For historians of western Europe, the modern era dates from the rise of the printing press. Developed by Johannes Gutenberg in about 1440, the printing press was in widespread use throughout Europe by 1500, with 20 million volumes already in print.
The internet had a slightly shorter runway. The value of computer networks for exchanging email and files was well-recognized by the 1970s. The internet as we understand it today took off 20 years later, with the rise of the World Wide Web and the availability of affordable modem technology.
With both innovations, access to information exploded. New emphases on print and digital literacy developed. And ideas, some of them radical, became freer to reach mass audiences than ever before.
How the Rise of the Internet Mirrored the Rise of the Printing Press
The printing press and the internet each contributed to two major information revolutions. Each greatly increased the amount of information in circulation, and each also increased the ease by which ordinary people could access that information.
Early Fears and Corresponding Restrictions
The more printed volumes exist in circulation, the easier it is for someone to acquire one. Printed information itself becomes a means by which to learn to read print. Thus, easier printing not only increased literacy rates but also access to new ideas.
In the 15th Century, the perceived consequences of easily spread ideas prompted some church officials to respond with restrictions nearly as soon as the printing press appeared:
- In 1491, Niccolò Franco, bishop of Trevino and papal legate to Venice, issued an order prohibiting the printing of materials that were not approved by the bishop or vicar-general of the diocese in which they were printed.
- In 1501, Pope Alexander VI issued similar orders, as Jonathon Green and Nicholas J. Karolides write in the “Encyclopedia of Censorship.”
When the World Wide Web launched in 1989, its creators had the opposite concern. They wanted to ensure that it remained freely and readily accessible. “I spent a lot of time trying to make sure people could put anything on the web, that it was universal,” World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee told The New York Times in a 2014 interview.
This ready accessibility, however, led to privacy and safety concerns from the start. Adults who saw their household’s first internet accounts appear during their childhood or teen years remember being admonished never to share personal information online. It’s also led to concerns about the quality of information available online, including from Berners-Lee himself.
“Obviously, I had no idea that people would put literally everything [online],” Berners-Lee says.
Changes in Literacy Rates and Information Access
“In the 14th century, 80 percent of English adults couldn’t even spell their names,” journalist Tatiana Schlossberg writes at McSweeney’s. “When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, only about 30 percent of European adults were literate.”
By 1650, however, 47 percent of European adults could read. By the mid-1800s, the number had risen to 62 percent. Today, the World Bank estimates a global literacy rate higher than 90 percent.
The rise of the internet did not so much improve print literacy as expand our definition of literacy to include collective meaning-making in a digital environment. “The Internet has become so pervasive that to be truly literate in 2006 demands some degree of technological fluency or at least familiarity,” Maureen Farrell wrote in Forbes at the time.
Nearly 15 years later, digital literacy is included in most primary and secondary school curricula. The American Library Association defines digital literacy as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.”
While the printing press was new technology for 15th century Europeans, the technical skills required to access the information it disseminated often required no more skill than opening a book’s cover. Yet user-friendly technology is making online information access easier, too — in some cases, as simple as swiping a screen or saying “Alexa, what is a giraffe?”
The Unintended Consequences of the Information Revolution(s)
Three decades after Pope Alexander VI condemned all non-church-authorized printed works, easily available print material played a key role in a major rebellion.
In the 1530s, a group of radical Lutherans attempted to establish a theocracy in the city of Münster. Jan Matthys, a Strausbourg baker and acolyte of Anabaptist end-times preacher Melchior Hoffmann, staged a rebellion in Münster, unseating the city’s ruler and re-baptizing its formerly Catholic inhabitants.
Matthys was eventually killed in a skirmish against the city’s former ruler, but Münster did not return to the control of its Catholic prince until 1535, when townspeople — starving due to siege — finally turned on the Protestant theocracy, as Caecilia Jane writes in The Historical Miscellany.
Matthys, however, would likely have found Münster a less welcoming place were it not for the printing press. The city’s Lutheran pastor, Bernhard Rothmann, gained the townspeople’s support for Matthys’s rebellion largely through writing, printing and disseminating pamphlets. The townsfolk, meanwhile, were in a receptive state of mind precisely because differences in religious viewpoints were increasingly disseminated, understood and tolerated thanks to the rise of printed materials that explored varying theological viewpoints.
Granted, the internet may not be turning your town council or HOA into a theocracy anytime soon. Nonetheless, it has played a key role in a number of political and social upheavals in recent years, including the Arab Spring of the early 2010s.
Tools like social media, video-sharing and blogs have been particularly vital, informing and organizing political groups far more quickly than word of mouth or print sources ever could.
Mass Literacy and Hope for the Future
The spread of the printing press vastly increased the amount of available information, the ability to persuade people to adopt one’s views, and the opportunities for individuals to learn more nuanced critical thinking skills.
More access to books changed the relationships between students and teachers, as well. “Young minds provided with updated editions, especially of mathematical texts, began to surpass not only their own elders but the wisdom of ancients as well,” E.L. Eisenstein writes in “The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.”
The same may be said of the internet. More information is available to anyone with a Web-capable device and the skills to use it today than at any previous moment in human history. The internet also makes it possible to create and disseminate information to others more quickly than ever before, a feature of which users have taken advantage: More than 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every day, Bernard Marr writes at Forbes.
The printing press created new pressures on audiences to evaluate, compare and think critically about information. Prior to its rise, most families owned no books at all, and those who did were likely to own only a Bible or prayer book. The printing press, however, made it possible to obtain Bibles in various translations, along with reams of commentary on that text — and on a host of other political, economic and social issues.
The internet makes it similarly possible to obtain varying viewpoints on any conceivable topic. The amount of information available on any one topic, however, is more than any one human can digest in a lifetime, making evaluation, comparison and critical thinking all the more important.
Books made it easier to learn what to think. The internet demands we ask “Why?” and “Wow?” to think, as well.
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