Trent Ernst, Editor
Before Gutenberg invented the printing press and changed the way we communicate, information flowed from person to person, mostly by talking.
When the printing press was invented (or rather, once movable type was developed by Gutenberg), it changed the way society learned, communicated, taught and passed information from one to another.
Before Gutenberg there existed primarily an oral culture. Want to know what’s happening? You had to find someone who knew what was happening, and ask them. Want to find out what was happening in the war in the next country over? Go down to the docks and talk to a sailor, or to the market and talk to a merchant.
Information was scarce, and therefore valuable.
Alongside the printing press came the concept of the press, as in newspapers.
For somewhere around 500 years, newspapers evolved and changed, slowly becoming the paper of record. If something showed up in black and white (and later, in brilliant four colour reproduction), it had to be true.
While this method of communicating facts had a number of things going for it, there were a few things that started to chaff at some people.
For instance: while traditional journalism places a high emphasis on factual accuracy, it tended to represent only a limited subset of people. Look in the newspaper and the reflection you saw staring back at you was the white, middle class existence that the reporters lived and knew. They covered politics, crime, art, but always through the lens that they viewed the world.
And newspapers became gatekeepers for what was not just factually accurate, but what was true and right and noble. If you fell outside this, you didn’t exist.
This meant that previous to the 1960s, you wouldn’t see the writings of an African American in mainstream media. If you were a woman, you could write (oh, isn’t that cute, she can write!), but only on food and fashion, deary!
Over the last few decades, though, that trust in newspapers, in traditional media, has been eroding.
With the rise of the Internet has come the rise of citizen journalism, social journalism and, bad news for newspapers, the ability to share news one-to-one or one to many.
When information was scarce, people would pay money for it, but now that information had escaped its paper prison? It was free, in both senses of the word.
This 500 year period, when Printing Presses ruled the world, is what Thomas Pettitt calls the “Gutenberg Parenthesis.”
Before Gutenberg, information was free, but hard to verify. During the Printing Press era, information became well verified and codified, but again, there was the issue that people couldn’t be a part of the culture.
For years, Internet advocates have argued that technology is bringing back to the free flowing information of pre-Gutenberg, but with collective editing. Think Wikipedia.
The trouble is, this hasn’t happened. Anyone can report on the news, but, as a result, sources are unknown and untrustworthy. Rumours abound and otherwise smart people say things like “too bad there’s no way to find out if that’s true or not.”
And because we can’t trust these sources, we stop trusting any source. We see Breitbart and Alex Jones and the Democratic Underground—extremists on both sides of the political spectrum taking the form of news media—and we reject everything in between, no matter how respectable a source, how good a job they do at getting to the facts.
Is there a middle ground? Is there a way to keep the free flowing information of the pie-eyed Internet cheerleaders, while still having some degree of editorial…not control but at least input? A way to check facts and sources without choking out any voices, just because we disagree with them? A way to verify, not vilify?
Because if we de-legitimize the press, it becomes awful easy to start sneaking things past the public. Yes, we have the ability to go to the primary source, but if the primary source is lying to us, there becomes no way to tell fact from fiction.