One thing that I noticed while reading Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change was that many of the phenomenons happening then from the distribution of print is being felt again in the age of the internet.
Eisenstein (1979) mentioned a ‘knowledge explosion’ resulting from the widespread distribution of knowledge. Similarily, we can find this happening again with the ever-expanding collection of online how-to’s and tutorials. One can find a whole range of tutorials on YouTube, the topics ranging from charging an ipod with an onion to creating a raised garden bed. Specialised sites have also popped up such as Instructables, About.com and wikiHow that cover a plethora of areas – just have a look for yourself.
One thing to note in all these examples are that all these tutorials are self-published by individuals. These websites have become a collection of knowledge that the community of its users have collaboratively created. This shows how easy it is and how many more outlets there are for publishing to the average person nowadays which is what allows websites like these to cover such such an extensive list of topics.
It was from such tutorials and articles that I had picked up how to crotchet. There were enough resources floating around on the internet that taught me how to start off with the basic stitches as well as step-by-step guides on how to do something more complex like broomstick lace or the crocodile stitch. With all this content available online and for free, what does it mean for the publishing companies and authors behind books that sell this information? Surely there’s been a drop in sales now that there’s an alternative source to get this information?
Despite information being given away online, instructional books are still being sold in book stores which means that there are still people buying these books. So then I ask, are we simply buying books for their content now? Or is there something more in a book that we cannot find online? Are we buying the book for it’s neat organisation of information compared to trawling the web and employing google fu to find what we want? Or is it more about the accuracy and perceived legitimacy of the information printed within a book?
This question of legitimacy brings me to the second similarity that I found between now and the past. Eisenstein(1979) mentions how the printing press also sped up the ‘corruption’ of a print and perhaps this can be likened to how information on the web is sometimes passed along much in a manner similar to a game of Chinese whispers. It is incredibly easy to lose the original source of something especially in an environment where information can spread so quickly and be up to interpretation of so many people. These interpretations then get interpreted by another person and so on and so forth.
Another thing to note is also how often important facts are omitted about an article to skew the opinion of the reader towards a certain side. One need that has arisen out of the ease of self-publication is that of fact-checking. Where a newspaper or book is typically guaranteed to have gone through several stages of quality checking, this isn’t the case for self-published materials and posts. Heck even this post isn’t guarded by any official forms of quality and fact checking beyond what I myself have done. This isn’t to say that the need for fact-checking was only recently created, but that more prudence need be exercised when it comes to the internet because of self-publication.
I also find that the internet is simultaneously a permanent record and constantly shifting. A person can claim one thing one day then another thing the next, but that they have claimed these two separate things may remain recorded. This can be summed up in a common sentiment that ‘Once it’s on the internet, it’s there forever’.
One recent example of this is the Applebees Facebook fiasco. The linked article itself is a demonstration of how something can remain on the internet forever. Screenshots and caches of webpages can be kept for an unknown period of time and can resurface. An example shown within the article is of a previous post that Applebees had made, but then deleted. Despite it no longer appearing on their wall anymore, the fact that they had posted it has been preserved and shared.
How has this changed accountability of a publisher? On one hand, the internet has made it difficult to keep track of who said what, but on the other hand some instances such as this are documented and kept forever.
In conclusion, we can see some key events repeating themselves in history in response to the printing press and the advent of the internet. Information and knowledge has become widespread through the use of a new tool that allows easier distribution of text (and other mediums) and this has resulted in a change in society’s gears. Similar to books, the internet has become a method of preserving things in some cases. However the internet also brings with it new changes in the dynamics between audience and publishers. With so much information out on the internet, why buy books? What do books offer that the internet doesn’t? One thing that’s for certain though is that things are changing.
Eisenstein, Elizabeth (1979) ‘Excerpts’ from ‘Defining the initial shift: some features of print culture’ in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change Vol. 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pg 72, 108