Surviving the Digital Renaissance

It has been said history does not repeat but it often rhymes.

The reality is that looking back at past events and their outcomes is the best tool we have for predicting what might happen in the future.  While the events transpiring in the world around us today might seem unprecedented or even chaotic, the truth is that there are many parallels with the events of today and the last great information revolution that happened around the development of the printing press.

The cost of information has never been lower

The introduction of the printing press greatly lowered the cost of information and increased the speed at which news and knowledge traveled.  These changes in the price and flow of information ended up completely remaking the institutions that ruled medieval Europe.  Within a few generations, the former gatekeepers of knowledge such as the church, the kings, and the craft guilds had all lost significant amounts of power.

When Gutenberg first printed Bibles, he thought he was doing a great service for the church,  but the unintended consequences of the new technology far outweighed the intentions of any one man.The printing press directly contributed to a massive change in the couture, technology, and religion of the time.  these changes were inescapable for the common people because they led to direct conflict with the ruling powers of the time.

As the traditional power structures lost control of the flow of information, new organizations arose to fill the void.  As newspapers, universities and republics replaced the power structures that had controlled information during the dark ages, common people gained greater knowledge about the world they lived in.

Looking back, the changes brought about by the printing press can be generally seen as good,  but as they happened these unprecedented disruptions in the established social order could be chaotic even violent.  Printed pamphlets contributed to revolutions in the Americas and France.

The loss of power within the church lead to the Catholic armies clashing with Protestant ones all across Europe. The ruling monarchs of the time rarely ceded power to a parliament without at least a little blood being spilled first. For the people dependent on the organizations that the printing press threatened, it must have seemed like fighting for the old order was the only option. 

Censorship is often a part of any major change and we continue to see this today.

Early attempts at censorship were commonplace, from the pope promising excommunication for anyone who printed unproved opinions on religion to the kings issuing taxes and licenses on printing presses in an attempt to control whose voice was heard.

Despite the ruling powers best efforts, underground presses turned out illegal pamphlets, like the one operated by William Brewster, a religious separatist who after being arrested for smuggling books into England, packed up his printing press and took it on the Mayflower with him during his pilgrimage to the New World.

Withholding information and knowledge often backfires

In the end, the struggle against technology was futile. The printing press decentralized information, lowering its price and increasing the speed at which it moved.   

A new social order grew up with newspapers, university’s, and representative governments acting as the new holders of information.

Development of the internet accomplished exactly the same thing as the printing press, greatly lowering the cost of transferring information while also dramatically increasing the speed it moves.  These changes in the price and flow of information are starting to have similar effects to what they had with the printing press.  Institutions like newspapers, universities,  libraries, hospitals, publishing houses, and even representative government that were established by the development of the printing press, are now being challenged because they have lost their status as controllers or gatekeepers of information. 

As this internet-based digital renaissance continues to play out, we will see huge changes that may sometimes seem violent or chaotic, much like the radical pamphlets of the printing press era, the internet has already contributed to huge social changes, riots, and in some cases the overthrowing of governments.

Examples of attempts at censorship are too numerous to list.

The states that tried the hardest to control the new flow of information often stagnated and were left behind by the technological and cultural advancements of more open countries.  

The New Gatekeepers of Information

As the old social institutions that grew up around the printed page continue to weaken, new ones will grow up to replace them, with Google, Facebook and Amazon being some of the most obvious examples.  These new institutions by controlling access to information have quickly gained enough power that they overshadow small countries in terms of world influence.

While we don’t have a Pope promising excommunication for questioning our modern day dogma, we do have a modern equivalent being handed down in essentially arbitrary bans from social media and other outlets that are commonly available to the masses.  

If you don’t voice an opinion that questions the modern day dogma, you are subjected to being banned and ostracized at all levels of society.

The destruction of copyright law

One clear example of an institution that came about due to the printing press only to be destroyed by the internet is copyright law.  Before the introduction of mass-produced books, copyright was an unknown idea. All books had to be transcribed by hand, therefore, they were all unique and could be assumed to be the property of the person who made the copy.  after books were standardized so that all duplicates were identical they became the property of the printer and duplication was no longer seen as acceptable.

Copyright laws today no longer function in any real way, computers today make duplicating information so fast and simple that these laws are simply no longer enforceable. reproducing most information today is only a little more complicated than hitting “Control + C” button, which has forced content providers into the ad based revenue model.

Banking

While the printing press made fiat currency possible, the internet made digital currency and the current banking system possible.

Online banking operates fast and efficiently during normal circumstances. You can control vast amounts of digital currency from your phone. Of course, the issues that arise when a currency is in digital format are vast and we have yet to see just how this will turn out.

Digital currency makes it easy for governments to “make money appear” out of nowhere. Most of the money in circulation has no physical form at all. Talk of a totally cashless society has some questioning what level of control that will put into the hands of the state.

It is clear that the internet is changing the way we think about and interact with the institutions that shape our world.

There will be winners and losers in the digital renaissance. Just like in the past with the advent of the printing press, when the old ruling institutions like the Church, the King, and the guilds, lost power. We are starting to get an idea of who a few of those might be but it is still a bit early to know enough to say for sure and how much power some will lose.

  • Universities and colleges are starting to become redundant due to the massive expense of maintaining and employing the vast resources required for a brick and mortar school. Educational materials delivered in an online format reduce the cost of education and make it accessible to those that cannot attend a physical school.
  • Brick and mortar stores are fading away as we shop online for more of our everyday needs. This has led to people doing other jobs and less independent brick and mortar businesses coming on board to supply consumer demands. The majority of small businesses now do all their business via the internet.
  • Newspapers and magazines are folding regularly. Newsweek was so far in debt it sold for $1 a few years ago. Some magazines have switched to mostly digital or completely digital formats. The competition is great since anyone can start their own magazine or blog online for very little money.
  • Government entities are being challenged more often. The internet has made it possible for people to learn about a vast number of worldviews which can lead to questioning the power structures they are subjected to. We have yet to see what new forms of government may arise from this.

Conflict and surviving the chaos and changes that occur due to the digital renaissance

Social media has already been a contributing factor in revolutions in Egypt and Ukraine. Social media has been used to rally people together for secessionist movements in France, Spain, Scotland, and even California. Easy methods of information exchange and being able to coordinate gives enormous power to a populace that otherwise would have a harder time organizing to fight for the change they believe in. 

While it is too early to predict the winners and losers of the informational revolution that has been forming around us,  it has become clear that the changes that the internet is causing will reshape the world and these disruptions of the old order will not always be peaceful.

What we can do as individuals to survive in these rapidly changing times include:

  1. Keep an open mind and watch out for both propaganda and censorship. 

  2. Don’t waste your energy fighting unstoppable trends

  3. Don’t let yourself be crushed under the wheels of change.

  4.  Have extra supplies on hand to ensure that you and your family do not have to struggle as much during brief periods of unrest or hard times.

Matthew Biggers can be reached at matt@samanthabiggers.com.

Advertisements
Share: