The future is always difficult to see, but especially during those discontinuous events called revolutions. As Clay Shirky explains in this look at “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” (13 March 2009). He discusses journalism, but his lessons are applicable to the world of today — small and large.
Elizabeth Eisenstein’s magisterial treatment of Gutenberg’s invention, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, opens with a recounting of her research into the early history of the printing press. She was able to find many descriptions of life in the early 1400s, the era before movable type. Literacy was limited, the Catholic Church was the pan-European political force, Mass was in Latin, and the average book was the Bible. She was also able to find endless descriptions of life in the late 1500s, after Gutenberg’s invention had started to spread. Literacy was on the rise, as were books written in contemporary languages, Copernicus had published his epochal work on astronomy, and Martin Luther’s use of the press to reform the Church was upending both religious and political stability.
What Eisenstein focused on, though, was how many historians ignored the transition from one era to the other. To describe the world before or after the spread of print was child’s play; those dates were safely distanced from upheaval. But what was happening in 1500? The hard question Eisenstein’s book asks is “How did we get from the world before the printing press to the world after it? What was the revolution itself like?”
Chaotic, as it turns out. The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t know what to think. If you can’t trust Aristotle, who can you trust?
During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change – take a book and shrink it – was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.
That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.
And so it is today.
Other article by Clay Shirky
- Why Small Payments Won’t Save Publishers, 8 February 2009
- Why iTunes is not a workable model for the newspaper business, 3 March 2009
- Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, 13 March 2009
- “Not an Upgrade — an Upheaval“, Cato Unbound, 13 July 2009
About our time
I believe we are in a transitional time, when the post-WWII era passes away. It is like a singularity in astrophysics, where the rules break down. We cannot see beyond it because we do not understand the choices that will determine our fate – let alone how we will choose. It also resembles a singularity in that what lies on the other side is unimportant until (or unless) one survives the passage through it. We can only work hard to see that the new era is as good or better than past one.
For more on this see these posts:
- This financial crisis is the transition to a new world; like birth, it is painful, 11 February 2009
- Everything written about the economic crisis overlooks its true nature, 24 February 2009
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For more information from the FM site
To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp interest are:
- About Financial crisis – what’s happening? how will this end?
- About the End of the post-WWII geopolitical regime
- About America – how can we reform it?
Posts about the forecasts and warnings:
- We have been warned. Death of the post-WWII geopolitical regime, 28 November 2007 — A long list of the warnings we have ignored, from individual experts and major financial institutions.
- Geopolitical implications of the current economic downturn, 24 January 2008 – How will this recession end? With re-balancing of the global economy — and a decline of the US dollar so that the US goods and services are again competitive. No more trade deficit, and we can pay our debts.
- What will America look like after this recession?, 18 March 2008 — The recession will change many things, from the distribution of wealth within the US to the ranking of global powers.
- Consequences of a long, deep recession – part I, 18 June 2008
- Consequences of a serious US recession – part II, 19 June 2008
- Consequences of a long, deep recession – part III, 20 June 2008
- Forecasting the results of this financial crisis – part I, about politics, 13 October 2008
- Forecasting the results of this financial crisis – part II, a new economy for America, 14 October 2008
- Miscelaneous news and thoughts about the financial crisis, 16 October 2008
- A look at the next phase of the crisis, as it hits the real economy, 31 October 2008
- A look at out future, 2009 – 2010 … and beyond, 9 November 2008
- A look at 2009 economy – some guesses, 28 December 2008