How We Got Here: The Printing Press Changed What it Means to be Human

In Eisenstein’s text The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, I found her thesis that basic human nature was transformed by the invention and proliferation of the printing press and its products.  Not only was our culture profoundly changed, we as people, what we think and do has been ultimately and irreversibly transformed.

She says, “instead of coupling the advent of printing with other innovations or regarding it as an example of some other development, we must single it out as an event which was sui generis and to which conventional models of historical change cannot be applied”. (p. 128).  She asserts that not only was the printing press responsible for a revolution in early modern Europe, it is so unique that it cannot be understood like we have come to understand any other previous invention.  Its ramifications are ubiquitous in our culture to the point that it has radically transformed us and the way we understand ourselves and our world.

She goes on to say that the printing press cannot be examined as the simple catalyst for changes in our society because it actually reinvented society.  I believe she is also saying that it has reinvented what it means to be human.  Our entire world has changed.  “One cannot treat printing as just one among many elements in a complex causal nexus, for the communications shift transformed the nature of the causal nexus itself. It is of special historical significance because it produced fundamental alterations in prevailing patterns of continuity and change.” (p. 308).

She cautions us to not listen to the arguments of technology oppositionists.  She says their argument falls moot since they use the very technology to further their principles that they are criticizing.  “ On this point one must take strong exception to the views expressed by humanists who carry their hostility to technology so far as to deprecate the very tool which is most indispensible to the practice of their own crafts.” (p. 308).

All intellectual and spiritual thought has been completely transformed by the printing press.  We don’t think in ways we used to think before its invention and use.  Since the printing press provided for the ubiquitous spread of knowledge and ideas, our actual thought life has changed with not only access to these new ideas, but because of the very manner in which we had access to the ideas.  Things are possible that weren’t previously possible.  The way we understand our world is different.  Even spiritual thought has been transformed as the printing press affected the way Western Christians understood God.  “Intellectual and spiritual life, far from remaining unaffected, were profoundly transformed by the multiplication of new tools for duplicating books in fifteenth-century Europe.  The communications shift altered the way Western Christians viewed their sacred book and the natural world.  It made the words of God appear more multiform and His handiwork more uniform.  The printing press laid the basis both for literal fundamentalism and for modern science.  It remains indispensible for humanistic scholarship.  It is still responsible for our museum without walls.” (p.309).

If the printing press can alter our very epistemology it is very interesting to think what the effects will be with our transition to a digital communications culture.  Will the digital shift change not only our thinking, but our way of being?  It is already having an effect on our socialization.  Will our biology change?

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