One of my great joys researching Public Parts, my book about the benefits of publicness, is finding parallels between today and the early modern period of the 16th and 17th centuries (aka the renaissance) with the introduction of tools — the press, the stage, music, art, maps, markets — that enabled people to create publics and how that changed how the world operated (the way we are changing it again today).

Here’s one example from Elizabeth Eisenstein’s book, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (recommended by Clay Shirky) about how errata in printed books led to collaboration.

In their early days of printing, books — and other publications — were not treated as temples of perfection, as they are today (which is why their contemporary producers — authors, editors, journalists, publishers — look down so on the ever-imperfect internet). Indeed, before Gutenberg, scribes had long entered errors into books as they were copied and recopied. Printing, Eisenstein says, both multiplied errors in so many more copies and also represented a “great leap” toward standardization because the errors were easier to find.

early printing press

Print, at first, did not step toward perfection but away from it. “[A]n age-old process of corruption was aggravated and accelerated after print,” Eisenstein says. Errors could spread farther faster (sound familiar?). It was because of the fear of what this new technology could cause that printers were fined for publishing the “wicked Bible” of 1631 (which omitted the “not” from the Seventh Commandment … look it up).

But this process of error was turned to advantage by some. Sixteenth-century editors and publishers, Eisentein says, “created vast networks of correspondents, solicited criticism of each edition, sometimes publicly promising to mention the names of readers who sent in new information or who spotted the errors which would be weeded out.” So publishing became collaborative; that’s what printing allowed.

Eisenstein quotes Lloyd A. Brown from The Story of Maps about map publisher Ortelius:

By the simple expedient of being honest with his readers and inviting criticism and suggestions, Ortelius made his Theatrum a sort of cooperative enterprise on an international basis. He received helpful suggestions from far and wide and cartographers stumbled over themselves to send him their latest maps of regions not covered in the Theatrum.

We call that transparency and collaboration now.

Eisenstein goes farther. She says that publishers “often encouraged readers to launch their own research projects and field trips…. Thus a knowledge explosion was set off. The ‘fall-out’ from Ortelius’ editions, for example, encompassed treatises on topography and local history ranging from Muscovy to Wales.” (My emphasis) She argues, according to James A. Dewar and Peng Hwa Ang in Agent of Change (a book of essays on Eisenstein), that “this feedback reversed the slow degradation of recorded thought and ushered in the era of accumulation of thought on which the Scientific Revolution was built.” Says Eisenstein: “The closed sphere or single corpus passed down from generation to generation, was replaced by an open-ended investigatory process pressing against every advancing frontiers.”

Demonstrating that there’s nothing new that’s not old, when Cory Doctorow spoke to executives of Holtzbrinck in Berlin a few weeks ago (I also spoke), he told how he is doing similar things with his latest book, giving credit to readers who find errors and constantly making the book better thanks to them. And, of course, Cory’s BoingBoing is the product of sharing and collaboration.

This attitude — from the 16th century and from Cory — changes the way we look at books and media, not as sculpture cut out of rock but as still-wet clay. The problem we’ve had in recent history — from the industrial age to today — is that we made mistakes too expensive to admit and that cut us off from correction and collaboration with our public and from the free explosion of knowledge Eisenstein talks about. But the internet — always wet — begins to fix that, doesn’t it? We go back to the future.

In fact, Eisenstein argues that the printing press fixed this exact same problem vis a vis its predecessor technologies. “The sequence of improved editions and ever-expanding reference-works was a sequence without limits — unlike the great library collections amassed by Alexandrian rulers and Renaissance princes.” Their books were static, finished and done. Printed books had editions and readers who could improve them. We lost that advantage — and attitude — over the centuries.

We also lost the openness to collaboration that this new flexibility brought. It’s not just about technology, though. It’s about a worldview, a different relationship between producer and public. Eisenstein quotes David Hume writing to his publisher: “The Power which Printing gives us of continually improving and correcting our Works in successive Editions appears to me the chief Advantage of that art.”

This cultural attitude in the early days could have just as easily gone the other way (as eventually it did anyway). Ann Blair writes in Agents of Change that in the early modern period a few “humanists called for a system of censorship, never implemented, to guarantee that only high-quality editions be printed.” How often do we hear today suggestions to license or at least anoint quality in our new, uncontrolled press?

I don’t want to make it seem as if early books were all temporary and changeable. As Eisenstein next points out, the advantage of printing was that it made permanent knowledge that had been diffuse and was all too easily lost in a few hand-made copies that could be destroyed. It was printing, she said, that enabled Thomas Jefferson to collect all the laws of Virginia, adding (my emphases):

It seems in character for Jefferson to stress the democratizing aspect of the preservative powers of print which secured precious documents not by putting them under lock and key but by removing them from chests and vaults and duplicating them for all to see.”

Bringing knowledge together and making it public is what enables the public to add to it, to correct it, to be inspired by it.

Sound familiar?

  • Gerry

    Coincidentally read something on this topic earlier today in Daniel Boorstin’s The Discoverers. He was talking about how governments were so secretive with newly-created maps and charts made as a result of voyages to previously unexplored places, that there is a significant lack of evidence for the Portuguese discovery of America.

    “It was from a quite unexpected quarter that the policy of secrecy would be defeated. Not by spies or treacherous pilots-major like Sebastian Cabot. But a new technology that created a new kind of merchandise. After the arrival of the printing press geographic knowledge could be conveniently packaged and profitably sold.”

    And regarding printed books:

    “….presses offered books not commonly found in churches — ancient classics like Aristotle, Plutarch, Cicero, Caesar, and Aesop’s fables, along with Boccaccio’s love stories. When these works could be bought in the marketplace, there was a new incentive for people to learn to read.”

  • I first encountered Eisenstein’s book in the late 1980s and could see it’s applicability to the changes in publishing. I first blogged about it in April 2008 ( It’s an academic tome, lists for $69 in paperback, the sort of book that would be tough to absorb on a Kindle (needless to say there’s no ebook available). But the book rewards the effort. I’ve been pleased to see Clay mentioning it: he’s got the following to drag readers to it. The truly brave can undertake the unabridged edition.

  • Ben R

    You should have a look at Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers

  • History repeats itself – when a new communication technology comes along, the existing order attempts to sanction an Authority in order to preserve the old model in the face of progress.

    “Whether this revolution in the reading habits of the American public means that we are being inundated by a flood of trash which will debase farther the popular taste, or that we shall now have available cheap editions of an ever-increasing list of classics, is a question of basic importance to our social and cultural development.”

    –Harvey Swados, 1951, re: the paperback.

    via Clay Shirky, _Cognitive Surplus_

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