The Internet vs. the printing press: am I wrong?

Blogren, Berkterns and others, I need your advice.

I’m taking a class on the social impact of mass media. Tonight we discussed the printing press, and how print lends — now less than before, but I think it still applies — a legitimacy to thought that ideas that haven’t been committed to paper lack.

Someone suggested that all new forms of media give increased levels of authority to the ideas they transmit — not just print, but radio and television as well.

I argued that this rule doesn’t hold for the Internet, and I was promptly shot down by a surprisingly large number of people in the class. Their points were:

  • The Internet isn’t a grand democratic commons. It’s highly elite.
  • People do believe everything they read on the Internet. One example was a newspaper in Bangladesh reprinting a full article from The Onion, not understanding that it was a joke.

I concede the first point. The Internet is definitely not a perfectly democratic commons, though I maintain that, compared to the highly expensive, highly rare (not to mention extremely heavy) printing press, it is far more accessible to the average citizen, whether we’re speaking domestically or globally. Though it requires access to a computer, Internet access can often be had cheaply or for free through government programs or at public libraries or Internet cafés.

More importantly, the cost of publication and distribution online is so comparatively small — and the amount of information published and distributed so comparatively great — that I believe it’s disingenuous to say that the Internet and the printing press endow ideas with the same authority. Being exceedingly careful to avoid value judgements, I submit that the blog is a very different beast than the Bible.

As for the second point, I would argue that the confusion over what is and is not a legitimate source online stems more from cultural — and here I include generational — differences than from a sense that all things online are true. Expecting accurate cross-cultural interpretations of satire is demanding quite a lot from journalists whose native language is likely not English, as is expecting accurate assessments of spam from someone who still thinks it comes in a can.

So. Am I totally wrong? And if so, why? I was born the same year Apple introduced the Macintosh and got my first e-mail account in sixth grade, so my knowledge of the Internet is primarily first-hand, rather than scholarly. Any articles to which you can refer me would be greatly appreciated, but I’m also looking for personal opinions. When did you first access the Internet? How? Where? Why? What did you think?

The comments are open, folks. Looking forward to your thoughts.

  • Jen

    Just found your website… which is awesome! I’m about to join the Ugandan community after 5 years in Morocco. Your blog is helping me get up to speed on what to expect.

    I read an article a couple of days ago, which is slightly related to the content of your post. I thought it might be of interest.

  • Diogo

    I agree with Jeremy Clarke

  • artclectic

    Don't know where you are on this question/issue, but I liked some of the things Clay Shirky and Ethan Zuckerman had to say on Tuesday.

  • Bill Bushey

    Since the Internet, especially web 2.0, allows for far more communication between audience and 'speaker', as well as among the audience itself, a vetting process exists on the Internet that doesn't really exist in print, radio, or TV. Users can find weakness with anything that is posted and voice their concerns, with the hope of either achieving a change in what has been published or a consensus among users that what has been published is not legitimate. This has been the argument behind a few of my favorite children of the Internet, wikis and the open source movement. These systems, like the Internet in general, operate like the field of science. They involve a continues process of improvement and judgment, so their products tend to be legitimate in the best effort sense ("this is the best theory/article/software we can create with the resources currently available.") Print, radio, and TV don't offer this level of rigor; their test for legitimacy lies in a single entity, such as an editor or a producer.

    Its funny to see that while I agree with the class's conclusion I am also thoroughly against their arguments: the Internet's democratic nature is the very characteristic that increases its legitimacy and this characteristic requires a skeptical audience. Further, the idea that people more readily believe everything they see on the Internet strikes me as naive.

  • artclectic

    I agree with Jeremy Clarke and pupil on two closely related points: 1) efficient systems of production and distribution serve legitimize ideas. I would add that this is often true whether the ideas are truly legitimate or not (the "truthiness" factor). 2) Scrutiny serves to continually mitigate production and distribution and publicly measure legitimacy. If internet as a medium allows for broader production and distribution of ideas, it stands to reason that increased scrutiny would lead to heightened legitimacy, but that chafes the brain a bit. After all, haven't print media also enjoyed broader scrutiny and changing forms of distribution because of the internet?

    I think you can stick with your point for the sake of exploring this notion that peer review in either medium ultimately lends authority to ideas in the production of knowledge/truth/power. Gramsci wrote about the consensual aspects of hegemony. Foucault took the position that authority based on consensus (or at least NOT on total fear) was stronger than domination based on force. Chomsky's notion of "the manufacture of consent" might speak more directly about the structures and social means of knowledge production. Why not rely on these three generations of social theory to bolster an argument that social impact is only partly about medium and most importantly about the how publicly an idea can be vetted?

    Food for thought: most doctoral dissertations have to be publicly vetted during the oral portion of a defense. How much would a change of medium (say, to a completely internet-based process) change things? …and I'm not just talking about getting a Ph.D. at the University of Phoenix online 😉

  • jeremy clarke

    Its hard to compare these media and their effects because they inherently enfold each other.

    What the printing press did was create a system for sending thoughts and ideas out en masse. This increased their effectiveness drastically. It also proved that the creator had the resources to print their thoughts, which while cheaper than scribes copying it by hand must still have been way beyond anyone even moderately wealthy.

    I think the added legitimacy was in large part based on accessibility. Things we say into the night don't have legitimacy because we can't even prove we said them. When something is available in a static form you can check it later to make sure it's still true, you can also obviously share it more easily with other people to convince them.

    TV and the radio, IMHO, fall more than anything into the realm of power = legitimacy. Both require monolithic investment and infrastructure as well as (in current Earthling societies) permission from governments to use spectrum or build infrastructure. I think most people would agree that while TV/Radio are more popular than print, its not because they're more legitimate, but because they are higher resolution and more exciting. The Newspaper and news-magazine are still the most esteemed members of the media.

    To then compare the whole mess to the internet is complicated by the fact that the internet IS a printing press in almost every way (and a TV, and a Radio etc). So yeah, if you just say it its not as real as if you blog it, just like with paper. What you need to do is consider how the internet is different from or adds to old media.

    To me a diary/blog comparison is useful. The blog has more legitimacy because its kept in the public where it can be constantly scrutinized. If you're wrong on your blog you need to deal with the reputational fallout. If your diary is wrong or embarrassing you just keep it to yourself, but if you predict something in your diary you might show it off afterward without risk. The fact that the internet lets people do textual/media "thinking" in the open that would otherwise have been private makes those thoughts more legitimate and gives them potential power that would have been impossible before.

    The internet does lend legitimacy to documents published to it. Not inherently obviously, as things written on the internet can be as worthless as barfights (or worse, they can be YouTube comments), but at least in the interactive world of web 2.0 the internet makes it possible for the readership of some text to assert their faith in the creator. By commenting, 'like'ing, digging or following creators we inherently give them legitimacy that can easily and viscerally be checked by anyone curious. On some level this is also true of books, tv etc insofar as viewership and best-seller lists lend legitimacy, but in those venues you need to already have a huge investment in printing/broadcasting (or sell out to someone who does) to participate.

    The internet doesn't lend immediate legitimacy to works published to it, but it offers a system where legitimacy can be democratically determined by the consuming public. It also obviously offers the chance to speak to a much wider segment of the population who otherwise would little to no opportunity to gain legitimacy. Thus compared to the average 'user' of books, TV, movies or radio, it offers a much greater potential legitimacy to anyone who chooses to switch from consumer to creator.

    To whoever said the internet isn't democratic but instead elite all I have to say is this: Does baby wish they had more Twitter followers?

    DISCLAIMER: User since '97. Online publisher since '03. Made my fame and fortunes on these wacky tubes.

  • Rebekah

    Thanks for the comments – v. helpful so far. Keep it coming, please!

  • pupil
  • Mjay

    For the average person in Uganda, internet is still a luxury. We live and die by the news papers (for the most part). The younger generations are more internet survey but even then we seem to trust the paper more. I first used the internet in my last year at university,now I can't live without it. It's bigger, more detailed, I can flip through different view on the same topic in one sitting but I think for Africa, print is around for the foreseeable future.

  • pupil
  • Joey Mornin

    On the first point: when the printing press first appeared in Europe, it was used mainly to print new editions of existing texts. It didn't suddenly democratize the pool of authors and publishers. Its influence was first felt in the proliferation of relatively uniform editions and the possibility for readers/scholars (still a rather elite few) to own private copies.

    I also think that many works from early European printing presses (~1450–1600?) derived their legitimacy from their pedigree, not their medium. I don't think it's true that a new work printed with mechanical type would have considered more authoritative than Aristotle copied out by a scribe.

    On the second point: I'm not surprised that some, cultural differences aside, believe most of what they read online. But since there are such big differences in internet access and fluency with the tools, I'm not sure it's possible to draw general conclusions about what "people" think about truthiness online.

  • pupil

    Permit me to ramble kneejerkedly. Re your starting point that "print lends…a legitimacy to thought that ideas that haven't been committed to paper lack": I'm not sure that print+paper per se is what is doing the lending here but rather institutional and cultural systems of legitimation, production, and dissemination (think, for instance, of editors and publishers, etc., and the way in which oral culture comes to be devalued externally, as it were). Those kinds of systems obtain, more or less, in other media as well. The question becomes to what extent the networkness of the Net forces a new set of systems for legitimation and authority. At an angle to this, David Weinberger debated Andrew Keen a couple of years back. Sorry for the response choppiness (if I don't tap it out off the cuff, I won't get to it at all). Cheers.