Last week we discussed the impact of “information revolutions” (e.g. the printing press, the internet) on the evolution of culture. A couple of you asked follow up questions, so I wanted to give a brief account of how this played out 500 years ago and some of the early impact today. (A lot of this is drawn from Diarmaid MacCulloch’s superb Reformation
, one of the top five books I read last decade
In an information revolution, a new medium displaces an old one - one around which a thicket of cultural practices and norms has built up. For example, before the printing press, the dominant medium was the laboriously copied manuscript. Manuscript cultures must privilege protecting knowledge; printing cultures privilege disseminating it. There’s also a displacement of time and talent: the people formerly allocated to copying are suddenly freed up to create. This self-perpetuates: if there’s more to read, the value and prestige of literacy increases. Bit by bit, a culture is transformed.
The internet’s cultural impact is as profound, above all in privileging speed of response to stimulus
. Ben Thompson’s excellent recent essay, Mistakes and Memes
, touches on this. He points to Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas,
which argues that the internet enabled a new kind of protest movement: fast but fragile, they have to succeed quickly or not at all. This, alas, also explains the growing power of political shamelessness: if you can ride out the first wave of outrage, you’re surprisingly resilient. It’s a big cultural change, and another example of the internet as a variance amplifying institution