A Fifteenth Century Technopanic About The Horrors Of The Printing Press

from the bad-technology,-bad dept

In talking about various technopanics over time, there’s always someone who hates some new technology because it somehow “undermines” the good “way things were.” These days, think of the books by the likes of Nick Carr or Andrew Keen, who focus on just how awful new technology is making people, compared to “back in their day…” when things were just lovely. Yet, as we’ve pointed out, these sorts of complaints about new technology happen throughout history, such as the attacks on the telephone (makes men lazy and breaks up your home life) and novels (corrupts the mind). But sometimes it goes back much, much further. In the past, we’ve even joked about those “poor monks” put out of the scribe business by the printing press.

But what we didn’t realize was there actually was just such a concern at the time.

ChurchHatesTucker points us to a wonderful historical analysis of a 15th century luddite, abbot Johannes Trithemius, who was no fan of the printing press, because of what it was going to do to those poor monks. It wasn’t just that it would put them out of work, but that it would impact their souls. He worried that the printing press would make monks lazy.

It was okay that the act of copying was hard. It built character, in Trithemius? opinion, the same way as chopping wood (though to this “interior exercise,” i.e. exercise of the spirit, he assigned far more importance). For monks, labor was part and parcel of devotion, and if you weren’t good at writing, you could do binding, or painting, or for heaven’s sake practice. And it goes even further: the labor of manuscript writing was something for monks to do — for there was no greater danger for the devout soul than idleness.

For among all the manual exercises, none is so seemly to monks as devotion to the writing of sacred texts.

He also pulls out the typical “but this new fangled thing just isn’t as nice as the old stuff”:

He does spend some time talking about practical reasons that printed books weren’t anything to get bothered about: their paper wasn’t as permanent as the parchment the monks used (he even advocates the hand-copying of “useful” printed works for their preservation); there weren’t very many books in print, and they were hard to find; they were constrained by the limitations of type, and were therefore ugly.

And then there’s just the fact that if you’re not writing a book, you don’t really “get” it:

He who ceases from zeal for writing because of printing is no true lover of the Scriptures.

Honestly, it sounds like a near perfect 15th century version of Nick Carr. Carr loves books, but frets about what the internet is doing to our appreciation of books. But, of course, this all seems to come back to Douglas Adams’ famous saying, which I’ll paraphrase: everything that exists before you were born is just normal, the way things should be. Everything that is invented from your birth until you’re about thirty is cool and neat and innovative. And everything invented after you’re thirty is “against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it.”

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Comments on “A Fifteenth Century Technopanic About The Horrors Of The Printing Press”

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86 Comments
cc (profile) says:

Re:

Or maybe current IP law will be considered a terrifying example of legal scope creep that involved the suppression of ideas, of technologies, book burnings, witch hunts and martyrs.

But hey, let’s not take any guesses about what is most likely to go down in history as insane — the ideas of a blogger, or the global persecution of people sharing files? Let’s not take any guesses, because that would be.. reaching.

PlagueSD says:

See

Everything that exists before you were born is just normal, the way things should be. Everything that is invented from your birth until you’re about thirty is cool and neat and innovative. And everything invented after you’re thirty is “against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it.

I think that’s why everyone stops counting birthdays at 29. You don’t want to know how many times me and my friends celebrated our 29th birthday…

Anonymous Coward says:

Came across another quote

“Should I abide by the rules until they’re changed, or help speed the change by breaking them?” – Ashleigh Brilliant

Now don’t go getting all uppity and Rosa Parks on us. What she did was clearly WRONG because it was ILLEGAL! (After all, the law is all that determines what is right and wrong, right AJ?)

herodotus (profile) says:

See

That saying of Adams is cute, but false. I suppose it might be true of middle-class Englishmen, but they are hardly representative of humanity as a whole.

How people feel about technology has very little to do with age. These feelings are, in fact, more or less directly related to what technology does for them or to them. The printing press didn’t improve the life of Trithemius at all. It improved the lives of his contemporaries, but it also ended his own way of life.

Why would any rational person in his position feel any differently?

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: See

“Why would any rational person in his position feel any differently?”

A rational person may *feel* emotional about something, but a rational person also recognises that change is inevitable, and that you also need to change in order to compete. A rational person understands that his feelings about the fact do not change the nature of those facts.

The fact that Trithemius didn’t like the changes introduced by the printing press didn’t change the fact that most people did. He also apparently missed most of the point of the printing press and the positive changes it introduced for humanity – most of his objections seem to be related to personal aesthetic tastes and the moral value he places on hard work, which are of course nothing to do with the real issues at hand.

…and so it is with modern day copyright maximalists and those who resist current changes. They don’t affect them personally in a positive way and they offend their personal tastes, and so they fight the changes. I can’t wait until the day when we can look back on them as we do on Trithemius, buggy whip makers, piano roll manufacturers and others who have been trampled by technological changes that they tried to stop.

Nick Carr (user link) says:

A mind is a terrible thing to waste

I suspect, Mike, that Trithemius was right to worry about the effect of the printing press on the rigor of monks’ devotional practices, seeing as the monastery had been the center of the book trade for many centuries. But perhaps you’re an expert on medieval monks and have found through your studies that the shift from scribal book to printed book had no effect on the lives of monks – in which case I’ll happily defer to your expertise. What interested me most about your post, though, was your surprise at having discovered Trithemius: “In the past, we’ve even joked about those ‘poor monks’ put out of the scribe business by the printing press. But what we didn’t realize was there actually was just such a concern at the time.” That’s odd since you’ve given high praise to Clay Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody” several times in the past. In a review you posted on Techdirt in August 2009, for instance, you write, that Shirky’s book “is one of the best out there in getting you to understand how the old systems of production and consumption are changing due to enabling technologies.” And yet one of the most striking stories that Shirky tells, quite early in the book, is the story of Trithemius and his reaction to the arrival of the printing press. Apparently, Mike, all the time you spend online has damaged either your reading skills or your memory – or maybe both. I would humbly suggest that you might want to read my book “The Shallows”, as it may help you to better understand your affliction.

Best,

Nick

Kirk (profile) says:

Re: A mind is a terrible thing to waste

That’s odd since you’ve given high praise to Clay Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody” several times in the past…And yet one of the most striking stories that Shirky tells, quite early in the book, is the story of Trithemius and his reaction to the arrival of the printing press.

Perhaps the story was not as striking to Mike as it was to you; perhaps it seemed rather obvious.
At any rate, you have successfully proven that Mike is human. Sadly, it seems your awesome intellect goes unappreciated as we did not require your brilliant insight on that point.

Apparently, Mike, all the time you spend online has damaged either your reading skills or your memory – or maybe both.

Your concern for your fellow man is admirable. Now, turn off the computer before it happens to you.

I would humbly suggest that you might want to read my book “The Shallows”, as it may help you to better understand your affliction.

I would say you?re more of a nuisance than an affliction.
I am, however, indebted to you for teaching me a new meaning for the word, ?humble.?
Thus, it is with the utmost humility that I suggest you meditate on the fact that you are an arrogant jerk. You see Nick, people aren?t as stupid as you may believe (don?t worry: you?re still the smartest one here, just like Mom said). So, people kind of notice when you?re only pretending to be nice. For example, you’re not the only one who can see that I’m doing that right now. I sincerely hope this helps, Nick!

Stay classy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

I want actual reported events, not a blog posting about an event that may or may not have happened. I think Mike would put incredible spin on almost anything he writes, so it isn’t supporting evidence of anything (except perhaps your willingness to swallow his point of view whole).

Work it. Find actual examples in non-opinion based media.

Greevar (profile) says:

Re:

You’d love that wouldn’t you? You’d like to send people off looking for evidence that you could just summarily dismiss and tell them it’s no good because it doesn’t stand up to your standards. This may be an opinion blog, but it does cite factual sources. That’s what a good journalist does. I don’t see you citing anything to support your argument, just assumptions and dismissals of counterpoints.

Why don’t you find evidence that the sources Tech Dirt links to are false? You think Mike is full of it? Go find some evidence that he is instead of spouting off at the mouth, telling everyone how wrong they are, and feeling smug in your false sense of superiority. It’s amazing, the human capacity for self-delusion.

mike allen (profile) says:

Re:

let me help here are a few starter links.
http://lbo-news.com/2010/09/24/citigroup-feels-violated/

http://news.cnet.com/8301-31001_3-20004811-261.html?part=rss&subj=news&tag=2547-1_3-0-20

http://news.cnet.com/8301-31001_3-20004811-261.html?part=rss&subj=news&tag=2547-1_3-0-20

there you go 5 minutes it took to track these links and that includes pasting back here, try it instead of insider doing your work for you you may find it fun and actually earn the money the MAFIAA pay you.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Of course, if you’d actually clicked on the links instead of brushing them off based on assumptions, you’d find 6 posts that link to 6 non-Techdirt sources. Links that pretty much display the problems he was talking about. The fact that the links supplied go to Mike commentary on the facts rather than the sources does not change the nature of those facts.

But, reading those links and coming up with defences to the indefensible is too hard, right? It’s far better to find an arbitrary reason to dismiss an argument outright rather than discuss the actual implications of the real, proven facts…

Anonymous Coward says:

Came across another quote

Sort of different, no? The situation of segregation and “back of the bus” was a manner that different people were treated in different manners.

I defy you to find how copyright treats people differently based on race, color, or creed. In fact, I would defy you to find a valid way of showing that copyright treats people differently at all.

Du?an (profile) says:

in america

Why is it that anytime anyone makes crap up (like that Mike has “fans” that follow his Word) (s)he posts that same excrement as anonymous coward? There is no credibility in it.
Like this argument:
All of your links go to techdirt. I am not going down the Mike Masnick dirt road trying to figure out what pieces are truth and which are fiction. If you want to play, link directly to non-blog, non-opinion, non-op-ed pieces.

Then what exactly should he link to? To absolute facts, arranged in descending order from shortest to longest,so you can skim first one or two and make some fallable arguments. Party on!

Almost everything here is opinion (except maybe when Mike quoted the speed of light and I’m not 100% sure it’s true) and it’s your job to think for yourself in finding your truth. But it seems AC trolling isn’t really to bring something to the debate – it’s just petty undermining of a valid and, a lot of times, concerned opinion.
Let me compare it to media “balance” (again,only in usa)

Du?an says:

in america

There is no balance when reporting the facts. So there’s no balance crap with science (intelligent design? More like stupid with legos…). And you needn’t be a scientist to get what techdirt staff is worried about-about the same things as most of world population under 30:
Freedom of information. If your product is convertable into 0 and 1 it probably will be. Deal with it.

cc (profile) says:

Re:

“The first one, well, who knows? The content is removed, the person admitted to using it, I can’t say more.”

Which is precisely the point. Valid criticism was taken offline in response to a DMCA claim. Is that the suppression of an idea, or not? Perhaps it’ll be easier for you to check out Sony’s recent copyright shenanigans.

“Limewire? They broke the law, end of story. Next.”

Again, that’s the point. A technology was suppressed as a result of copyright law.

“Sorry, but if those are the massive horrible terrible results of copyright, we don’t have much to fear.”

Hey, that’s what Trithemius said.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

Which is precisely the point. Valid criticism was taken offline in response to a DMCA claim.

Nope. The critical comments could have stayed up (or been reposted), minus the borrowed content. The author chose not to. The validity of the critical comments are such that it wasn’t worth reposting. That says a lot.

A technology was suppressed as a result of copyright law.

The technology wasn’t surpressed, only the use of it for illegal activities. You can buy a gun, but using it to commit a crime can get you put in jail. Don’t confuse the technology with the use thereof.

Bit torrent as a technology is legal. The majority use of it is to commit illegal acts. See the difference.

The fear, my friend, is only in your heart and your greedy, freeloading mind.

Anonymous Coward says:

GOOD COPY BAD COPY
Quote:

A documentary about the current state of copyright and culture

Michael Heller?s The Gridlock Economy (Prof. Doug Lichtman, UCLA School of Law / November 2, 2010)
Quote:

In copyright law, I similarly worry that the growing permissions culture threatens to make it almost impossible to generate certain types of ?remix? art that would, if it could, combine short snippets from dozens or even hundreds of prior copyrighted works to make new and worthwhile amalgamations.

CRIMINAL ABUSE OF COPYRIGHT BY PEOPLE CLAIMING OWNERSHIP ON THE PUBLIC DOMAIN:

Copyright Abuse

FIRST AMENDEMENT ISSUES AND COPYRIGHTS:

COPYRIGHT HARM AND THE FIRST AMENDMENT

Miro’s state send cease and desist to Google over their homage logo.
How Copyright is Getting a Bad Name

EFF: Takedowns Hall of Shame
Quote:

Bogus copyright and trademark complaints have threatened all kinds of creative expression on the Internet. EFF’s Hall Of Shame collects the worst of the worst.

Copyright, Censorship, and Domain Name Blacklists at Home in the U.S.

Why copyright is censorship
Quote:

The actual logical conclusion to “copyright is censorship” is that we need to limit copyright — as a necessary evil — proportional to its benefits.

Censorship or Copyright Infringement? Flickr Takes Down “Obama as Joker” Photo (By Sarah Perez / August 19, 2009 6:43 AM)

Copyright as Censorship ? Part I (Prof. Jim Gibson, University of Richmond School of Law / December 22, 2009)

COPYRIGHT SHAKEDOWN:

Threads of copyright abuse (July 08, 2008)

Woman Jailed 2 Days for Filming Movie Screen Sues Theater
Horror tales from the movie theather. Do you here Bieber fan’s don’t point your cellphones at the screen. I want to see those little hardcore criminal girls get arrested for it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Came across another quote

You idiot LoL

Censorship or Copyright Infringement? Flickr Takes Down “Obama as Joker” Photo (By Sarah Perez / August 19, 2009 6:43 AM)

Politicians got power don’t they.

Woman Jailed 2 Days for Filming Movie Screen Sues Theater
Horror tales from the movie theather. But incredibly Bieber fans don’t get arrested for the same CRIME.

NullOp says:

In the day...

Back in the day when people only received news from their own area things were actually better. Really, why should you worry about local crime in Chicago when you live in Level Cross, NC? All-in-all the media has done a hellofa job in making people paranoid about what “could” happen. For myself, the jury is still out on whether world-wide instant communication is a good thing. For sure it’s not a good thing the way it’s been bastardized by Big Media!

cc (profile) says:

Re:

“Nope. The critical comments could have stayed up (or been reposted), minus the borrowed content. The author chose not to. The validity of the critical comments are such that it wasn’t worth reposting. That says a lot.”

Sigh. Stop pussyfooting around the argument. Ideas were taken offline because of this law. Your opinion about those ideas is not relevant.

“The technology wasn’t surpressed, only the use of it for illegal activities.”

That would have meant not suing the providers of the technology, just the users who were doing those illegal activities. That’s not what happened.

“The fear, my friend, is only in your heart and your greedy, freeloading mind.”

But I’m not a pirate, while you are massive douchebag no matter how I look at you. The fear is, of course, all yours — and I look forward to IP policy being fixed and people like you being out of a job.

TDR says:

Re:

Tell me, Anon 58, if there were a law that said you had to go streaking in your neighborhood every day or be jailed, would you follow it? Can you even comprehend the fact that some laws are bad? And that disregarding a bad law is not wrong? Somehow I doubt it. Much as I doubt you understand that copyright, as it is today, is among the aforementioned bad laws.

If you really believe in what you say, put your name behind it. Funny how most trolls here hide behind the AC moniker. That label really does describe you people quite well. And you have yet to provide the evidence you have been asked for. So do it. Now. And a complete chain of causality showing the harm to a specific artist caused by the sharing of a specific file at a specific time, with full non-industry data.

If you cannot prove empirically that any harm has been done by filesharing (which, by way, is how computers and the internet operate on a fundamental level), then provide a complete retraction of everything you have ever said on this site. Now. Otherwise you’re just proving yourself to be a liar full of hot air, no argument, and lots of irrational fear.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

A mind is a terrible thing to waste

I suspect, Mike, that Trithemius was right to worry about the effect of the printing press on the rigor of monks’ devotional practices, seeing as the monastery had been the center of the book trade for many centuries. But perhaps you’re an expert on medieval monks and have found through your studies that the shift from scribal book to printed book had no effect on the lives of monks – in which case I’ll happily defer to your expertise.

You do condescension so well, Nick.

As for pretty much your entire comment, confusing correlation with causation is where you seem to go wrong quite frequently. If the monks declined in their devotion to the written word, it seems difficult to argue that it was due to the arrival of the printing press. There was nothing stopping the monks from continuing to study or write. If it meant that they were no longer the center of the book trade, well that would only be due to their unwillingness to adapt to a changing market.

But, of course, the larger point is the one in which you look at what is best for overall society, and here it certainly appears that world was much better off with the printing press — though, like you, some people will argue that “the good old days” were better because of some nostalgic version they think was there in the past.

And yet one of the most striking stories that Shirky tells, quite early in the book, is the story of Trithemius and his reaction to the arrival of the printing press. Apparently, Mike, all the time you spend online has damaged either your reading skills or your memory – or maybe both.

Very funny. It’s true. I didn’t remember that particular story. I read a lot, Nick, because contrary to some of your claims, there’s so much interesting out there that I spend a lot more time consuming *both* long form and short form works. I don’t remember every minor story in every book I read, and this one I forgot. It’s not because Google is eating away at my brain — as per your book — but because I’m reading more long form content than ever before, and I don’t remember every story in them.

MAC says:

Monks...

The monks were correct to fear the printed book. It was something that at their time, no one could measure the impending impact on the world.

By lowering the price of manuscripts and the information that they contained the printed book caused all sorts or revolutions.

The same is true of the internet to a degree but it is far more extensive.

Because no one can totally control the internet dissemination of information cannot be controlled.

Just look at what’s happening in the Middle East. Those people can finally get an outside view of what they have been going through for years and suddenly they have all realized that there is a better way.

The power of this is profound and humbling. No one knows what kind of world that we will live in over the next 20 to 50 years. But one thing is certain; it will be different.

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