Friday, October 12, 2007

The Flow of Information, or: Culture, Shmulture

(Warning: Long Post Ahead)

Having been to two workshop-format writing conferences this year, I've been studying the differences, trying to put my finger on why one was so different from the other. It wasn't until I was home for a few days that I realized why.

Viable Paradise is a workshop for up and coming speculative fiction writers, designed to give you the tools you need to polish up your writing and get it published. The talks are entertaining, practical, and incredibly useful, and the faculty are amazingly available in every way. You can pick their brains, play games that make you all laugh your fool head off, or simply sit around and talk, and they participate actively in all of it. This, in itself, is a world away from the "literary" workshop I attended earlier this year, where the teachers seemed mostly to socialize with each other, not with the students (in their defense, I will say the literary conference was mu-u-uch larger than Viable Paradise, and individual teachers were teaching separate classes).

The two things that struck me most about VP were the intellectual quality of the conversation - on far-reaching topics - and the feeling that everyone was technically savvy, with a strong awareness of modern culture and its modes of communication. Everyone had laptops, email, blogs, myspace pages and so on; everyone followed the far-reaching implications of the electronic culture. Most people were, in the truest and best sense of the word, geeks. And the most interesting thing, for me, was the diversity of backgrounds, of day-jobs, of interests. Everyone there wanted to write; everyone was good at it; but writing wasn't a complete and total end in itself. It wasn't the one and only thing people wanted or knew how to do, and that was all right.

The "literary" conference on the other hand, was subtlely different. Of the writers that were invited to teach, all were accomplished authors. They mostly had MFAs and were very good at critiquing writing, good at the underlying motivations of your characters, at the techniques and metaphors in writing literary fiction. But very few of them participated in electronic culture-making. Of the agents and publishers who were brought in to talk about agenting and publishing, very few of them really looked at the Web much. Some of them didn't have email addresses. None of them understood, or had even thought about, the relevance of blogging.

The experience I had, the feeling of a slight flatness, was largely due to the unspoken agenda at the conference, which was pointed toward traditional publishing as the only way to be successful; anything else was lesser, and didn't count. In fact, I got the feeling that most people didn't even think about it. When I told people about this blog, they nodded their heads and said "Ah," and I knew if they looked at it, it would be cursory, if at all.

Cory Doctorow, of BoingBoing fame (among many other things), gave a talk at VP about writing practices, and part of his lecture was devoted to his campaign for Creative Commons and the loosening of copyright laws. He pointed out, among other things, that the electronic exchange of information is a creative endeavor, essentially a cultural exchange, and that by the "conversations" we have, the way we share our interests and discoveries, we are actually building culture, just as people used to talk to each other and pass books back and forth, or travel to culturally-rich cities to participate in the exchange of ideas. His point is that by instituting draconian copyright laws, and by enforcing them in arbitrary and pointless ways, the cultural capitalists of our time are suppressing the development of culture.

Because think about it: those culturally-significant cities can now be expressed in terms of online loci, places where people of intellectual similarity and interest gather to discuss the ideas of the day. If, like the Rennaissance man who travels to Florence with a trunk full of books he picked up in Germany, they pass around what they've found, then more people are enlightened, more people know about those books and those ideas, and it enriches the culture. The demand for those books and ideas goes up. We all evolve a little.

Around 1452, religious documents begin to be printed on a movable-type press, invented by one Johannes Gutenberg. The press was a trade secret of Gutenberg's, which he lost to Johann Fust in a lawsuit, resulting in a loss of secrecy which was to have stunning repercussions on European culture. It takes less than two years from this lawsuit for non-religious texts (not books) to begin to appear, and less than three years for another press to appear on the scene. By 1461, books are being printed in local languages; by 1469, the first printing monopoly is granted in Venice. By 1475, printing presses are cranking out books across Europe. And guess what? By 1484, Turks are prohibited from operating printing presses by their own sultan. And so it begins.

Jeremy M. Norman, in his incredibly complete timeline From Gutenberg to the Internet, based on his book of the same name, tells about events that occured at around the same time as Gutenberg was first printing his indulgences for the Church:

"1493: Using European artillery experts and European artillery, the Ottoman Turks break Constantinople's wall, and capture the city, ending the reign of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Constantinople's roll [sic] as the capitol of the Byzantine Empire. Numerous Byzantine scholars travel westward to Europe bringing with them Greek manuscripts of the highest cultural value."

You can see what was out there, waiting to pounce on Gutenberg's invention: hundreds of scholarly works, painstakingly copied and transported, just aching to be broadcast to the thinking populace. In economic terms, the market was hot. It's hard to blame Gutenberg for wanting to keep his invention to himself (or his investor for wanting to have it himself): the thing was a gold mine.

Norman goes on to say:

"[By 1500] printing presses are established in more than 250 cities in Europe. The average print run of a book is between 400-500 copies, with as many as 1000 copies of some books being printed. By this date it is estimated that printers issued from 27,000 to 35,000 different printed works of all kinds, including pamphlets and broadsides as well as books, with a total printed output of somewhere around 15 to 20 million copies.Aldus Manutius of Venice issues an edition of Virgil in Italic type designed by Francesco Griffo. This is the first book printed in Italic type, an adaptation of the best humanist script of the time. Italic type may also have the advantage of having a higher character count, allowing more information to be printed legibly in less space than Roman or Gothic type. Aldus' edition of Virgil is the first of a series of volumes that he issues in the pocket or octavo format. This smaller format had previously been used for editions of devotional texts. Aldus is the first to use the smaller format to make non-devotional literature available in the smaller, more portable format, and at lower cost. Both the Italic type and the smaller format will be rapidly emulated by printers all over Europe."

When Trithemius became Abbot at Sponheim in 1482 there were 40 works present in the library; by 1505 he had expanded the library to 2000 volumes.

This means that within fifty years of Gutenberg's first eye-twinkle, at a time when the population of Europe was only 50 million, the number of books being printed was in the millions, with new formats developing all the time. The total flow of information was expanding exponentially. In Germany and other northern countries, the printing press was instrumental in the Protestant movement not only by the translation of the Bible into German but by transmission of controversial material (think of Martin Luther nailing a copy of his 95 Theses on the door of the church in 1517: how did everyone find out about that?).

Not surprisingly, given these fulminations, in 1538 Henry VIII issued a decree that all new books printed in England must be approved by the Privy Council before publication. He was followed within three decades by many other countries and principalities, and it's not until 1641 that Henry's decree is rescinded, at which point there is an outpouring of printed works from all across England. The government, seeing this, attempted to once again set up a censor, and instead were greeted with an outpouring of political responses, printed in newsbill or handbill form, speaking out against the new censorship. It was too late: the wellspring had begun. The underground presses were up and running: where there is perceived oppression there will always be perceived subversion.

I was interested to see how the invention of the printing press coincided with the Rennaissance and its eventual movement into later ages of exploration and intellectual advancement (and Wunderkammern, of course). The European Rennaissance is commonly held to have begun in Italy in the fourteenth century, and moved on to the rest of Europe by the fifteenth century and onwards into the 17th century, where culture underwent a sea-change with the Age of Enlightenment. "Renaissance thinkers sought out learning from ancient texts, typically written in Latin or ancient Greek. Scholars scoured Europe's monastic libraries, searching for works of antiquity which had fallen into obscurity. In such texts they found a desire to improve and perfect their worldly knowledge; an entirely different sentiment to the transcendental spirituality stressed by medieval Christianity. They did not reject Christianity; quite the contrary, many of the Renaissance's greatest works were devoted to it, and the Church patronized many works of Renaissance art. However, a subtle shift took place in the way that intellectuals approached religion that was reflected in many other areas of cultural life." [wiki]

So the Gutenberg press came in at exactly the right time, when the new way of thinking was thoroughly entrenched and books were the most important way of moving information around. Before, people were forced to either travel to where books were or get their information transmitted via letter from associates who had the book and could pass on the information. Scientific and mathematical discoveries were often limited to a locality, or even to the person who revealed them in isolation, unless it was written down in a book and the book was allowed to travel. Movement of knowledge and culture was slow, at best, and the retention of information (books and scrolls) was difficult and depended on collectors (churches and nobility) to keep them safe and copy them when needed. And yet, the movement of information has always, despite the hardships, been inexorable, part of being human. Part of our social interaction.

Recent history left us with an impoverished outlet for this sociality. Cheap movies are disappearing fast: the theatres that once showed vintage or second rate films - where you could go with your friends, paying very little to be out checking out the scene, meeting other people, and imbibe some culture - are gone, replaced instead by videos, which people watch at home. So how do people meet each other now? Via the social networks on the Web. Cheap books and comic books, which before the 1980s were commonplace in every corner market, are now pretty much gone, so authorship now is akin to stardom; writers must brand themselves to get the much-competed for publishing spaces, which means that the unheard ones out there must look elsewhere for their recognition. Guess where they go? The Web, of course.

The Opte map of the Internet

Sometimes, information is blessed by the ruling party of the time, as for example when Ptolemy III of Egypt decreed that "all visitors to the city were required to surrender all books and scrolls in their possession; these writings were then swiftly copied by official scribes. Sometimes the copies were so precise that the originals were put into the Library, and the copies were delivered to the unsuspecting previous owners." [wiki] But for the most part, government and commerce has always had a hand in the limitations of information flow. And there have always been those who speak out against it, for which we should be grateful, because if you take away the ability of a culture to pass along the things which are important, you doom to obscurity culturally important things, while allowing short-term thinking to decide what is retained.

It is clear is that people will glom onto what is culturally important for the era, whether it is recognized by industry or not. Look at how people are now using the Internet to publish their own texts, their own music. Look how, despite the fact that businesses continue to do everything they can to make certain that any production of culture must be paid for, people continue to risk being prosecuted for the "criminal" offense of passing information about good things to their friends. Do you think they would take that risk if they didn't like the content? Unlikely. The passing of information is very much like water: it can't be compressed. Crack down hard, push on it all you want, and it will squirt out the edges.

What I am hoping for is that this new way of socializing, of creating culture, will lead in the same direction that Gutenberg was able to facilitate: the blossoming of knowledge, a new way of being creative and interacting with our fellow people. A new degree of literacy New discovery. Perhaps, like the two siblings who speak on the Net in the Ender books, a few intelligent voices will come forth on the Web to lead us out of this mess. Not only people like Cory Doctorow, who believe in the free transmission of culture, but people who are able to lead us to new ways of thinking, will show us new ways of looking at the knowledge we already have. Help us evolve.

It's certainly the reason why I'm here. I want to be here when they emerge.

Links of interest:
Wikipedia article on the spread of printing, which took me awhile to find.

Interesting website with videos talking about the origins of writing and how it spread. Click on the head of DaVinci for a short and interesting video about why the alphabet is important, how it led to Gutenberg, and so on.

1 comment:

Marisa said...

This is one of my favorite posts on your blog. Thank you so much for this!

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