Anarchy and Hierarchy, by A. Griscom


Fifteenth-century communications shift from script to print

It is staggering to the imagination to understand and appreciate the impact that Gutenberg's invention has made on civilization. Without this innovation we could not possibly have arrived at the revolution we now face today (and, as McLuhan put it, "without the alphabet there would have been no Gutenberg"). Much as we may remember print as a capacious and categorically positive agent of change (its rigid linearity notwithstanding), it was received by some with opprobrium upon its arrival in the public sphere --- just the same way that the transition from oral to scribal culture raised alarm:

Plato... saw writing as a mainly destructive revolution. Since then we have been through enough revolutions to know that every medium of communication is a unique art form which gives salience to one set of human possibilities at the expense of another. (Stern 123)

But the printing press introduced Western civilization to some of its sharpest weapons; among them: linear, rational thinking, the preservation and cataloging of a vast assemblage of knowledge, the establishment of standards, the bold documentation and dissemination of forthright, educated opinions. In Notre Dame de Paris (1832), Victor Hugo discusses print as an architect --- quite literally --- of culture:

Till Gutenberg became famous, architecture was the principal form of writing, the universal writing. This gigantic book, begun in the Orient, was continued through Greek and Roman antiquity and in the Middle Ages its last page was written... In the fifteenth century everything is changed. Human thought discovers a means of perpetuating itself that is not only more resistant and lasting, but also a simpler and easier means than that which architecture employed; and architecture is dethroned. The letters of orphic stone are succeeded by the leaden types of Gutenberg... The book shall overthrow the edifice. The invention of printing is the greatest event in history --- the first of many revolutions to which it gave birth.

The great, oftentimes oppressive edifices that printing bore, both material texts and rational perceptivity, are lasting, unlikely to crumble even under the massive weight (or lack thereof) of digital all-at-onceness. Although the new hypertextual medium extensively aggrandizes the scope of our knowledge, and the process by which we acquire it, we must not condemn our ability to delineate linear narratives, to think rationally, to obsolescence. In "The Political Computer," Ess suggests that many critics are skeptical of the adequacy or efficiency of the hypertextual medium --- its ability to stand alone in the absence of print.

[Hypertext analyst] Romiszowski criticizes Bush's and Nelson's shared conception that hypertext will enable nearly universal access to a global network of electronic libraries as conjuring up a vision of a flood of information in which millions drown. Nor does everyone follow Landow, Bolter, and others who celebrate the 'anarchic' or democratizing dimensions of hypertext that result from its blurring of the traditional boundaries of authority between author and reader, teacher and student. For example, McKnight, Dillon and Richardson suggest that hypertext may support collaborative work --- but only if traditional hierarchies between, say, a professor and a junior research assistant can be preserved in hypertextual annotations. (228)

We cannot suppose, therefore, that the linear structure imposed by the print medium, will be entirely supplanted by the distributed structure of the hypertextual network --- utopic as it may be.

If the digital medium and hypertextual form were to completely uproot print and its influences, to fully supplant them, we may be left without valuable methods of learning and organizing information. The endeavor to place more value on the position of the reader of the text --- empowering her to draw upon her own subjective wealth of experience, and rewrite the information she encounters --- assumes that reader will have accumulated a substantial reservoir of knowledge having in part used linear methods. Print may have presumptuously forced words into boldface, immutable truths (or, more accurately, myths), but it also presented readers with valuable tasks: to seek out, analyze, and commit oneself to meaning, to express it cogently in the service of education, to journey toward a destination. This is not to say that hypertext is devoid of meaning, or that it goes nowhere, but a rich reading of hypertext requires a reader rich in intellectual experience, and familiar with a linear narrative. In this section I shall examine first the shift from scribal to print media, and then the explosion of pamphleteering --- democratized expression --- which, according to the message of the print medium as we now understand it, was fated to repossession by the hierarchical order.

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