over the world, talks about climate change, etc. — we can learn from history that the modern printing revolution will most likely set us up for a few hundred years of turbulence and chaos. As Socrates mentioned in a previously cited quote, “change is law” — one ought to try to stay mindful about the ride we are on, because in the end, how do we know if it will end up for the better or for the worse?