Are we living through a media revolution like the one that occurred in the mid-15th century?

Are we living through a media revolution like the one that occurred in the mid-15th century? For those of us interested in the history of information this may be a one of the most intriguing and challenging questions, and one that might be considered so overly broad that it is very difficult to answer in any definitive way. I was initially motivated to build in an attempt to confirm or deny in an authoritative manner whether the transition since 1945 from a world in which information was predominately recorded, distributed and stored on paper to the world that we are presently experiencing, in which information is primarily created, distributed and stored in digital form, may be compared to what occurred in the mid-15th century after Gutenberg invented printing by movable type. As is well known, between the years 1455 and the end of the 15th century, printing by movable type caused information that previously had been predominately recorded, distributed and stored by manuscript copying to transition to a world in which information was predominately distributed and stored in printed form. In 2005 I published an essay in my sourcebook on the history of information technology, From Gutenberg to the Internet, that asserted as much. The book was a result of several years of research on the history of computing, and while I knew that my research on computing had been thorough, and I had had been dealing in rare books and manuscripts for decades, I had not spent that much time studying the history of books, printing and related subjects. I concluded that I had not provided sufficient evidence to back up my assertion, and that I had undoubtedly glossed over key details. I also suspected that I might have been wrong to make the comparison, since logic would say that comparing events 500 years apart must be problematic, and I thought that further research would help settle the matter. This motivated me to begin years of research on the history of books, printing, and the history of information and media in general. The more I studied these subjects the more I wanted to learn. For me the history of information is a lens through which to view many aspects of history. Because I have always learned best through writing, building became a way to explore and study many aspects of the past.

As I built out the timeline database, from time to time I attempted to improve my answer to the question by writing drafts of lengthy essays on my website. In retrospect, becoming immersed in the details tended to complicate rather than clarify my judgment on the larger question. Sometimes I held the position that the comparison between the information revolution of the 15th century and our time was valid, and from time to time I thought the changes in so many social and technological factors over five centuries, many of which are documented in, made the comparison too complicated to support. Later I took a more conciliatory approach, thinking that a comparison was valid, but only by analogy since there were too many differences between occurrences 500 years apart. Twenty years after I embarked on this research project, after I have absorbed and documented the details in the 5000-plus entries in the database, I am confident of my understanding of the problem, and I concluded that the answer to this very general question is less dependent upon the innumerable details that you will find in than on how we define cultural or scientific revolutions. Therefore, with the help of the database to supply facts as needed, the question can be answered briefly.

To express my thoughts on this matter I have incorporated links primarily to entries within as a way of providing details and examples to support my argument. They are often arbitrary selections from many entries in the database that would support similar conclusions. By doing so I have substantially compressed an essay that would otherwise require many more pages if the examples to which I have linked, and other examples, had to be incorporated into a narrative. Linking to the database in this way also illustrates a few of the innumerable ways in which may be used.

The “scientific revolution” is usually understood as occurring in the 16th century. Works by Andreas Vesalius, Leonhard Fuchs, and especially Nicolaus Copernicus, published between 1542 and 1543 are typically cited as evidence that the scientific revolution was underway. In 1962 the historian of science and philosopher Thomas Kuhn published a philosophical and historical sociological work in which he provided an analysis of features of scientific revolutions in general entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In this work Kuhn showed that revolutions in science are not clean replacements of one theory with another like many political revolutions, such as the American revolution in which monarchy by Britain was replaced by democracy. Instead Kuhn promoted the concept of paradigm to describe the shift in consensus that scientific revolutions involve as “universally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions for a community of practitioners” 1 As Kuhn wrote, changes in consensus do not eliminate prior theories and understanding. One of the best examples of this is how the theory of evolution by natural selection, as propounded by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858, still remains unaccepted by significant numbers of people, including some scientists, even after an enormous amount of scientific evidence has accumulated to support it in the 160 years since it was first published. In addition, scientific evidence continues to accumulate for the competing theory, Lamarckism.

Another paradigm shift occurred in the Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther beginning in 1517. This is sometimes characterized as a revolution because it created a new religious paradigm for many Christians through Protestantism, even though it did not replace the Catholic Church. Luther’s adroit exploitation of the new media of printing for the promotion and distribution of his views through his prolific publications in the vernacular has been credited as a crucial factor in the success of the Reformation. With respect to the invention and development of printing by movable type in the mid- 15th century, the Catholic Church, not an institution that typically rapidly embraced radical change, became a proponent of the new technology almost immediately. As extensively documents, like Judaism and Islam, Christianity has been a “religion of the book” since the composition of the Gospels. Even though as early as 1471 church authorities worried about loss of control over what their literate parishioners could read caused by the rapid spread of printing, the church also recognized the huge advantage of the new technology to distribute more religious information to more people faster and at lower cost. Because the church and its schools was the primary market for books in the first decades of printing the first books printed by Gutenberg and the first generations of printers included many religious treatises and other works used in education in Christian schools, some of which, like the several very early printed editions of the Latin grammar by Donatus, were literally almost read out of existence. Obvious examples of the extensive church support of the earliest printers were the establishment of the first press in Italy in the monastery of Subiaco, and the establishment of the first press in England by William Caxton in Westminster Abbey. By 1500 printing presses were established in 282 cities in Europe, and while there is no way to quantify the exact percentage of information that was being recorded, distributed and stored through print relative to what remained being recorded, distributed and stored through manuscript copying, or just recorded in a single copy on paper, it is obvious that a book printed in 300-1000 copies or more would have a faster and wider, and cheaper distribution than a book or pamphlet which had to be painstakingly copied, a single copy at a time, by hand. Relative to the total amount of information flow, printing was the dominant medium by 1500, if not earlier, even though, to a gradually diminishing extent, manuscript copying persisted.

Ignoring the thousands of intermediate developments between the 15th and 20th centuries documented in, and travelling more than five hundred years forward to the date the first electronic computer, the ENIAC became operational in 1945— coincidentally the year in which I was born— we may observe that computing did not begin to become truly pervasive in society until roughly fifty years later with the development of the personal computer in the 1981, and the wide availability of the Internet beginning about 1990. Long before this, as early as 1955 more news was distributed by radio and television than through print. The growth of electronic media relative to print was confirmed by Ithiel de Sola Pool in his study, Tracking the Flow of Information published in 1983.

The existence of diverse electronic media, including telephone, radio, and television, and the way that they have converged on the Internet, has complicated any comparison between the much simpler revolution from manuscript copying to print in the 15th century and that of our time, yet from our vantage point in 2020 it is evident that many of the same factors are in play. From its slow beginning in 1945 digital information became increasingly dominant, all the while traditional physical print media continue to play significant roles, much the way manuscript copying persisted to a gradually diminishing extent after printing predominated at the end of the 15th century. We may also observe that printing spread around the world much more slowly than it spread through Europe, and printing was not generally practiced in Islamic countries until the 19th century, and was slow to be established in Muslim culture, much as Internet access is not evenly distributed around the world in 2020. Today printed books persist with the development of electronic books, and the existence of digital libraries. If we want to use analogies, we can also say that in the world of digital information the computer and the Internet are analogous to the printing press in the production and distribution of digital books. 

Are we living through a media revolution like the one that occurred in the mid-15th century? If we define a cultural revolution as a paradigm shift rather than necessarily a complete replacement of one medium for another, the brief answer is clearly yes. That being the case, how much does the question matter? Having immersed myself in the details involved in answering this question for twenty years, I have also concluded that understanding the complex multi-faceted development of information and media that lead to the present matters more than attempting to compare complex developments five centuries apart.

Jeremy M. Norman
April 4, 2021

1. Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 10.