This week’s readings on the future of the internet seem deeply steeped in the utopianism of internet culture. This utopianism has always struck me as the most salient feature of writing about internet culture, especially by those authors who are more comfortable with the label “futurist” than I am. What we had, what we lost, what we could have, what are the threats … these are all questions that only make sense if you fundamentally assume that the internet has the potential to be a radical change agent. I know that this is a drum I’ve been beating all semester, but as a historian of print culture, I can’t help but seeing very strong echoes of much older conversations about the relationships between ideas, media, power, and social change.
When printing was a new technology in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, its radical potential both excited and scared people. The theological dissidents who were in the process of inventing modern Protestantism and the natural philosophers who were in the process of inventing modern science tended to see the press and the print media it enabled as tools for radical social improvement. Individual believers’ souls would be more effectively saved through large-scale and direct encounter with the word of God in mass-produced Bibles, and mankind’s knowledge of the natural world would be immeasurably enhanced when far-flung investigators could create an intellectual community in the pages of scientific journals. Their ultimate goals … a perfect Christian society and a complete description of nature … were no less utopian than the ultimate ends prophesied by modern futurists imagining a world of perfect data interconnectedness.
And like the modern internet, print also scared the powers-that-were. Governments, guilds, and churches tried to regulate the production and consumption of new media in order to guard traditional arenas of power. And most printers, far from being evangelists of a new society, were just trying to make a buck of an exciting new technology, and fought to preserve their ability to do so wherever they could, in the courts of kings and in the traditional governing institutions of their craft.
And the world did change (although how much it changed, and how much that change can be ascribed to the new medium of print, is a subject of hot debate in the field of the history of the book). But it certainly didn’t change in the way the utopians expected it to, unless we’re living in End Times with a perfect knowledge of nature and somehow I missed it. So although I found today’s reading interesting, I didn’t find it interesting as any kind of predictor of how the world will be in the era of full data interconnectedness. Instead, I found it interesting in what it says about us, now, which is that we yearn for relationships with each other and with our stuff that we control as much as humanly possible. And what else is new.