The technopanic of today’s media would have prevented the printing press in the 15th century

The opposition towards contemporary technological advancements is common, but it never had such a powerful ally in mainstream media sources. Commentators in newsrooms should know that the mindset that now opposes Lyft, Uber, and Airbnb would have prevented the commercialization of the printing press, and would, therefore, have threatened their own existence.

Gutenberg’s Invention Caused a Controlled Technopanic

We all know the stories about the initial opposition to technological advancements, ranging from the wariness regarding the appearance of books to the rejection of railway travel due to distrust of the train’s immense speed.

When Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press, he revolutionized the way information was able to spread. Suddenly, it became realistic to mass produce information that had previously only been accessible to the privileged few. This was especially true for the distribution of the scripture, which until now had only been reserved for the members of the church.

In an exchange, documented in The Justification of Johann Gutenberg (Blake Morrison 2000), Gutenberg gets into a heated argument with the head monk in a monastery that has decided to expel him:

Gutenberg: ‘To help men and women be literate, to give them knowledge, to make books so cheap even a peasant might afford them: that is my hope, yes.’

[…]

Head monk: ‘The word of God needs to be interpreted by priests, not spread about like dung.’

Gutenberg: ‘I do not wish to despoil the Word.’

Head monk: ‘But it will happen. To hand it about to all and sundry is languorous, Would you have ploughmen and weavers debating the Gospel in taverns?’

Gutenberg: ‘If that is what they want to do.’

Head monk: ‘But what of the dangers? It would be like giving a candle to infants.’

Gutenberg: ‘Such copies we make of the Bible would first be for monasteries and churches.’

Head monk: ‘The Bible? You plan to make the Bible as well?’

Gutenberg: ‘I have considered it.’

With the appearance of Gutenberg’s printing press, rooms of monks were put out of work in perhaps the first technological layoff ever recorded. The copyist had to wonder: was their profession about to disappear? As a result, the printing press faced opposition:

Ironically, the uniformity of the copies of Gutenberg’s Bible led many superstitious people of the time to equate printing with Satan because it seemed to be magical. Printers’ apprentices became known as the “printer’s devil.” In Paris, Fust [a typographer] was charged as a witch. Although he escaped the Inquisition, other printers did not.” (The Unsung Heroes, a History of Print by Dr. Jerry Waite 2001)

History also shows that opposition towards the printing press was not everlasting. As Gutenberg’s bibles flooded the market, the Church recognized the potential of the printer when it came to spreading the word of God. Instead of leaving the bible to only those who belonged to the church, both Catholics and Protestants engaged in the battle of ideas by spreading mass-produced books as fast as they could.

The 18th-century Rotary Press Revolutionized the American Media Landscape

Until the invention of the rotary press by William Nicholson in 1790, it wasn’t technologically feasible to produce large amounts of newspapers. As a result, the American press mostly pandered to a very specific audience. For a good illustration of this, look at the list of defunct newspapers in the US.

Of those newspapers which did barely make it to the beginning of the 20th century – Nicholson’s press was commercialized in the 19th century – many spoke only to a certain population. They were papers such as Weekly Anglo-African, the Whig-affiliated New York Courier and Enquirer or the Freie Arbeiter Stimme, a Yiddish-language anarchist paper. This American model of the press gave the reader what he wanted to hear.

However, new printing mechanisms made it possible for newspapers to print thousands more copies in less time. As the pandering to a certain audience became unnecessary, reporters had to learn to write articles that could be considered neutral and unbiased. The “unbiased” reporter only emerged because the printing press made it economically feasible to do so.

Media Support of the Technopanic

It is very odd that journalists who live off the advancements of technological progress would be inclined to try and restrict it today.

The internet has made it possible for anyone to create a blog and report on news in his locality or comment on the actions of a politician with a clever editorial. However, instead of portraying this as a tremendous advancement, it almost seems like mainstream journalists are bemoaning a supposed devaluation of their efforts through the democratization of media.

The same goes for the sharing economy. Instead of celebrating the immense progress in the way that people connect and do business with each other, in reducing consumer prices and offering economic opportunities across the board, journalists are quick to jump on the scare train.

The Guardian newspaper has over 500 articles online addressing the topic of the ride-sharing service Uber, overwhelmingly calling for further restrictions of the application.

The British newspaper’s technophobia produces headlines such as: Tech is disrupting all before it – even democracy is in its sightsCapitalism’s claim to do good looks shaky if there’s little to prevent it doing harm, or The dark side of Uber: why the sharing economy needs tougher rules.

Centuries ago it was the rare intellectual who had a vested interest in restricting the proliferation of books. After all, who would need their wisdom when information could be gathered on simple paper? Much later, the classical copyists opposed the commercialization of the printing press, because they believed that it would render them irrelevant (even though they later knew better). After all, who would need their skills if every fool could make a book?

Today, various actors profit off the restriction on technological advancements. Modern journalists should keep the history of their profession in mind, and not make themselves the advocates for technological conservatism.


This article was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education.

Pictures are Creative Commons.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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