The Nieman Journalism lab has an interesting interview with Danish thinker Thomas Pettitt who argues that the internet might actually mark a return to a pre-Gutenberg society of sorts.
He posits the idea that the 15th-century to the 20th-century marked a sort of Gutenberg Parenthesis, an odd interregnum where print reigned supreme in our information culture.
Of course, prior to mass printing and literacy, information was spread more haphazardly through rumours, songs, poems, oral stories, etc. Printing changed this because books gave a solidity to facts that rumours spread orally didn’t.
From the piece:
And with regard to things like truth, or the things like the reliability of what you hear in the media, then I think, well, in a way we’re in for a bad time. Because there was a hierarchy. In the parenthesis, people like to categorize — and that includes the things they read. So the idea clearly was that in books, you have the truth. Because it was solid, it looked straight, it looked like someone very clever or someone very intelligent had made this thing, this artifact. Words, printed words — in nice, straight columns, in beautifully bound volumes — you could rely on them. That was the idea.
And then paperback books weren’t quite as reliable, and newspapers and newssheets were even less reliable. And rumors you heard in the street were the least reliable of all. You knew where you were — or you thought you knew where you were. Because the truth was that those bound books were probably no more truthful than the rumors you heard on the street, quite likely.
There are, of course, differences between 21st-century information culture and medieval Europe. Literacy and a lack of a central power (i.e. the Catholic Church) being two of them. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting idea and one that could shed a bit of light on our post-print age.