Anarchy and Hierarchy, by A. Griscom


Kuhn's Paradigm Shift

Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, calls the revolutions inspired by such landmark inventions or "unexpected discoveries" as the printing press or electricity, paradigm shifts.

Scientific revolutions are tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science... Major turning points in scientific development are associated with [such] names [as] Copernicus, Newton, Lavoisier, Einstein and Darwin. More clearly than most other episodes in the history of at least the physical sciences, these display what all scientific revolutions are about. Each of them necessitated the community's rejection of one time-honored scientific theory in favor of another incompatible with it. Each produced a consequent shift in the problems available for scientific scrutiny and in the standards by which the profession determined what should count as a admissible problem or as a legitimate problem-solution. And each transformed the scientific imagination in ways that we will ultimately need to describe as a transformation of the world within which scientific work was done. (Kuhn 6)

Although Kuhn was describing a specifically scientific --- rather than media-related --- paradigmatic shift which transforms imagination on a world-wide scale, critics from a wide range of fields have borrowed from his theories. Kuhn admits in his postscript: "Historians of literature, of music, of the arts, of political development, and of many other human activities have long described their subjects in the same way" (208) Kuhn refused to approach science as merely a process of collecting evidence and proving facts --- a cumulative, teleologically-driven project that was factual rather than theoretical. Rather, his historical studies led him to believe that the process of scientific discovery is not cumulative, but cyclical --- interrupted and rearranged by new, iconoclastic discoveries. "To the extent that this book portrays scientific development as a series of tradition-bound periods punctuated by non-cumulative breaks, its theses are undoubtedly of wide applicability" (209).

The concept of paradigmatic shift is germane to an exploration of communications technology. The advancements in media similarly have a qualitative effect on the condition of human existence. Kuhn insists: "The unexpected discovery is not simply factual in its import... the scientist's world is qualitatively transformed as well as quantitatively enriched by the fundamental novelties of either fact or theory" (144). Marshall McLuhan's media theory embraces the Kuhnian notion that human experience will qualitatively evolve under the influence of a new invention. Studies in the effect of media are exempt from one basic tenet of Kuhn's theory: Whereas Kuhn describes the eradication of past scientific methods as "incompatible" with --- and therefore negated by --- the new one, revolutions in media do not "prove wrong" the value of its predecessor, but reposition it. I endeavor in this thesis to prove that, while digital technology is expanding the potential and perceptual scope of humanity today, the message of the print medium is not obsolete or untenable, but repositioned within a broader understanding of reality.

Kuhn's emphasis on historicizing paradigmatic shifts --- that is, understanding their legacy, the context out of which they arose --- motivates this comparative study of print technology and its successor, digitized communications. In an interview, when I asked Michael Joyce, writer and instructor of hypertext fiction, and authority on cyberculture: "Is the digital revolution generating a paradigmatic shift? In the service of what?," he responded,

Kuhnian paradigm shifts are by definition something we cannot know. We recognize a paradigm shift retrospectively and from the perspective of the new space. Also, although I am a good post-modernist and old leftist and so on, I'm not certain that revolutions are in the service of any identifiable 'what' (movement, belief structure, sense of personhood) as much as their own energy. They are cylonic, feeding on what they pass over, moving in themselves, given form (again) from without and aiding in our attempt to make meaning among us.

Joyce insists that I cannot yet conclude that the Digital Revolution is generating a paradigm shift (nor is naming it a revolution justificatory as of yet, though I am prepared to make that assumption for the purpose of this argument). But the privilege of retrospect permits me to conclude that the print medium categorically shifted a paradigm of human understanding, and (if it hasn't already) digital technology has the potential to.

The most promising innovation (which I will discuss in more detail later) spawned by the Digital Revolution is the hypertextual format which structures information as linked units within in a distributed, multilinear network. I will examine the Internet (and, more specifically, the World Wide Web) as an effective --- and massive --- instantiation of a hypertextual network. In his essay "The Political Computer: Hypertext, Democracy, and Habermas," Charles Ess claims that hypertext technologies may lead to a democratization of society, though he admits that it is too early to tell, for we are only in the beginning stages of the paradigmatic shift:

Romizowski describes the theory base of hypermedia in education as Ćat best patchy and inconsistent,' such that, on balance, 'we are still in the solution-meets-compatible- problemstage of development.' Indeed, it is not even clear that the Ćsolution' of hypertext works: although networked hypertext systems appear to succeed in achieving important goals, some research suggests that hypertext does not in fact enable more efficient access to information (227).

One cannot grandly attribute the paradigm shift to digital technology for, perhaps, centuries to come, but we can examine the Internet as a mighty scientific innovation capable of effecting drastic change. Critics call the Internet the "most important scientific instrument of the late twentieth century." The powerful, sophisticated access that it provides to specialized data and personal communication has sped up the pace of scientific research enormously.

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