Impactful inventions: Printing press and digital revolution


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world-map-wallpaper-full-brightness-5342There is no doubt we are at the dawn of a new age whose fast unfolding prospects are both dazzling and terrifying. The age of digital revolution has spread beyond the confines of scientific laboratories and Hich-tech industrial zones and infiltrated into public spaces such as homes, schools, libraries, offices, sport rooms, shops etc causing a radical shift in the traditional forms of communication, learning and entertainment. Tens of millions of digital devices from laptops and tablets to smart phones and watches are bought every year. If the sheer figures of sales alone indicate increasing public embracement of technology in many parts of the world, it is still not evident how these popular and largely unregulated uses of technology are shaping the future citizen. Certainly discourses of hate and violence diffused in chatrooms and various social media, and more importantly innovative forms of cybercrime illustrate the genuine risks that come with technology. Here are a couple of figures to clarify the point: in USA the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) reported “289,874 fraud complaints that represent a loss of $525, 441,110” for 2012 alone, which far exceeded the “75,000 complaints” filed ten years earlier.[1]

As in all threshold moments in history, the stakes are high and the ultimate prospects are far from predictable. This generation (our generation) has witnessed perhaps with a great deal of excitement and no little perplexity the shifts from conventional technology both at home and workspace into a digital era that not only accelerated and intensified systems of communication and learning, but confronted us with vast amounts of unfiltered and unprocessed information, and introduced new definitions of morality, freedom, and responsibility. The fluidity of the current situation is steadily affecting all areas of social activity, reshaping in the process our modes of life and the foundations of our thinking. While a number of academic studies have been conducted in some countries to gauge the impact of technology on such fields as healthcare, national security, government, science and education, it is still too early to fully make sense of the blurred image we now face as the pioneers of a new digital age.

I want to draw attention briefly to an earlier moment in history in which the invention of the printing press defined the boundary between medieval and modern age. Cultural historians of the Renaissance such as Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin in their classic The Coming of the Book have amply spelled out the particular context in which both printing and papermaking evolved in European cities throughout the 15th and 16th centuries.

The Coming of the Book

The perfecting of the print technology from rudimentary techniques of wood carvings and copperplate engraving to a fast and efficient mechanical system of printing by Johannes Gutenberg and his successors has, in the words of Jonathan Bloom, “spurred a typographical revolution” and led to the consolidation of a new paradigm namely the “Transition from memory to notation”.[2]  The spread of printing presses throughout the European continent by the 1490s gave rise to the book industry, introduced university and public libraries and created literate communities. Febvre and Martin estimate that by 1500, nearly 20 million books appeared in print in Europe.[3] It is perhaps stating the obvious now to recall how printing in the ensuing decades and centuries helped undermine religious orthodoxies and challenge political despotism particularly in Northern Europe.  The spread of Luther’s and Calvin’s reformist ideas and practices in the 16th century, and the emergence of the political pamphlet and the newspaper in the 17th century are powerful illustrations of the overarching impact of printing in the social arena.

Diversity and difference were also offshoots of the new cultural climate empowered by printing technology. As Benedict Anderson explains, in his book, Imagined Communities “the convergence of capitalism and print technology on the fatal diversity of human language created the possibility of a new form of imagined community”.[4] The printing and circulation of books applied some fixity to the morphology of language, and contributed to developing a sense of national (as opposed to pan religious or racial) identity through sharing collective knowledge and a linguistic medium.[5] Printing also transformed means of communication and sharing of knowledge. It generated reading tastes and habits, changed educational methods and curricula and influenced cultural and religious values.[6]  Thanks to printing technology translation also prospered. Works written in Greek, Latin and Arabic were translated into local languages. Printing made it possible to share and diffuse vast information on other geographies, and ethnicities. Travel accounts, atlases, guides and histories of foreign countries were published in large numbers and provided Europeans with relatively concrete knowledge of parts of world hitherto unknown to them.

Such a vigorous impact of printing on the evolution of the modern European nation had no equivalent in the Arab World, where generally until the nineteenth century printing was introduced. Although since the middle of the 8th century Arabs had known paper, and paper mills were established throughout territories under Muslim rule, the evolution from scribal skill to printing technology was delayed until the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt. In Morocco the first printing press was introduced as late as 1865. The lag of four centuries had visibly affected all aspects of learning and their lingering effects are far from over.

Today digital technology offers a fresh and auspicious start for individuals and communities across the globe to share and transmit information beyond physical borders and barriers. Information and communication technologies offer genuine opportunities to reduce the enormous disparities in learning and science among developed and less developed societies. The internet has opened new horizons for tens of millions of underprivileged individuals across the globe. Electronic libraries, online courses, and vast repositories of visual information are available in more equitable and affordable terms than ever before. Social media, in turn, have provided the public with free and efficient means of communication and enabled them to exert powerful influence on governments and political organizations. With these advantages, however, come also risks. Apart from the criminal practices I alluded to earlier, there are concerns today that the world of cyberspace is increasingly undermining modes of traditional life and social contact, that cultural specificities and local traditions are being destroyed by more global and uniform patterns of international capitalism.

This shows the real need for thoughtful reflection on productive pedagogies. As educators, it is incumbent upon us to help generate a critical culture about the uses of technology in academic space, to think of ways of adapting ICT technologies to serve the goals of modern teaching and learning.


[1] Mark G. Simkin, Carolyn S. Norman, Jacob M. Rose, Core Concepts of Accounting Information Systems (New York: John Wiley, 2015) p.73

 [2] Jonathan Bloom, Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

[3] Lucien Febvre, Henri-Jean Martin, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, and David Wootton. The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 1450-1800 (London: New Left Books, 1976) 248-9.

[4] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and the Spread of Nationalism (London and New York: Verso, 1987) p. 49.

[5] Ibid.,p. 47.

[6] Consider, for instance, the case of Martin Luther in the beginning of the sixteenth century. As Anderson indicates, “Between 1522 and 1546, a total of 430 editions (whole or partial) of his Biblical translations appeared”, which figures pointed out to the influence of his religious treatises on European readers, Imagined Communities, p. 43.