NYT Mag rewrites media history

Today's New York Times Magazine story on "screen literacy," written by Kevin Kelly, begins with a brief synopsis of technology's effect on human thought. Basically, Kelly seems to believe that today's image-centric culture challenges authority in a way that the text-centric culture of the past never did:

When technology shifts, it bends the culture. Once, long ago, culture revolved around the spoken word. The oral skills of memorization, recitation and rhetoric instilled in societies a reverence for the past, the ambiguous, the ornate and the subjective. Then, about 500 years ago, orality was overthrown by technology. Gutenberg’s invention of metallic movable type elevated writing into a central position in the culture. By the means of cheap and perfect copies, text became the engine of change and the foundation of stability. From printing came journalism, science and the mathematics of libraries and law. The distribution-and-display device that we call printing instilled in society a reverence for precision (of black ink on white paper), an appreciation for linear logic (in a sentence), a passion for objectivity (of printed fact) and an allegiance to authority (via authors), whose truth was as fixed and final as a book. In the West, we became people of the book.

Now invention is again overthrowing the dominant media. A new distribution-and-display technology is nudging the book aside and catapulting images, and especially moving images, to the center of the culture. We are becoming people of the screen. The fluid and fleeting symbols on a screen pull us away from the classical notions of monumental authors and authority. On the screen, the subjective again trumps the objective. The past is a rush of data streams cut and rearranged into a new mashup, while truth is something you assemble yourself on your own screen as you jump from link to link. We are now in the middle of a second Gutenberg shift — from book fluency to screen fluency, from literacy to visuality. [emph. added]

Now, Kelly is "senior maverick" at Wired, so it's no surprise he's something of a tech triumphalist.  But that's no excuse for ignoring the fact that print packed a hefty revolutionary punch of its own. 

Here, for example, is how Robert Wright describes the relationship between the printing press and the Reformation in his book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny:

There are two basic stories about how the printing press fostered the Reformation. The first is that it brought Bibles within reach of laypeople, allowing them to get their religious instruction from the source and thus form their own opinions about church doctrine, with no coaching from the pope. This story is especially popular among Protestants, and there is some truth to it.

But the more generally important story is the one hidden in the word "Protestant." The printing press lubricated protest. It did so by lowering the cost of reaching and mobilizing a large audience. Before the invention of printing, publishing en masse had been hard unless you could afford the upkeep on, say, a few dozen monasteries full of scribes. (For a student in Lombardy during the fifteenth century, justbefore the coming of movable type, the price of a law book was more than a year’s living costs.) Now, with printing cheap, an eloquent agitator with a catchy idea could occupy center stage.

Martin Luther, a theologian of modest prominence, affixed his critique of Catholic doctrine to the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints Church on October 31, 1517, and within weeks three separate editions were rolling off the presses in three cities. A sixteenth-century writer observed: "It almost appeared as if the angels themselves had been their messengers and brought them before the eyes of all the people."

As Wright notes, this doesn't mean that print is inherently anti-authoritarian; the rise of print culture also paved the way for nationalism, for example. Still, it's unfortunate that the NYT Magazine allowed Kelly's overly tidy account to make it to (ahem) print.

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