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The Power of Information
Blas Pedro Uberuaga
Science and Humanity
October 3, 1993
There was a time when people knew only that which they had experienced first hand. Any "knowledge" that they had not experienced themselves was not knowledge but fantasy. However, the knowledge they did know they knew well. They had an intimate knowledge of that part of the world in which they interacted. They knew the land, the plants, the animals, and the weather, everything that they experienced in their everyday lives. If they did not know something, then it was to be doubted. Rhyme was used through little sayings as a mnemonic device to remember and pass on their knowledge. Everything about this world was oral. The only books were those kept by the monks and these were useless to the masses because they could not read their own vernacular language, much less the "elite" Latin used by the monks.
Everyone lived in their own microcosm. They rarely traveled more than seven miles from their home. Because of this, news traveled very slowly. As Burke relates, it took eighteen months for Constantinople to hear of Joan of Arc's death. Thus, news of anything of importance would take forever to reach anyone. It would be virtually impossible to conduct scientific research as we know it now in such an environment. People just did not have the ability to communicate at this time. There were few people that traveled large distances, so a villager would only learn of world events when such a person happened upon his village. It is no wonder that there was no appreciable advancement during the medieval period.
Probably an even greater barrier to communication and scientific inquiry was language. Since there was no communication between villages, everyone was effectively isolated and languages were unable to interact with one another. Because of this isolation, languages developed differently in each and every village. Burke mentions that a dialect spoken in one village was completely incomprehensible in another only fifty miles away. To us, this seems remarkable. How would our society function if we did not communicate in the same language as did people from Spokane? However, there are still areas of the world were this phenomenon persists. In the Basque country of Spain, neither a written media nor a region-wide audio media in the Basque language has been in existence for more than thirty years. As a result, every valley in this mountainous country has its own distinct dialect. José Uberuaga, a great uncle of mine, told me that he cannot understand a fellow Basque speaker from the French side of the Basque region, which is less than one hundred kilometers from his home. Not only does this make the dissemination of knowledge difficult, but it also makes it difficult to establish a national identity, to make everyone feel like they belong to a larger whole.
In the 1450s, Johannes Gansfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg developed the first printing press seen in Europe. This invention would completely change Europe and the world, probably more than any other (except maybe the microchip). No single invention is more responsible for the way our society is today than the printing press. The ease with which we communicate ideas and information is a direct result of Gutenberg's press.
With the invention of the printing press, people could extend their knowledge outside of their immediate surroundings. They could learn about the experiences of others that may live over a thousand miles away, something that was unthinkable before. Besides just knowing what he or she knew, a person could know what someone else knew. At the same time, he could test the knowledge of this other person. People would read what this supposed expert wrote and try to validate or disprove it. From this arose our modern scientific community, where just about every scientific claim is immediately set upon by numerous scientists from around the world trying to confirm or reject the claim.
The printing press brought with it an information explosion. Anyone could be an expert on anything by reading a book. No longer were long hours spent under the tutelage of a master craftsman. If someone wanted to know how to build a house, they need do nothing more that read a book. For a short time, there were people who existed who were experts on everything. Of course, this did not last very long, for soon there was just too much knowledge for anyone to know.
This ability to learn something from a book without experimenting with it, without experiencing it first hand, might be responsible, at least somewhat, for our current attitude towards the earth and our environment. To learn, there is no longer a need to interact directly with the earth. We have become detached from it. Today, we are not intimate with the earth and have thus neglected it. Our detachment from the earth has caused a great amount of damage. This is all speculation, but I feel that there might be some truth here.
Printing enabled news to spread faster. No longer were the jongleurs necessary to bring news of other areas. Before, these specialists were needed to memorize large amounts of information and relate it to an illiterate world. With printing, memorization was no longer necessary. One only had to print the news and then give it to people who could read. News spread faster because it could go in different directions at the same time. The jongleurs could not. The ability to read became a more valuable skill than that of memorization. In addition, one could speculate, a large attention span became less important. Now, with printing, if a person was unable to hear all of the news, he could just go and read it later. This trend has continued unto the present day, where sound and video bites of thirty seconds dominate our media. The attention span of the "MTV" generation is said to be very short indeed.
Since memories were no longer important, the village elders became less important as sources of information and, as a result, less respected. Experience was valued during the middle ages and the older people had simply experienced more than the younger generation. When books became wide spread, however, knowledge of just about everything was at the finger tips of all who could read. Critical information, such as the times of births and deaths, was printed and these printed documents were more reliable than an old man's memory. The valued place that the elderly once held in society disappeared.
The printing press had a large impact on the development of language in Europe. Before printing became wide spread, there were literally thousands of dialects spoken in Europe, as mentioned before. At the same time, however, there was the academic language of Latin, which was used in the writing of just about everything. Most academics had a knowledge of Latin, so there was this type of international language being used for the dissemination, albeit a very slow one, of knowledge. There was, in effect, one written language and thousands of spoken languages.
The printing press changed all of that. It took a monk nearly a year to finish a manuscript. After a page was set up on the press, however, thousands of copies could be made in a very short time. This dramatic change in the time needed to finish a text meant that there was now time to write texts in various different vernaculars. Latin was no longer needed as an academic language. Texts could be written in English, Spanish, German, or any other language.
While supplanting the need for an international language, the press also made the standardization of language in small regions necessary. It was not possible to print a given text in all of the dialects existing in Europe. Now that news was spread by print, language had to be standardized over a fairly large region to make this method of communication effective. People in this area had to be able to understand the same language. So, standards of grammar and spelling were introduced in various kingdoms, usually based on the dialect spoken in the area the king lived. In Spain, for example, Castillian Spanish became dominant because that was the language spoken in the kingdom that united Spain. In 1492, the first standardized rules for a European language were published, telling all Spaniards how their language was supposed to be used. Printing at the same time made vernacular languages stronger and made language less vernacular.
I think that the invention of the printing press might be somewhat responsible for the rise of modern nations. With the printing press came a standardization of language and, with that, a form of national identity. An important way that we identify with others is through our language. Often, throughout history, people who speak a language different from that of the majority have been looked upon as different, as bad or inferior. People who speak the same language seem to feel that they have something in common. They identify with each other. If people from one part of a nation identify with those from another, they are more likely to come to the defense of those people. Therefore, this identification is important in a nation. It establishes a national cohesion. The printing press helped create this cohesion.
Because of the knowledge that was conveyed through books, a lot of trust was put into printing. People believed just about everything they read. If someone wanted to spread their ideas, to validate them, all they had to do was put them in print. There would be someone out there that would believe them. As an example, there were some prosecutors in the middle ages that printed a book that told about witches: what they did, how to tell who was a witch, and what to do to them. Because this information was easily accessible, many people used it and this led to the great persecutions of supposed witches throughout all of Europe. Still today, there are large numbers of people that believe anything they read. This confidence in everything that is written still causes much confusion, and is one of the unfortunate side-effects of the information age.
Printing has also helped us a great deal in keeping historical records. Basically, without the printing press, many documents that we have now we would not. For example, in the late eighteenth century, Thomas Jefferson used a portable printing press to make multiple copies of all of his letters. Today, we have his letters because he was able to make those copies. We know a great deal more about the period that followed the invention of the printing press than we do of the period before, as would only be expected. As a result, we have a good understanding of how those people felt, thought, and lived. People five hundred years from now will have a flood of information about our own time, thanks in part to printing.
The ways printing has influenced the transition between medieval society and our own are innumerable. I have discussed some of them above. I am sure that there are many, many more examples that could be mentioned, some of which are discussed by Burke. Printing has influenced our language, our science, the way we see the earth, and every other aspect of what makes us the way we are. We have traded once-valued experience for facts in print. Knowledge is not gained from experience, but rather from books. This is both good and bad. While books allow us to pass on knowledge that we do not have the time to figure out for ourselves, and thus make scientific progress, we have also lost the intimate contact with the earth that we once had. We now have two kinds of "intelligence:" book smarts and common sense. People seem to either know about the information contained in books or how things work in the world. There seem to be very few people who have mastered both types of knowledge.
We are now in the middle of another information explosion. The development of the computer has allowed us to transfer information between opposite ends of the earth in seconds. Satellites tell us of events in Russia as they happen. I can get weather information about any part of the country at any time I want. Whereas before, knowledge that other people had discovered could be shared over large distances, now this information can be transferred instantaneously. Eventually, everything that was ever written will be instantly accessible to all people. This information explosion may transform the world more than the previous one did.
Both information explosions have worked to make the world a smaller place. Before Gutenberg and his press, a person would be lucky to know what was going on in the adjacent village. Now, we can know what is going on anywhere in the world. At this moment, I am listening to a broadcast that is reporting the latest events in Moscow. We know intimately of cultures that before we did not even know existed and are able to convey this knowledge to everyone. Information has become another commodity, to be bought and sold. It has also become the basis of power. The right information can give someone a great advantage over an opponent, their competition, or an enemy.
The availability of information is crucial to the continued operation of our society. Without it, our economy would collapse, our military would be paralyzed, and our President would be unable to make any decisions. This dependence on information is not limited to just our country, our society, but is a feature of the entire world. Our insatiable thirst for knowledge has caused the formation of information services, where, with a phone call and for a price, we can get sports results, weather information, and highway conditions. Information on all sorts of subjects will just become more and more available, probably at higher and higher costs. There will probably be nothing that we cannot know about if we pay the price. Information has become the backbone of our society. If that backbone ever breaks, if our information supply is ever cut, our society will more that likely collapse.