In the 15th Century, a monk by the name of Johannes Trithemius published a text called De laude scriptorum manualism — “In Praise of Scribes.” Trithemius’ ironic piece (yes, irony existed before the 1990s) attacked the newest and latest invention representing the most innovative and most intriguing example of human ingenuity to date: Gutenberg’s printing press.
Trithemius recognized the virtue of the invention and how the printing press narrowed the knowledge gap between everyman and scholar, but the abbot noticed that the invention produced a secondary affect that could alter societal roles for centuries to come.
Although the printing press brought learning to the masses and shifted power away from religious institutions towards more secular ones, Trithemius remarks that the printing press also replaces the primary role of a monk — their devotion to the written word as lifelong scribes of religious texts. Trithemius feared mediocrity in religious study and the same for textual works churned out by the mass-production machine. He foresaw a world where the commoner would dilute and sully the written word, as well one in which religious leaders became lazy and ignorant regarding important holy texts.
Gutenberg’s invention allowed the commoner to partake in the efficiently stored informational power of text. Before the press — before the written word, even — society relied upon wisdom and experience for knowledge. When two landowners argued about rights over a piece of land, the oldest member of the village would be called upon for his wisdom. With the advent of written language, the Church amassed tremendous by becoming the primary source for information — religious or secular — due to its monopoly over text. The printing press changed all this, empowering the commoner to capitalize on previously inaccessible knowledge. This is what Trithemius feared the most: that the layman controlling information would result in an diminishing of higher levels of understanding and communication and a slow descent to the inferior.
In the 21st Century, we have the internet, which makes the printing press look like small potatoes. This incredible technology has in turn given us social networks. If there is any shining example of the Trithemius’ fears materializing in our society, it’s my current Facebook feed. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not passing judgement on my current FB friends; salt of the digital earth, they are. Hell, I’m as guilty as anyone else when it comes to posting links to funny videos or news stories, tagging pictures of my friends in various acts of lunacy or proper parenting and checking-in to local hotspots in an endless eBrag. Like so many other humans being, I took an immediate dive into social networking and have been treading water ever since.
My Friendster page began in 2002 and lasted a whole two weeks before I forgot my login and never returned. The MySpace flirtation started in ’03 and continued for years — a hot cyber-mess of bands I liked, people I had successfully dodged until that point, and surveys suggested to me by friends (I actually miss those surveys. Yo Zuck, bring surveys to Facebook!). My FB page launched in 2006 and my account on Reddit turns a whopping two this winter (3200 link karma and 15,000 comment karma thankyouverymuch).
I had a Google+ account for awhile too. I think I still do. Surely I’m out there in someone’s circle.
It’s been a decade since I began social networking. The Millennials I teach often take credit for social networking, but they were six-years old when I posted my first status update or received a comment notification. I’ve rode the paradigm shift of social networking as an active participant since its birth. And this year, it becomes a fifth grader.
But I’m not really celebrating. For some reason I expected our brave new cyber society to be different than this — or at least more evolved. I remember recognizing the possibility of this. . . thing. . . this amorphous technological behemoth, at its inception. I couldn’t help but imagine that social networking would bring users to the forefront of news services, unite doctors and researchers to cure the plagues of our time, and, perhaps someday, replace creaky government structures by inspiring direct civic engagement at a scale that was hitherto impossible.
Technologically speaking, social networking has advanced tenfold since its inception. The conversation and user exchange, not so much. The Trithemiusian Effect has come to define much of new media, and there’s not a lot to be done about it. Maybe we’re not ready for this power. Maybe, when information is democratized, when placed in reach of the common man, it ultimately becomes devalued.
Regardless of how shiny and user-friendly a social networking website appears, no matter how much the marketing teams emphasize capabilities and whether the pundit class plays up the importance such sites play in our globally-networked world, they all end up reflecting the same mediocrity. Trithemius understood something about human beings that we have yet to fully internalize: when broadly available to the larger body politic, information always moves to the middle ground.
Here’s an ego blow: we are not so cutting-edge as a species. Not compared to machines, anyway. Despite technology evolving at such a rate that what is taught to a second-year undergraduate studying computer science becomes obsolete by the time he or she receives his or her diploma, we as humans evolve much more slowly — if at all. We are the same creatures from Trithemius’ time. We want information as fast as we can get it, we want the resulting power that we get from this information, and we want our ideas to be heard — it’s the same mentality from back in the 15th century, so why would we expect anything different now? Why should we expect our Facebook feeds to be much different than those on our Friendster pages? Why should we expect human communication to be of a more enlightened sort than we did ten years ago?
Or 600 years ago?
Scholars differ, but many argue the Golden Age of the printing press did not come to be until the Humanist Movement around the mid-16th century, some hundred years after the creation of Gutenberg’s invention — Trithemius was no longer around to see it bloom. Social networking is only ten years old, meaning that it’s 1449 by Facebook standards — Columbus hasn’t even set sail for the New World yet. No one knows what social networking will eventually become when it reaches its own Golden Age, I only hope that technology evolves quick enough that I can see it — and that humans do the same.
Now, if you excuse me, I have to post this column to my Facebook feed. And, like Trithemius, the irony is not lost to me.