I decided to write this post after reading a few recent articles and blog comments that went something like-
The ongoing diminution in the importance of physical libraries and paper books is a great loss to ‘civilization, since only printed books can impart ‘true’ knowledge and encourage ‘critical’ thinking.
The implication of such views is that information and viewpoints transmitted (or accessed) via the internet are somehow less trustworthy and more superficial than those found in ‘real’ books. While it is possible to partially sympathize with people suffering from nostalgia, these beliefs need to be challenged and exposed for the lies they really are. So let us begin.. One of the popular myths among people from an older generation is that the printed word encouraged critical thinking since it was more subversive than what is readily available on the internet. But is it true? I think not! If anything..
The printed word was almost never subversive.
All written content, and ideas, start with an author who decides to write them up. However his work is also almost certain be ignored and forgotten if others cannot access it. In the pre-internet age, you had only one avenue to get your works read by more than a few other people.
Your work had to be accepted, printed and distributed by people who owned printing presses and the channels of book distribution.
This was necessary because physically printing a large number of books, magazines or even booklets required a costly and specific infrastructure dedicated to the production and distribution of printed materiel. Since the vast majority of authors did not own the means of content reproduction and content distribution, they were pretty much at the mercy of those who owned or were employed by such entities. This particular relationship had an obvious, though rarely discussed, effect on the type of material that was eventually published.
Authors had poor control over what they could write about- if they ever wanted to be published.
There were only so many publishers (big and small) and word of mouth advertising did not help independents like it does in our connected era. Furthermore, repeated letters of rejection from publishing houses did help you pay bills or buy food. Therefore it goes without saying that most writers who have been ever published, let alone promoted, dis so because they wrote about subjects or ideas that were acceptable to those who owned the means of book production and distribution.
While a few iconoclasts and subversives did get published- it was usually due to their wealth or previous fame. Infrequently such work was also published because it supported not yet mainstream but ascendent ideological causes. However the vast majority of people with disruptive or heretical ideas that challenged the status quo never got an audience larger than a few local readers who read their pamphlets. The reality is that most published authors throughout human history have been butt-boys for the established rich and powerful or a rival ascendant faction.
Famous authors and renowned scholars from previous eras were, therefore, the intellectual equivalents of ugly and desperate prostitutes who had to work extra hard for pleasing their clients.
What do you think? Comments?
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