Is the Internet Revolution Really Unprecedented?

How much new is there in our contemporary communications revolution, enabled by the Internet, pushed forward by blogs and microblogs? A look into history can be clarifying. And it is surprising how often Elizabeth Eisenstein uses the same phrases that today describe the purportedly unprecedented characteristics of the Internet to tell her history of “The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe”.

The similarity between blog and printing press is to obvious to go unnoticed, and many have extended on this allegory. But Eisenstein’s account highlights details which most advocates of the rise of those who were formerly called the audience will likely overlook. Who would have guessed that crowdsourcing is a practice half a millenium old? But indeed, early printers of maps and globes and natural compendia already asked their readers to contribute their discoveries to following editions, as Eisenstein shows. “After printing, large-scale data collection did become subjects to new forms of feedback which had not been possible in the age of scribes.”

This, of course, is not the collaborative process enabled by the Internet which we see today in the Wikipedia, and which Clay Shirky invests so much hope in. But Eisenstein’s work is fascinating because it allows us to look for the general principles that communications revolutions come with. Enhanced feedback processes, it seems, are one of them.

I have often heard from sceptics that they don’t see any new ideas in blogs. How can a medium be revolutionary if it just spreads the contents of its traditional predecessors, undermixed with urban myths and conspiracy theories, they ask. A historical perspective seems helpful, because the same is true for the printing press: Early printed books did barely contain any new content; in fact, they often served to spread myths and charlatanry, alongside the same old, unscientific theories as before.

Eisenstein claims that there is a benefit in knowing three wrong theories instead of one. From comparison, their inconsistence can be realized – and new, better-fitting theories can be devised. We might think similarly about the Internet. My generation has already grown up with near infinite sources of information at their hands, open for comparison. Surely, most people don’t use these intellectual pastures of plenty, but what can they effect as tools of those who do?

“The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe” had originally come to my attention via a mention in Graeme Kirkpatrick’s “Technology & Social Power”. There, the author enhances Eisenstein’s arguments in connecting it with Habermas’ writings on the emergence of the “public sphere”. He writes that “only through the agency of print […] does it become possible for people to think of themselves as members of an ‘imagined community’, the basis of modern nationalism”.

The fascinating question that arises is, of course, whether this development will find an equivalent in the social media age. Ala’a Abdel Fattah recently wrote, regarding the current revolutions in the Middle East, that “[f]rom the internet and satellite TV a new pan-Arabism is born”, and Zeynep Tufekci (when rebutting Malcolm Gladwell) touched on hopes for an social media-enabled globalism as a possible force against global problems such as climate change:

New movements that can bring about global social change will still require people who interact with each other regularly, and trust and depend on each other in somewhat dense networks. Or only hope is if those networks span the globe in a tightly-knit, broad web of activity, interaction, personalization. Real change will come only if we can make friends we care about everywhere and we make bridge ties that cover the world in a web of common humanity that is bigger and more powerful than a handful of corporations and the corrupt, self-perpetuating class of politicians. […] I say, bring on the hive mind, please let it be global in scale as nothing less will do, and let Facebook and Twitter lead the way.

But is this global hive mind really emerging? Despite great efforts such as Global Voices, it doesn’t seem as if national media spheres were truly converging. I recently did a series of interviews for an upcoming publication, and inspired by Ala’a comment I also asked about the chances for a social media-enabled pan-Africanism. While most interviewees had high hopes, the status quo seems less promising. I’ll quote the great Ethan Zuckerman:

I think that’s wildly optimistic. I see very little conversation outside of individual regions, with the exception of a few cross-continent ties (Kenya to Ghana, for instance.) It’s rare to see dialog between Anglophone and Francophone speakers, for instance, and the conceptual barrier that separates sub-Saharan and Northern Africa remains firmly in place in a digital age. I’d love to see digital media emerge into regional media, and will wait to see that before I indulge in Nkrumist fantasies.

Elizabeth L. Eisenstein: The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge University Press, 2005. Amazon.