(I wrote this on March 19, though its been a draft until now for some reason.)
So, I just saw Clay Shirky via videoconference. This City Share event (organized by the most excellent CreateHere.org) was well put together and Clay showed the sort of clear, direct thinking for which he has become famous.
The order of the day was the role of new media (a.k.a Web 2.0) in creating collaborative spaces for community activism. All was fine and dandy, except for one analogy that we’ve all heard, but that Clay seemed to keep coming back to: the social media/information revolution is similar to the Gutenberg revolution. (Johannes Gutenberg, not Steve). It’s a familiar trope: the introduction of
the printing press movable type* a Pb-Sn-Sb type metal caused permanent changes in not just the world of publishing, but in arenas from academia to economics and even politics. Johannes didn’t just give us greater access to books, he ushered in modernity. Shirky does a great job of describing his position in the wonderful Here Comes Everybody.
But wait…that’s a terrible analogy. In fact, it’s a false analogy. Despite the widespread popularity of the Web 2.0 = Gutenberg revolution argument, it simply doesn’t hold water. Perhaps looking at Eisenstein’s famous The Printing Press as an Agent of Change will shed some light on the confusion.
So, Elizabeth Eisenstein wrote The Printing Press as an Agent of Change in 1979, and described the manner in which Gutenberg’s development presaged a revolution in access to, standardization of, and preservation of information. Mass production of (functionally) identical books lead to greater dissemination of knowledge and a radical re-envisioning of the relationship between thought and the individual (among other changes). Her analysis is spot-on and should be required reading in many disciplines. [For an abridged version of her massive 1979 work, I recommend her 2005 The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 2nd edition]. I could write at length about Eisenstein’s thesis, but the real question is “Why is there a bad analogy?”
The short answer: The analogy was already taken with the advent of the internet.
The long answer: The radical transformation inherent in the spread of Web 2.0 technologies is overstated with respect to the issues of information access and consumption. The Gutenberg revolution qua revolution was predicated on increased access to typographically identical books, not (necessarily) on the information content in those books. The social media revolution is predicated on content, not (necessarily) access.
Consider what I believe to be a more fitting analogy: the introduction of the hypertext transfer protocol in 1989/90 was the Gutenberg-esque revolution, while the rise of social media is akin to the rise of the guild system and merchant class in 12th through 15th centuries. Sure, it’s a chronological inversion, but allow me to explain…
The transformative power of social media is very real, but not because of the technology. Web 2.0 thrives on collaboration and communication, so a good analogy should focus on a similar collaborative revolution from the past. Enter the craftsmen… Disenfranchised from the manorial system of feudal Europe, masons, carpenters, smiths, coopers, you name it, gradually coalesced into organized associations. These proto-capitalist associations eventually collapsed due to corruption, bloat, and other associated ills, but what they established was a network of collaborative commerce and an economic system in which the consumers became the producers.
* No, he didn’t invent the printing press. That was the Chinese. Movable type? That was in Korea