Digitalization : Jeff Jarvis: "Recall the spirit of Gutenberg"

Speaking from Berlin, internet activist Jeff Jarvis says publicness is under attack. Our digital society needs new principles to protect it.

Internet-Aktivist Jeff Jarvis, hier bei der re:publica.
Internet-Aktivist Jeff Jarvis, hier bei der re:publica.Foto: dpa

"Meine Damen und Herren: Es ist mir eine große Ehre, hier zu sprechen. Aber ich muss mich entschuldigen, weil mein Deutsch so schlimm ist. Deshalb muss ich English sprechen. Ich danke Ihnen für Ihr Verständnis. Privacy has many protectors; publicness, I fear, has too few. Today I will urge you to protect publicness and its tools.

Jürgen Habermas argues that the public sphere emerged in the 18th century with the gathering of rational, critical debate in the coffeehouses and salons of Europe as a counterweight to the power of government. But a group of academics from Canada and the U.S. argued recently that centuries before, in the Early Modern period, we created publics using many tools: the stage, art, written music, maps, markets, and, of course the press. Gutenberg’s press is perhaps our greatest tool of publicness – until the net, today. The net puts a press in the hands of everyone. We are just beginning to see the change that brings: to media first, then to business and government and society itself.

Another group of academics at the University of Southern Denmark argue that we are coming out of the other side of what they call the “Gutenberg parenthesis.” Before Gutenberg, knowledge was passed mouth-to-mouth, scribe-to-scribe, changed along the way, with little sense of authorship or ownership. The aim of scholarship was to preserve the wisdom of ancient scholars. With Gutenberg, knowledge became linear – as did our understanding of the world – with beginnings and ends. It became a product more than a process, and one that could be owned. We came to respect contemporary authors and their knowledge. 

Today, these Danes say, we are coming to the other side of the parenthesis. Knowledge is once again passed along, link-by-link, click-by-click, without clear beginnings and ends, remixed along the way, more of a process, less of a product. In his upcoming book, “Too Big to Know,” David Weinberger says that “as knowledge becomes networked, the smartest person in the room isn’t the person standing at the front lecturing us, and isn’t the collective wisdom of those in the room. The smartest person in the room is the room itself: the network that joins the people and ideas in the room and connected to those outside of it.” That network is made possible because we share our knowledge, in public. 

These Danish academics say the adjustment to Gutenberg was difficult. So, they argue, is the adjustment we are making today, post-Gutenberg. We are that as we adapt our norms, mores, laws, structures, and organizations. It is accepted knowledge that we are undergoing change at a lightning pace. But I wonder whether that’s true. What if the change we are experiencing is instead slow? What if we are only beginning to see the disruption brought on by the digital age? 

John Naughton, a columnist for the Observer in London, asks us to imagine we are conducting a poll on a bridge in Mainz in 1472, asking people whether they think this invention of Gutenberg’s could:

· undermine the Catholic church and power the Reformation,

· lead to the Scientific Revolution,

· create new social classes and professions,

· change our conceptions of education and with it childhood, and

· also change our view of society and nations.

Surely few would have thought so. Today, we are as far from the introduction of the commercial web as Naughton’s pollsters were from the invention of the press. In Gutenberg years, this is 1472. The change has just begun. As we say auf Englisch: We ain’t seen nothin’ yet.