History in Print
The paper that you are currently reading, the alphabet that it uses, the computer that it was typed on, and the mindset of the writer are the culminations of thousands of years of “axemaker” innovation. Today’s world is the result of advances in technology, shifts in thought, and changes in communication methods spanning millennia. But how and why did we arrive at this point in history? Looking back through history, we can see that three major innovations have transformed the world into what it is today: written language, the printing press, and the information-digital revolution. Each of these developments expanded and built upon the one preceding it. Just as Gutenberg’s printing press fully utilized the power of the alphabet, the modern day revolution of computers and electronic communication has released the full potential of the written word. With each step humanity has taken, these “axemaker gifts” have defined modern day thought and behavior.
In the beginning, before E-mail and Instant Messenger, before dictionaries and encyclopedias, and even before the alphabet and writing, there was one primary method of communication: mouth-to-ear. Many thousands of years ago, oral communication was the only way knowledge could be shared. Knowledge of building shelters, hunting for food, and creating weapons was disseminated from the elders to the young by word of mouth. As a result, knowledge was limited by the functioning capacity of the human brain. Because knowledge was at the mercy of the receiver’s ability to remember, knowledge was static, and consequently, innovative thinking was rare. We can relate to this today, as it would be impossible to remember everything our professors teach us without some form of external memory. This inability to process ideas outside of the limitations of memory also restricted early human’s ability to think analytically. Complex ideas and concepts such as “history” (which we take for granted today) were impossible to achieve in this primitive world. Consequently, a need developed for another type of communication – one that would allow for complex thought and the expansion of knowledge.
Although written language did not spread like wildfire at first, it eventually transformed every aspect of humanity. Writing, the process of representing thought with inherently meaningless symbols, was not an intuitive step. However, it succeeded where earlier attempts at symbolic writing, such as hieroglyphics, failed. It was easy to learn and even easier to use. Merchants and scholars readily adopted the Greek alphabet as it allowed for bookkeeping and abstract thought. Those who were literate “in the Greek community now had a tool to chop up thought and ask complex questions without having to worry about getting lost in the process” (70). Written language began a “cognitive revolution” by actually changing the way we thought. Our new, sequential, cause-and-effect thinking led to the birth of natural philosophy, also known as science. Additionally, writing allowed historical record keeping, however it was not widely practiced. With a society growing increasingly literate and wealthy, hand-written documents were increasingly in demand. Eventually, a new method for disseminating information was necessary to keep up with society’s growing thirst for knowledge and indulgences.
The invention of the printing press in the 15th century was a major turning point in human history. Gutenberg’s press, with the ability to create exact copies of documents with great speed, transformed Europe politically, scientifically, and socially in under a hundred years. Used early to print versions of the Bible in several languages, the printing press gave permanence to language and culture all across Europe. The press, consequently, spurred nationalistic tendencies, which later resulted in defined countries. Additionally, printing returned power to the monarchs and away from papal control through the dissemination of law and propaganda. Another consequence of the printing press was the standardization and unification of knowledge. No longer was the unreliable hand of the scribe or the questionable memory of the elder of the family required to spread information. Rather, books and encyclopedias became powerful disseminators of a knowledge continuum. With established knowledge so easily obtainable, scientific progress and technological innovation flourished. As a consequence, printing altered the “nature of knowledge itself”, and widened “the gulf between those with specialist knowledge and those without” (135). With far-reaching effects, Gutenberg’s invention contributed to the progressive mindset that still exists today. “The presses gave Europeans a powerful desire for progress and change because they made people aware of history and now offered new knowledge with almost every new edition” (139). This craving is still evident in our current society, with our unquenchable thirst for “bigger, better, faster, cheaper.”
Most recently, the digital revolution has transformed the world faster than any other “axemaker” gift in history. In as little as 30-50 years, we have become a society dependent on digital communication. Internet, E-mail, and Instant Messaging can provide instant written communication between any two points on the globe. Moreover, worldwide knowledge is now accessible at your fingertips. The electronic revolution has not fundamentally “altered” the former world of the printing press; it has just advanced it at lightning speed. Even though the digital world has the potential for breaking down barriers of international communication, it also has the potential for creating a “digital divide.” Much like how the printing press widened the gap between the educated and non-educated, the digital world is feeling the tension between those who have the technology and those who do not. Due to the nature of this revolution, digital communication is both bringing the world together with technology and excluding those who do not have the resources to possess the technology.
When evaluating the importance of each stage of humanity, one must consider the effects each had on the course of history and their relation to one another. The technological achievement of the alphabet and writing set the foundation for a new framework of thought and communication. It followed that the printing press utilized this framework and built Europe into a literate, nationalistic, knowledge-hungry society. Finally, the digital and information revolution has continued to develop the world in similar fashion as the printing press, but with increased speed and more pervasive effects. Even though the digital revolution is still very young, it still has had extensive influence on society. Nevertheless, it is still too early to consider electronic communication to be the most important stage in history. All things considered, Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press has had the most profound impact on humanity. The fact that social, scientific, and political ideas of today stem from the developments of a 15th century “axemaker,” is a testament to the importance of this transition in humanity.
Burke, James, and Robert Ornstein. The Axemaker's Gift. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1997.