Information technology and revolution

The sketch at right isn’t mine. But I think that the introduction of Design and Design Thinking into American middle schools will be every bit as powerful and (r)evolutionary as this device invented in Germany in the late 1440s.

Everybody assumes that Gutenberg’s press was the thing that kicked off the Reformation. But people forget that Germany was really thinking hard and long about revolt against the Church before Martin Luther came along.
When Gutenberg developed his press in Mainz, the city was in the middle of a decade-year revolt against their sovereign overlord, Archbishop Otto.

When the Archbishop retook the city in 1463, he expelled all the printers, including the penniless Gutenberg, and his now-bankrupted partner Jacob Furst. Without money, neither man could control the technology. Their apprentices claimed to be journeymen printers, and the journeymen claimed to be masters. By 1470, those men and their successors had opened printing shops all over Germany, and trained their successors.

The technology metastasized. And it was anti-clerical from the beginning. These guys had had to start from scratch, under difficult circumstances, against a reactionary and threatening government with more interest in protecting the wealthy than upholding the rights of the common people.

The technology of the internet is undergoing the same kind of revolution now. And the Occupy Wall Street movement is only the tip of the power-shift.

Be cautious what you call up.

(Hat Tip to Dave Gray for making the image available on his Flickr feed. Click through and give him some good vibes; he’s a major design mentor of mine.

Via Flickr:
Information technology and revolution.
This isn’t the first time in history that new information technologies have sparked revolution. It’s a recurring pattern.

Before the printing press, books were hand-written manuscripts available only to the clergy and the wealthy. The mostly-illiterate public relied on those in power to interpret humankind’s body of knowledge. Any communication between ordinary people relied on word of mouth and was mostly limited to short distances. In short, information was distributed in pockets and silos.

The printing press gave people a way to share information in a peer-to-peer way, bypassing the traditional power structures. The rapid information sharing that followed, via books, pamphlets, newspapers and scientific journals, effectively ended the Middle Ages and sparked the Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and ultimately the political revolutions that resulted in the first constitutional democracies.

Today the web is having a similarly profound effect, allowing people to bypass traditional media channels and power structures to communicate with each other directly. Once again, information and ideas which were contained in pockets and silos are spreading far and wide. Once again, innovation is accelerating. Once again, mass peer-to-peer communication is enabling and empowering social, intellectual and political revolutions.

Peer-to-peer information technologies like the printing press and the web unleash powerful revolutionary forces. But revolutions begin in the streets. They often go unnoticed or ridiculed in their early stages. It took 100 years of bible-printing before Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenburg. It was another hundred years before the first scientific journals were printed, and another hundred before the American Revolution broke out in 1775. It took more than ten years for colonial dissent to simmer before the American Revolution broke out into open war.

Liked it? Take a second to support Andrew on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!


  1. So Andrew, are you saying that Gutenberg was already a sort of technical revolutionary? Like hacker group Anonymous? If so, can you point me to a good short summary read on that?

    Bill, thanks for the compliments! #beaming 🙂

    • Dave,

      No, I think that’s too much of a stretch to say Gutenberg was a techno-revolutionary. He lived in a time when the price of paper had fallen to historically significant lows, but the cost of the person who wrote on it was incredibly high… so he approached a ‘banker’, Jacob Furst, who loaned him a large sum of money to buy supplies and hire a staff to solve the technical challenges of printing on paper and solving some of the technical problems of moveable type. Gutenberg succeeded at the technical challenges, but the business itself was a failure.

      The justly-famous Gutenberg Bible had to be printed to attract rich customers — who didn’t like the idea of printed Bibles. They wanted richly, hand-illuminated manuscripts. So Gutenberg had to leave space for those illustrations, and opportunity for the artists, without knowing what would fill those spaces, or who would do the work. Furst had to drum up clients from among the very class pre-disposed to reject his product. It was not a great partnership; Furst eventually sued Gutenberg for the money and took over the business, confident he could run it better than Gutenberg. Only, he couldn’t.

      Then Otto the Archbishop got control of Mainz again. The Archbishop’s men killed 800 men during the fighting to take control of the town, hung another 1000, and Otto’s kangaroo court expelled another 1500 people — including Gutenberg, Furst, and all their apprentices and journeymen. Otto stripped them of their houses and moveable property. So suddenly you have this crew of folks, all trained printers who’ve been answering to Gutenberg and Furst for years because they had the money, all cut out of the medieval hierarchy and cut off from family and friends, and dispossessed by the Church and their Prince and the few institutions that were supposed to protect them.

      Gutenberg and Furst worked with the assumption that their work would be supported by the wealthy landowners and merchants of the German upper class, but they labored under the impression that one printing establishment in Mainz would supply all the books, and they tried to control the talent pool by not releasing their apprentices and journeymen to start rival work-places. When the Archbishop reclaimed the city, suddenly those people had nothing except their printing skills to fall back on.

      What would happen if Congress dissolved the US Army’s Cyber Command tomorrow, by force? All those trained anti-hackers who survived would suddenly be dispersed — and all of them would have a healthy fear of government and other institutions, and would instinctively react against the existing power structure. They might do many kinds of jobs, but they’d have a preference for anti-establishment jobs, and would look out for other anti-establishment types. Their old commanders might be called in from time to time to rein in the worst offenders, a la Rambo, but in essence Congress would have created a hacker culture that philosophically opposed the government that had tried to do them in.

      Same with Furst and Gutenberg’s apprentices.

      I’m sorry that I don’t have references to much of this… it’s the version of the story I told back when I was thinking about making an animation about it, and practicing my drawing skills on storyboard index cards.

  2. May you stumble across radix this week in Latin class and appreciate the true radical nature of your post. By the way, I went and enjoyed again the David Grey images beyond the press on Flickr! Also tweeted this! Great stuff; can’t wait to see it in action!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.